Ohio State's first black alumna could not be denied
Ohio State works hard today to recognize and elevate the potential of young black women through a variety of resources, but it took much of its history to reach this point. These support systems did not exist for much of the 1900s, forcing young black women to fight through discrimination and adversity to succeed.
Jessie Stephens Glover was one of the first to face this struggle and carve the path for those to come after her at Ohio State.
Jessie Glover was 13 in the late 1800s when her teacher corralled her unruly class one day and did some serious talking. “She said you just couldn’t get anywhere unless you were educated, and that many of us would want to go to Ohio State University because it was right in our own city,” Glover later told the Columbus Dispatch. “I made up my mind right then I was going.”
Glover was one of six children in an African American family where money was tight. Her father was a freed slave who had helped make the bricks for the original University Hall. Her mother was a seamstress. Both parents opposed her plans, but she dug in.
As an Ohio State student, she walked several miles between her home and campus every day, then walked downtown in the evenings to earn money by cleaning rooms in the building where her father was a janitor.
Glover earned a bachelor’s degree in modern languages in 1905 and was the university’s first black female graduate. She would go on to teach at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College, work for the Franklin County Court of Domestic Relations, become a well-known public speaker and even help establish Columbus’ system of public playgrounds.
"We're not where we need to be, but we're going in the right direction."
Despite their abilities and accomplishments, black students like Glover faced barriers off and on campus for decades. Casual discrimination was the norm for much of the twentieth century, bolstered by established university policies. It wasn’t until the unrest of the sixties and seventies that the tide finally turned toward changes at Ohio State and in society.
In 1970, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) was founded to provide programs and services such as tutoring for black and underrepresented students. Jacquelyn Meshelemiah is a faculty fellow and director of one of the programs, Leadership Initiatives for Women of Color, which exists to “create a base of student leaders who are women of color–in the classroom, on the Ohio State campus, in the state of Ohio, across the country, and internationally.”
The program facilitates what Meshelemiah calls high-impact practices, including study abroad opportunities and training in how to gather and analyze data. “Research shows that students who engage—especially first-generation students, transfer students, students of color and low-income students—benefit from these high-impact practices,” she says. For example, an annual trip to the Professional Black Caucus Conference in Washington, D.C., helps young women “broaden their networks and learn how to move into professional roles.”
ODI programs for black women also focus on graduate and professional students, as well as low-income, single-parent students and others. ODI is funded by the university’s Office of Academic Affairs. “It’s really important to have that stable source of funding so initiatives and support for students will continue to increase,” Meshelemiah says. “We’re not where we need to be, but we’re going in the right direction.”
It’s a direction first charted by a determined Jessie Stephens Glover, who set her sights on Ohio State more than 100 years ago.