My UC Story 1973–1979
by Julia Montier-Ball
At UC I was introduced to many contemporary people, places, and things that ultimately shaped my personality as an independent and critical thinker. I did my best in those years to experience the best UC had to offer, from the wonderful art gallery in the Student Union to the impromptu picnics in Burnet Woods. My life on campus was connected to the community, from the shops on Short Vine to the shotgun building with a loft down on Fourth Street that provided the setting for my final thesis project. In writing this essay, I came to realize just how significant growing up in an urban college setting was in creating a rich path for me toward my career goals. One main contributor to this was the Design, Art & Architecture co-op program, which gave me eighteen months of practical experience and prepared me well for the real world of work. In fact, using my extensive co-op experience as a senior, I launched my first freelance job with the UC Human Resources Department and after graduating, my first job out of college was with the Design and Construction Department at University Hospital, where I worked on multiple projects from design through construction administration.
An early influencer of my UC story in the 1970s was my mid-1950s elementary education. A true beneficiary of Brown v. Board of Education, I attended a predominantly black parochial school in the heart of Cleveland, Ohio, that was a model for institutional desegregation. This is where my third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade teachers, three genius black women, propelled me to learn multiplication before the other students; they inspired me to write sophisticated essays and poetry; they taught me how to reach for an understanding of life beyond the three Rs—far beyond the riot-torn streets of Cleveland.
You can believe that when I graduated from eighth grade I was certain I was
going to college. I knew this because my parents, both accomplished doctors, had talked often about their arduous journeys from the segregated South to the integrated colleges up North. After a few years in the Civilian Conservation Corps camps, my dad attended Lincoln University in Philadelphia, the nation’s first degree-granting Historically Black College. Mom went to Howard University, where she and her sister were arrested for not giving up their seats to a white passenger and refusing to sit in the back of a DC bus. They both finished at Howard Medical School, with Mom getting a second MD at Yale. These were huge footprints to follow in. My parents had instilled in me an unyielding determination to not be mediocre or ordinary.
So in my college-prep all-girls experimental high school of 250 students, I was the only black in my graduating class. I pored over college brochures, absorbing all the pictures of campus life. I was very eager to go to a college where I wouldn’t have to leave my cultural identity at the door. After experiencing institutional racism firsthand in high school, I dutifully took a picture for the yearbook and graduated, not even bothering to order a class ring. No regrets—I was going to college and had a career to research.
In June of 1973 NASA launched the United States orbital workshop Skylab 2. My dad thought a career in science just might translate into a job, so I applied to five colleges, and subsequently was accepted to them all. But I received the acceptance letter from the University of Cincinnati McMicken College of Arts & Sciences to major in mathematics first. I hadn’t visited any campuses. But attending
an in-state school like UC would save money, and I did have three other siblings who would also need to go to college, so with great excitement I sent in my registration fee. I was all set, except for a physical exam, which revealed I had a chronic illness. I spent the last four weeks of my senior year in the hospital, and although I got out only on the morning of my senior prom, nothing was going to keep me from going to the university. Finally, it was September of 1973, and Dad was driving south from Cleveland to Cincinnati with Mom trying to read the map. Too excited to look at my watch, I just read books until the car stopped moving. Dad helped me unload my green suitcase containing five pairs of bell-bottom jeans, a “Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud” tee shirt and my beloved Jimi Hendrix album. As my family drove away, I remember seeing my siblings’ faces pressed against the car windows, peering enviously at my glorious escape from home. Standing there alone in the parking lot under that looming shadow of the infamous twenty-seven-story Sander Hall dorm, I felt triumphant, wanting to shout, “Let’s get it on!”—right after I found my room on the seventh floor. My six years at UC were chock-full of galvanizing introductions that would become milestones of my development as a student leader at UC. For example, roommates—in six years I was introduced to seventeen total strangers with whom
I shared space and my soul music.
