Living Low: the Black student experience at Arizona


BLACK in an open discussion during a recent class. Instructor Zeina Cabrera-Peterson (left, light blue shirt) listens in. (Photograph by Kayla Belcher/Arizona Sonora News Service)

Black students at the University of Arizona were told of a last-minute housing change right before fall finals week.

The students living in the football stadium dormitory learned when they returned from winter break that it was just another promise broken.

They were told their items would be moved because of stadium construction, but when they returned nothing had happened. The first student didn’t move until Jan. 17, a week into the semester.

This is not the first time Black students at UA have felt like second-class citizens. Interviews with current and former students reveal a pattern of Blacks not feeling welcomed on the Tucson campus.

The stadium experience reignited this feeling among Black students today and from the past.

“It made me so upset because no freshmen should have to go through that experience,” said Zeina Cabrera-Peterson, a graduate assistant and instructor of BLACK, a university-sanctioned program to retain Black students.

BLACK, or Building Leaders and Creating Knowledge, met with UA President Robert Robbins shortly after returning to campus. Multiple students shared their displeasure. The university gifted them $1,500 to try to make amends.

“It’s annoying that they weren’t even thought about twice,” said Cabrera-Peterson.

Why have black students long felt this way?

UA never segregated like all public schools when Arizona became a state in 1912. The university opened in 1885, but its first African-American graduate did not come until 1933.

Two former well known black educators in Arizona attended UA in the 1930s. According to archived interviews, both Elgie Mike Batteau and Elmer Carrier felt discrimination here. During this time, black students were not allowed to attend social events, live on campus, use the pool or eat in the Student Union.

“Discrimination didn’t affect me as much while I was growing up as it did when I got older and came to Tucson,” said Carrier in a 1991 interview.

Carrier needed a life-saving certificate to graduate. Yet he could not use the pool, so he dropped out. Batteau became the first Black women allowed to use the UA pool and she became the university’s first Black graduate.

Both became educators at the Dunbar School, the only Black school in Tucson.

The Dunbar school is where former UA basketball star Ernie McCray got his K-8 education. Growing up in Tucson during the 1940s and 1950s, Jim Crow Laws were real for McCray. He could not swim in most pools. He could not eat in many restaurants.

“It was not like the Deep South,” he said. “You didn’t have to worry about anybody lynching you.”

He never felt inferior until he came to campus in the 1950s. McCray’s college-educated mother pushed him toward his education, frequently taking him to campus for the college experience.

When McCray got to campus, he quickly felt the heat of discrimination. McCray was shocked when he first met legendary UA coach Frank Sancet, who said to him he was surprised that he was not in a remedial English course.

“White people just did not know us. They figured we were just dumb,” said McCray.

Ernie McCray while still a student-athlete. (Photograph from University of Arizona)

McCray’s basketball prowess insulated him from discrimination other Black students felt. He stills hold the university record for most points in a game at 46.

Activism was a part of McCray’s daily routine. He joined Students for Equality, a group that approached the City Council to erase Jim Crow laws instituted.

McCray said he challenged professors to answer questions on black issues and usually was shot down.  He said he was never afraid to speak up toward professors or students who made stereotypical comments about Black people.

He said white students did not understand the civil rights movement.”They did not understand what this Martin Luther King was trying to do and if you mention Malcolm X they might just crap on themselves,” said McCray.

Jimmy Hart, now director of the African American Student Services for TUSD, experienced that second-class feeling in 1986. As a pre-architecture major, he and one other black student felt that teaching assistants in the program ignored them.

“We thought it was strange that they would not give us a lot of help,” Hart said.

Hart grew up in Tucson and what was happening on campus mirrored racial animus in the city. He remembers frequently fighting as a young student when whites instigated trouble.

“Kids would call us the ‘n’ word, jungle bunny and monkey,” Hart said.

He was a walk-on football player, and he felt a disconnect. Whites, according to Hart, stereotyped Black students as only being here for athletics, and they never made the attempt to understand African-American culture or appreciate the value that Blacks have.

“There was no discussion or reason, people did not promote us wanting to tap in our culture and background,” said Hart.

After his freshman year, he transferred to Langston University in Oklahoma, where he graduated in 1993. The change to an historically black university made for an welcoming environment.

“That is where I started to really appreciate my identity,” Hart said.

In 2004, Hart returned to Arizona to work as a principal at Howenstine High School. He returned to the UA to receive his Ed.S.

“Outside of the African American Student Affairs, there is not much of a difference,” Hart said.

Hart sees a shortage of Black professors and deans as a problem for UA. Only 2.3 percent of UA administration is Black, while only 1.6 percent of UA faculty is Black, according to the 2016-2017 UA fact book. With not many blacks in high-ranking positions Hart says it can lead to black students being overlooked.

“There is no one making decisions on the colleges, courses, and degree programs,” said Hart.

AASA Director K.C. Williams takes a selfie with Jimmy Hart and 100 middle school girls during a visit to the UA campus in February 2017. (Photograph by Vanessa Barchfield/Arizona Public Media)

Recently, Hart was a part of the African American Community Council at the UA. It focused on creating a better learning experience for black students. Some of the students Hart works with at TUSD have moved on to the UA and took advantage of the African American Student Affairs.

Hart is keen to getting his students connected to AASA before they come to campus. He does not just focus his students on attending the UA or Pima Community College. Each year he takes students from the TUSD on a tour of historically black colleges and universities.

“They can make a better choice based on what is in their best interest and the offerings at the different universities so you just don’t have one or two choices,” said Hart.

Today, Black students are following the paths of family members to UA. Cabrera-Peterson is the fifth person in her family to come to the UA.

“U of A has been my number one choice since I was 8,” Cabrera-Peterson said.

As soon as Cabrera-Peterson arrived on campus she made a presence at AASA, where she said she became more attuned to her Black identity.

“We danced, we cried, we protested, we advocated together,” Cabrera-Peterson said.

Around Cabrera-Peterson’s senior year in 2015, she and her peers began to demand more space for their cultural center and other upgrades. Not many changes were made to AASA since the opening in 1992. In fact, Blacks only represented 1.9 percent of the total employees at the UA in 1992, the same percentage it was for the 2016-2017 UA fact book.

“Alumni would come here and be like, ‘Oh, things haven’t changed a bit,’ ” Cabrera-Peterson said.

In 2017 AASA expansion and renovation took place. Before, AASA only had about a quarter of the MLK building while University Information Technology Services had the rest. Now, AASA and UITS each have its own half of the building.

Two university deans were contacted about the story and asked to give comment, but neither decided to comment.

Although Cabrera-Peterson graduated in journalism and is in her second year of its master program, she has come to love educating. With BLACK, Cabrera-Peterson wants to be a resource to her students. In class activities and topics change but the main focus is to push students to find themselves.

“Some days we talk about racism and police brutality, some days we will talk about academics and time management,” Cabrera-Peterson said.

Students in BLACK will even go on creative trips to the poetry center where they can find their literary voice or go to the library where the learn how to use research tools.

“Do not ever think the color of your skin is a hinderance,” said Cabrera-Peterson. “Embrace and celebrate it.”

Dean of Students  Kendal Washington White and Assistant Dean of Students, Equity and Student Engagement Sherard Robbins, were contacted to comment on this story. 

White said she would not have availability to meet, but would answer more specific questions through e-mail. She did not respond. Robbins did not respond to a request to speak with him in person.

Justyn Thomas is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *