Project 500 leader Clarence Shelley discusses the past present and future of race at UIUC

By Dan Corry

Shelley began working at the University, following the passage of the civil rights bill, as the director of the Special Educational Opportunities Program.

“It was at the time of the trouble — the University as an agent of the faculty — in the time of our history when we seemed to be going backward,” Shelley said. “When the civil rights bill passed, which opened the campus to colored students to financial aid, special programs.”

Shelley was hired by then-chancellor Jack Pelatson and tasked with helping the University increase the number of African American students for the 1968-1969 academic year. “The environment surrounding civil rights was tumultuous,” Shelley said, “and the University wasn’t immune to the chaos.”

“We often make the mistake of thinking that the campus can be immune to the influence of negativity and we’ve finally gotten past that notion,” he said. “However, it was with the death of Dr.King in 1968, that energized all of the colored students decided to speak up.”

In her book, “Black Power On Campus”, Joy Williamson wrote that the University didn’t recognize the issues black students faced until they voiced their concerns.

“Black students were able to force the University administration into more aggressive action on other issues, such as creating a commission to hear black student grievances, hiring black faculty, reexamine hiring processes for university staff, and devising outreach programs to the community,” Williamson wrote.

“So I came on July 1 (1968), and realized that to begin a serious effort in the area so large as this, it was naïve of me to think I could fix this place in 2 years,” Shelley said. “So of course 2 years became 35 and that is where we are today.”

In the first few years of his tenure, Shelley said he didn’t feel welcomed by the University’s African American community. He said the lack of connection between the campus and African American students, combined with the students being unprepared for a civil rights movement to occur, lead to disjointedness. Additionally, the fact that few African American students grew up in the area hurt their ability to connect with the Champaign-Urbana community.

“We were naïve enough to believe that we could bring students from St. Louis, Chicago, New York and all over, and ignore this lack of recognition,” he said.

Shelley asked members of the Black Students’ Association to return home and recruit students to enroll at the University. Shelley recalled how overwhelmed the financial aid, housing, testing and advising offices must have been when the program called on them to admit, identify and support 700 students in the middle of the semester.

Looking back, Shelley said they made “every conceivable mistake” in implementing the program but he doesn’t regret it.

“I would call it a blessing in disguise, because we made so many mistakes, it allowed us to point out our problem areas and get them fixed,” he said.

Shelley said he didn’t know who he could truly trust for help with the project, due to his recent move from Detroit and the fact that some faculty did not want the initiative to succeed. Even the Black Students Association became suspicious of Shelley’s actions, due to the perception that the University had been “dragging (its) feet” for a number of years.

Shelley said that as the Black Student Association became more suspicious and angry, the students seemed to catch that fever as well. After King’s death, about 55 riots broke out across the country, which he said seemed to mirror what was going on inside the campus.

According to Williamson’s book, there were marches, rallies, night-long sit-ins on the Main Quad and public demands for faculty to address racial issues.

The night before the new students were set to begin classes, demonstrations broke out and nearly 225 black students were arrested. With the University’s help, Shelley was able to bail the students out so they could attend classes.

“So we began our semester here with the largest number of African American students arrested on a college campus. Luckily, the students learned and they taught us a lot of stuff,” Shelley said.

He said the transition was made more difficult because of the lack of black staff in housing, the counseling center and advising. Additionally, the African American faculty who were at the University hadn’t been informed of the program and as a result, didn’t support it.

As the year went on, Shelley noticed many of the African American students were failing out because it was difficult to focus on their schoolwork while dealing with racial tension. Additionally, Shelley said some of the students brought to the University by the initiative, couldn’t even be classified as students due to their lack of desire for an education and an eye for trouble. Rather than let the students go, Shelley was able to have the University re-admit the students who failed out; by re-admitting the students, Shelley said they realized someone cared about them and their education. Eventually, about 500 of the original 750 stayed at the University, giving the initiative the name Project 500. Going forward, Shelley said he noticed a major upturn in students’ grades because they finally felt more comfortable and knew that there was someone on their side.

During his time at the University, Shelley always tried to short circuit issues of racial conflict; he said his job has always been to anticipate problems before they escalate.

“Thanks to my abilities I am able to move outside of the specific boundaries of campus, and I know enough about the campus and this operation so we can expand the reach,” he said.

Around the third year of the project, Shelley said he began to notice serious improvement in students; he said the addition of black choirs, radio stations and new clubs helped students.

Shelley said students — then and now — learned that “if you wanna hang around here, you better do your work and get busy.”

“The piece they are missing I think, is their interaction with other students,” Shelley said. “They are under the impression that if someone ignores you they don’t like you, but in reality, no one is out to get you; they couldn’t care less about you.”

Shelley said a student once came to his office to tell him she didn’t feel comfortable in her classes as the only black student. He asked her if she considered attending a primarily black college; appalled, the student told Shelley she had every right to attend the University.

To which Shelley responded, “well then, welcome!”

Though he has since retired, Shelley said he still works for the University in some capacity.

“My role has often been to create a connection between staff, students, and the local community in regards to issues of race in the area.”

Recently, Shelley said, it seems the campus has started to take issues of diversity more seriously; he noted significant investments in staffing, programming and efforts to confront issues directly.

“The issues of race are not in the past, they are still here today,” Shelley said.

Today, Shelley serves as an advisor to faculty, showing them how the campus can be made more diverse. Additionally, he works with minority students to provide scholarships and help them recognize the full value of their education.

In a 2003 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Melvin Blair, a University graduate and Project 500 participant talked about how the initiative shaped his life.

“I didn’t have any prospects and then this came along, I went from no hope to some hope.”

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