My first roommate didn’t seem too thrilled that I was black and, because we never spoke, the silence between us was tense. I didn’t complain when after a few days she left for class and never came back. Well, the solitude was great for studying, but short-lived, and I was introduced to another roommate. This time, I got lucky. Not only was Kay a black girl from Cleveland, she and I had similar dreams of success after college. That fall quarter, Kay and I had “big fun” learning our way around ’Nati on the bus and buying Reds hats. We would “style” the dances
only Cleveland people knew, and you could hear us way down the hall singing along to the top Motown hits blaring from the radio in our corner room. Until one day it stopped abruptly.
Kay’s money had run out. I remember feeling how painfully unjust it was that my best friend, who was just as smart and even more deserving than I, couldn’t stay and finish her degree. She dropped her classes and returned home. There were no advisors advocating for her and no emergency funds offered. Sadly, we said goodbye, promising to stay in touch, and we did. Six years later, Kay happily stood next to me at my wedding as a bridesmaid. So that introduction resulted in us becoming close lifelong friends. Wonderfully, at age sixty, she went back to college to follow her dream of being a music therapist.
Next, I was introduced to the student organizations that would help me understand why having a college experience was so important. Shortly after Kay left, I realized my freshman year was almost half over and I still wasn’t too thrilled about my progress as a math major. Struggling in calculus, I knew I needed to be empowered to persist. Empowerment came as I was introduced to Eric Abercrumbie, who asked me to join the Hanarobi Gospel Choir; it came in the so-called twilight of the civil rights movement as Marjorie Moseley introduced me to the United Black Students Association; and remarkably, it came when the brothers of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity introduced me to the Court of the Q-Queens. So, with great expectations, I embraced being spiritually uplifted by gospel music; I observed the leadership of the black student movement articulating arguments for equality on campus; I even “got down” and gained cool points after winning the Que dance contest to become “TheBump Queen.” It seemed popularity was happening fast.
Over Christmas break my mom introduced me to a friend, an interior designer who was helping to decorate our new house. Susan had a thriving business and had sold us her own beautiful new sectional sofa. I listened more intently than usual as Susan, an entrepreneur, told me about her interior design career. When she described our sofa, the words Baker Knapps & Tubbs rolled off her tongue slowly like warm sweet golden honey right onto my career-hungry plate. At that moment in time, I knew what I wanted to do.
Returning to school before finals, I immediately applied for a transfer from Arts & Sciences, and was accepted into the Interior Design program in the renowned College of Design, Art & Architecture for the spring quarter of 1974. I was so happy to get into DAA—this minority student had found her passion. Quickly, I purchased my DAA gear: a tackle box, a large wooden drawing board, a roll of tracing paper, a T-square, and lots of B-lead drawing pencils. I got to know the five or six other black students in DAA quite well, but when I approached them in the hall, they were guarded, hesitant to appear as if we were “congregating” for a conspiratorial reason. I recall they advised that, if seen meeting in public, we could be expelled. In class, my white classmates gave me chilly looks, as if to say, “How did she get in?” This was difficult for me to understand,as I was a culturally and creatively competent individual who was paying full tuition—not on welfare or part of a special program for minority students. All I could do was stay focused on doing my work three times better as they did.
Since I had transferred in to DAA, I had to be in school over the summer after freshman year to make up credits, and was moved up to the twenty-third floor of Sander Hall where every time the wind blew, the windows would tremble. But nothing was worse than those fire drills, walking down all those flights of stairs in the narrow stairwell to the landing twenty-three stories down. The one redeeming quality was that Sander was connected to the dining hall, so we never had to go outside like all our friends living in the other dorms.
My graphic representation class met on the third floor of DAA, with no air conditioning in 90-degree weather. It was so stifling hot, my arms stuck to my drawings. It was hard work holding the pencil at just the right angle with sweaty hands. But learning to create a convincing shadow behind a building’s roofline was much harder. Although my days in the studio went late into the night, many times until dawn, I had excelled in the skill of architectural drawing with great details,accurate elevations, and engaging interior rooms in perspective, all meticulously rendered by hand. On my first major rendering of an impressive skyscraper I was thrilled to receive an A- because in that class this score made up the largest percentage of the overall grade. It was my best work yet, and since I had done well on all other assignments, I was so sure it was a simple error when I received a C for the class. A bit worried, I questioned the instructor about my grade, and he confirmed my prior good work, even admitting how well I had done on that final drawing. But when I asked if he would adjust my grade accordingly, he flat out refused to fix his error. Stiff with anger, I stood there wondering, was this just his ego not wanting to admit a mistake? Or, was this his way of discouraging me, telling me I didn’t belong there because I’m black no matter how good my work is? There was no one to answer me, and that latter question would remain unaddressed for the next five years while the gravity of the circumstances would escalate, and for the racially motivated bias to become more blatantly institutional.
Sophomore year, I moved out of the dorm, having convinced my dad that it would be less expensive to live off campus. A sorority sister and I found an apartment on Burnet Avenue for $95 a month and recruited a third roommate. It was not pretty, but it was not far from campus and we could have a cat. We had no TV,but we enjoyed living in the community. With no dining hall attached, we ate a lot of grits with cheese and hotdogs.
I had studied hard, in anticipation of my first co-op job. However, in another attempt to discourage me, the co-op placement office said they couldn’t find me a co-op job even though all of my white classmates had theirs set. So I scoured the Yellow Pages, dialing numbers for well over a week until I found my own unpaid co-op. Neil Gouda was a tall Hungarian architect who owned a one-man firm in Cleveland, only three blocks from my parents’ house. When he hired me, he told me, “I can’t pay you, but I can teach you a lot.” And that he did. He introduced me to OJT (on-the-job training) and had me drawing up remodeling plans complete with heat-loss calculations, lighting layouts, construction details, and written specifications based on building codes. Filled with a new resolve and a new toolkit of skills, the next quarter I returned to school and breezed right through my Systems Technology class, winning the respect of my advisor, who quietly introduced me to the unwritten “quota system”—the real reason for my miraculous acceptance into the college. If you could imagine being invited into an event, and given a ticket with a seat number 100 on it, but you couldn’t find your seat because there never was a seat 100 in the huge empty venue, then you can imagine how uninvited I felt.
I thought, okay, no number 100 seat just means I’ll sit on the stage if that what it takes. I recall thanking Mark for sharing a truth I already knew. Sophomore year marked two of my greatest accomplishments during my time at UC—entering Greek life and being elected into student government. Doing both At the same time was an amazing challenge, but somehow I managed to do it. A good friend introduced me to the idea of rushing the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, so we could enter into a lifelong sisterhood together. While pledging, another good friend, Tyrone Yates, introduced me to his grand plan to run for student body president.
How could I not be a part of this groundbreaking campaign? If he won he would become the first black student government president ever elected in the history of UC. (A far cry from Mr. Charles McMicken’s historic version of a black campaign to send all of America’s people of color to Africa, reflected in the same last will and testament through which he created the University of Cincinnati.) While working on Tyrone’s campaign, I was asked if I’d run for the open seat of residence halls president. This would mean unseating the incumbent and, in her senior year, she was going to be a very tough opponent. Late into the evening, seated in a booth at the McDonald’s in the Student Union, we strategized our campaigns: Tyrone was already a well-known figure on campus, but I needed a more grassroots approach. Driven to win, I began mobilizing a whole lot of students for a word-of-mouth, door-to-door,flyers-under-every-dorm-room-door, phone calling-students-for-their-concerns-on-dorm-life, campaign. The campaign was energizing, the challenge consuming, but I knew I had to make a good run.
Election Day came and I stood in my red-and-white pledge uniform on the Bridge to hear the announcement. Tyrone Yates had just been elected the first black student body president! Everyone was cheering. I strained to hear, had they
mentioned my name? Yes, I had just been elected the first black Residence Halls Association president! More cheers erupted with fists in the air, a sign of solidarity,
a symbol of black pride. Such a proud moment!
However, it was a beginning to a story that would unfortunately unfold to my detriment. A flurry of invitations came to meet people, listen to people, and stand for the people who had elected me. I was present at the university president’s
sherries, did News Record interviews, attended student government meetings, secretly gathered with sorority sisters, and did all-nighters in the studios of DAA. But threatening my achievements was a wall of negativity that I couldn’t have seen coming. First, the white incumbent who had lost the election filed a complaint against me for alleged illegal campaign practices. All the while, my DAA professors thought they would “discourage me out” of DAA by giving me straight Ds as grades. Student court never pursued the allegation, but what was stirring the pot in DAA? When my term was completed I sought the counsel of a very wise black professor who took me aside and introduced me to some insights on institutional racism, which ended in my stepping out of the spotlight. I literally went underground,put on my blinders, and focused my eyes on the prize. Tyrone went on to become an attorney and is now a judge, but when we meet he always remembers “our” election with a hug and a proud smile.
For the next three years I lived in a house on the corner of University Court and Straight Street. I now had twelve roommates living on three floors, including the two guys who lived in the basement with the keg in a refrigerator. I had a nice sized room with an enclosed porch that became my studio. My room was near the “phone booth.” I spent many hours in that dark closet on the phone with my boyfriend, who went to Cleveland State. The girl in the room on the other side of the phone booth, Joan, was from Taiwan. She chose not to live in the high-rise with all the other Asian students so she could improve her English speaking and understanding of American culture. So, I helped her with her English and she introduced me to her culture by explaining why she slept on a pad on the floor and
why she had such strong black tea. We shared stories of our families, homes, and close friends. I will never forget the time she came to me for advice about men. What a cultural shift that must have been for her, since Taiwanese women didn’t usually discuss those things. I felt honored, like a trusted friend. The kitchen and living room were shared spaces and we all enjoyed carousing around that large dining table. Of course, my fondest memory of that house is the Halloween party we had in my senior year, as that’s where I spent my first date with my future husband, Charles, who became my last and final roommate, nearly forty years ago.
I thoroughly enjoyed my next three co-op jobs, which got progressively more interesting in the years from 1977 through 1979. I did a double co-op at Youngstown State University during a time when that institution were renovating spaces and moving entire departments to swing spaces on campus. Here is where I learned the art of programming, an extremely detailed planning process that facilitated these movies involving numerous people, and had to account for placement of every piece of their furniture. The YSU architect, who was also an interior designer, gave me opportunities to do presentations; interview staff, faculty, and department heads;and meet with sales reps from some of the largest carpet and architectural materials manufacturers. As a result, I became quite the expert at specifying furnishings and creating RFPs (requests for proposals). Good thing, too, because my final co-op was with the big-name architectural firm Griswold, Heckel & Kelly, known for their high-end design projects and international clientele. GHK, as it was called, was located on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. New York City was, for a small-town girl like me, much like my Taiwanese roommate coming to America. For those ten weeks, I lived in the Bronx with my aunt and uncle and their eight children.
After about the third week, I stopped looking over my shoulder and rode that Number 4 train into Manhattan daily with no fear. Just the experience of working in New York would have been enough of an education for me, but my French supervisor sent me out on simple errands that ripened into some very cool adventures.
With just his business card, I navigated through the stern security of the majestic French Bank to hand-deliver a design proposal within seconds of the deadline. This premier co-op introduced me to GHK’s posh design projects, many eventually published in the glossy pages of Architectural Digest. Eventually, I began
to emulate a New Yorker sense of style, with its cosmic mixing of cultures, knockoff fashion boutiques, pumping disco clubs in the Village, vibrant artists, grinning street vendors selling $10 “Rolex” watches, and open-all-night coffee shops that served grits with breakfast. I could have returned after graduation and worked at GHK, but my roots were grounded in Cincinnati.
So my UC story 1973–1979 was a continuum of powerful introductions that now in 2017 still seem fresh and enlightening. In the twilight of the civil rights movement, it was unfortunate that the types of discrimination felt by me and other
diverse students at UC caused social and academic isolation, resulting in high rates
of major changes, extended college graduation dates, and ultimately for some, withdrawals. I lost several good friends to these withdrawals. Thanks to the support
of many mentors, like Marquita McLean, John Henderson, Paul Henry, Eric Abercrumbie, Mark Karlen, and my Delta Sigma Theta sisters, I could walk in triumph as the only black senior receiving an Interior Design degree in the UC DAA graduating class of 1979.