A day after Chadwick Smith ’17 appeared on a CNN youth panel to discuss race relations and the Michael Dunn verdict, a disgruntled email response from a local woman was circulated throughout Wooster, sparking a wave of town-gown controversy.
The email, written by Kay Rowekamp, took issue with one of the comments Smith had made on CNN. When the show’s host asked Smith if he ever feared for safety as a young black man, Smith replied, “The college I go to is in a majority white town, and we have a main street running through it. Sometimes people from the town will ride through and -— where’s the black people? But back in Atlanta where I live, I don’t feel that way. Just because Atlanta is a majority black city. But definitely in Wooster, Ohio, I do sometimes fear somebody is going to throw something at me … Is somebody going to walk up to me? So yes, I think as a black male I am sometimes fearful for my life.” Smith also mentioned that women and students of color are often the targets of harassment.
Smith’s comment referred to Beall Ave., which is infamous on Wooster’s campus for catcalls, racial slurs and objects being thrown at students from passing vehicles.
Rowekamp, who saw the CNN segment, felt that Smith’s comment was damaging to the town and College of Wooster. She wrote a response, which she then emailed to several local friends. From there, the email went viral in the town and was eventually forwarded to College administrators.
In her email, Rowekamp used Smith’s full name and identified him as a black male who attended the College of Wooster.
“Our COW student, a black male, was the only one on the panel who felt he was being harassed,” she wrote. “His hometown is in Atlanta, GA and he spoke of how safe he felt there while growing up. But, in Wooster his friends and he have had objects thrown at them and terrible names shouted at them on the street that divides the college. He added that in Wooster, he ‘feared for his life’! REALLY?”
Rowekamp continued, writing, “I was personally offended as I think the administration at the College would also be. I did hear today that there is a program at the college to bring inner city students to Wooster with federal funds, grants etc. I would hope that this young man is not one of those students who is getting a free education.”
Once the email was brought to the attention of College administrators, an emergency meeting of the Center for Diversity and Global Engagement (CDGE) board was held to consider the issue. Jahqwahn Watson ’17, a student member of the CDGE board, was present at the meeting. “The board is definitely behind Chad 100 percent, and planning a response to the situation,” he said. “There were definitely some underlying tones of racial prejudice and misunderstanding coded within the email.”
Smith, who didn’t see the email from Rowekamp for several days, heard about it through Dean of Students Kurt Holmes. Holmes said of the email, “I and several others around campus were forwarded the message from a couple community members who received it from the sender. They were concerned that these expressions of frustration by an individual would be mistakenly construed as a general sentiment from the community.”
The contents of the email reached Smith before he had a chance to see it himself. He knew that it referred to “inner city students” who get “a free education,” and he responded to Rowekamp’s disapproval in an interview with the Voice. “I live in an all-white suburb of Atlanta. [My family] is the only black family on the street,” he said. “I’m a Posse scholar … but I pay room and board.”
Smith continued, “When I got on CNN I wasn’t trying to say this is a bad town, but rather that this town needs improvement, as every other town does. This [email] solidifies that it doesn’t just happen on Beall but it also happens in the community as a whole. This has opened my eyes that it happens everywhere in the community.”
The College community, however, has been largely supportive of Smith. College President Grant Cornwell said he was “chagrined by the lack of understanding of the experience of students, faculty and staff of color in Wooster expressed in the email. When I was able to hear [what Smith said on CNN] I was very proud of the way he handled himself in the interview. I think Chadwick was poised, articulate and courageous in how he expressed himself.”
The Black Student Association has also showed support for Smith. BSA Public Relations Officer Shyniece Ferguson ’14 said, “I just hope that the school and the town recognize that the student was the innocent victim of this situation, not the town’s imaginary reputation.”
Some community members from the town of Wooster have backed Smith’s comments as well — on Monday, Feb. 24, a local Unitarian Universalist church held a community meeting about the subject. Smith also tweeted that Pastor Rickey Brown of the Second Baptist Church in Wooster brought up the email during a service and suggested that community members attend the Feb. 24 meeting.
When she was emailed for comment, Rowekamp said that she did not want to discuss the matter further.
“I certainly am aware of the problems on Beall Avenue with all students being targeted with comments and gestures,” she said. “But that problem has existed for 50 years and it would seem that the city and college should be able to control it; it is their problem. My concern as I watched the CNN interview was that our city and the college were blemished by Chadwick’s remarks. I was sorry that the College of Wooster, which has an excellent reputation, was portrayed in such a degrading manner.”
Cornwell feels that this email could be a jumping-off point for improving relations between the College and the community.
“I hope we can grab hold of this moment as an impetus for developing strategies not only to address the Beall Avenue issue, but more generally to raise awareness of the realities that students, faculty and staff of color contend with every day at Wooster, on campus and off,” he said.
Smith believes that Rowekamp’s remarks have only served to prove his original point. “I think [Rowekamp] should know that she proved my point about racism and white privilege in this city,” he said.