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The Lived Experiences Through Storytelling: Race at Miami University project supports interdisciplinary research and teaching on a wide range of topics related to race in higher education. The archival documents, oral histories, biographical essays, documentaries, and other forms of storytelling invite students and researchers to reflect on the history of race at Miami University through the experiences of the faculty, staff, and alumni who have shared their stories.

If you are interested in incorporating Lived Experiences into your classroom or contributing new stories and content for the website, please contact

Avenues of Historical Research

Race in U.S. Higher Education

Before the late 1960s, Miami University did not specifically address the category of race in admission, hiring, scholarships, or surveys of student opinions. In practice, however, race defined who and how students were admitted, and which jobs a person held at the University. Until the 1970s the University did not systematically identify students by race. An exception was a required Federal Government Report on the race of student recipients of the National Youth Administration [N.Y.A., 1935-1943] award.

When the term “race” was used in Miami documents it designated those of African or Asian descent. The University was never, however, blind to race. In fact, from the 1910s to early 1920s African American students frequently informed the President of their race, and were admitted or refused specifically because of their race. African American students were not always offered dormitory accommodations either, although by the 1950 census African American students are housed next to white students throughout the residence halls. Since 1970 the University has primarily defined race and diversity with terms determined by the federal government, which has played an increasingly vital role in regulation and funding.

International student programs were fairly informal and sporadic until after World War II and students from other countries were accommodated on an individual basis by the President's Office. These students found support from Miami students, whose clubs — especially religious clubs such as the Young Women's Christian Association and the Westminster Club — organized scholarships and social events. Oxford community groups supported international students well into the 2000s with host families, household items, Thanksgiving meals, a food bank and fundraising for private scholarships.

The faculty did not include African American instructors until the mid-twentieth century. Until student activists demanded such hires in the late 1960s there were no academic or student-support programs specifically addressing African American and Black history and culture. However, throughout the 20th century, archival records reveal a student population of surprising diversity. Students from Brazil, Chile, China, Guatemala, Japan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and Hawaii appear in the yearbooks, President's correspondence, and student records before 1950. African American students from across Ohio and Oxford attended Miami University throughout the 20th century, excelling in academics, athletics, and later careers.

Student studying in the Shriver Center, 1987
Student studying in the Shriver Center, 1987

Leadership Stories

Miami University's history is in many ways similar to that of other U.S. higher education institutions and it has also been shaped by its unique context and circumstances. Much of Miami University was built by African American labor throughout the 20th century. Archival records reveal that over 225 African Americans worked for Miami from 1900 to 1950 as janitors, laborers, cooks, maids, kitchen help, and dining room servers. These African American employees were also citizens of Oxford whose families and churches provided decades of financial and emotional support to Black students. They also created civic organizations that worked with and challenged Miami University to improve race relations throughout the 20th century.

While well-known figures such as Wallace P. Roudebush (1890-1956; MU class of 1911, Secretary to the President, Vice President, and Treasurer of Miami University) are known for shaping institutions, often less familiar figures such as Sidney Cheeks (1866-1938) shaped both the University and the Oxford community in significant ways. Cheeks worked as a Miami janitor as early as 1903 until his passing in 1938. His wife Mary was the daughter of Peter Bruner, a formerly enslaved man who worked for Oxford College, Western College for Women and Miami University as a laborer, janitor and handyman, later published his autobiography, and was Oxford's “Mayor for the Day” in 1938. The Bruner and Cheeks families were mainstays of Oxford's Black community and churches. Mary and Sidney had seven children. One of them, Thomas Monroe Cheeks, exemplified Black achievement. He attended Miami University from 1925 to 1929, studying for a Bachelor's degree in Physical Education. He worked with his father in Miami's janitorial department through his teens, and his father's employment granted Thomas a tuition waiver. He became a life member of Omega Psi Phi, an historically African American fraternity, and had a long, successful career in secondary education. In 1976 he was recognized by Miami with the Bishop Medal, the highest honor awarded to Miami alumni. This is just one of dozens of similar stories of ways in which Miami University benefited from the labor, studies, and later, the careers of African Americans in Oxford and beyond.

Helen Sheumaker, PhD
Department of History
Department of Global and Intercultural Studies — Program in American Studies