None of this was meant for me
“Graham Chapel seats 785 people. Each full row seats approximately 10 people for a total of 540 seats on the floor. The middle aisle is 42 inches wide and 105 feet long.”
I have been inside Graham Chapel many times, whether it was for Rewind Blurred Lines, the Annual MLK Commemoration Event or the occasional a cappella concert. But when I visited for a writing class almost two years ago, walking around in the eerie silence of the place I had time to think. Looking up at the stained glass, taking in the pews, the stage, the embossed and engraved letters in Latin, a thought arose: None of this was made for me.
It’s easy to believe that Washington University, or any university or college for that matter, is there for you, the student. The university as an institution, at least on its surface, is about the well-being of the student, the education of the exceptional, the enjoyment and growth of generations to come. That is, indeed, what they advertise—in the numerous flyers, promotional packets, emails—they boast state-of-the-art resources, intricate and modern architecture, vast libraries and dining halls, so that you are nourished and cared for while you get your education. And since the very first day of its founding, Wash. U. has been striving to churn out the best and the brightest, but on that day in 1853, during a month that was not yet termed Black History Month, the founders could not have expected the school we have today.
I am an English major and I’ve had at least one class or club meeting in Eads Hall each semester. Eads Hall as we know it today was built in 1903, just before the St. Louis World’s Fair. Graham Chapel finished construction in 1909, two years after they laid the first cornerstone. An iconic symbol of Wash. U., Brookings Hall, began construction in 1900. About fifty years after these buildings were established, Washington University in St. Louis opened all undergraduate programs to Black people in 1952. Even then, athletic programs weren’t desegregated until a year later, and it took two years until the administration desegregated residence halls, extracurricular activities and even support services. Washington University, until that very year, was for those who were allowed in and that would not have included me.
Truthfully, though I know Wash. U. isn’t perfect, it remains one of my favorite places in the world. Most of the time, I do not feel out of place here. Most of the time, I am happy and carefree, looking to write my next paper, on my way to Whispers to see my closest friends and laugh until my stomach hurts. These days, of course, I am more often on my way to Mudd Field or the East End to sit 6 feet away from my non-remote friends, but I still expect to laugh until my stomach hurts. In that moment two years ago, sitting in Graham Chapel, I suddenly felt like I was in a strange place. I was not at my university, but someone else’s. I was in a building that expected my labor, my upkeep. A place that, at the time of its construction, only foresaw me straightening the chairs and dusting the ledges. But it is those echoes from the past, those moments of dissonance and realization, that create pangs of hurt in my chest.
It is those pieces of history that remind me we aren’t that far from the past. The same year the first Black student was allowed to enroll at Wash. U. in the twentieth century, one of my grandfathers was 15 years old, in his second year of high school, and the other, only 3, had just started walking and talking. They are both still alive and well and both of them can walk on their own two feet. They are not old per se, just like this university’s acceptance of Black students is not.
Perhaps it should bring me joy. Because of all of my ancestors, all of the people fighting injustice over the years, I got to be there that day—a student at a top university sitting in Graham Chapel like I belonged. But I only felt defeated. I marveled at the beauty of the place, and suddenly I thought: Nothing beautiful was made for us. And no matter the pride I had in everything it took to get there, the thought plagued me. If nothing beautiful was made for me, what kind of cruel world was I in? How was I supposed to keep living, breathing, walking around, with the knowledge that most of the oldest, most beautiful things in the country were not made for me simply because of my skin color?
I love Wash. U., but its anecdote-inducing name, its old “collegiate gothic” architecture, its pervasive portraits of older, white couples whose names grace the front of each building, remind me only of what it used to be. This brand of pain is one I think many minorities live with each day. I carry it with me constantly, in the very back of my mind, even as people don’t dare to acknowledge it. Even as time trudges forward, the past is there, peering over our shoulders, reminding us that it can never be undone and it will never go away, and sometimes, I can almost hear it laughing at me.