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Memorial service honors Black educator who helped change Carleton

Hundreds of people honored Black educator and activist Fred Easter last Saturday, November 5, at the Skinner Memorial Chapel. Easter was described by one of the speakers as “a man entrenched in the culture of Carleton who inspired many of us with his dedication to making this campus a more diverse and inclusive environment.” A page dedicated to remembering Easter where people can post tributes has been added to the Office of the Chaplain website. The page also includes a video of the memorial service as well as a short obituary. 

Easter transformed thousands of lives – including mine. After living 81 remarkable years of mentoring, teaching and writing, he passed on September 24. There’s much to learn from him.

Easter  spent around eight years at Carleton serving as, among other things, assistant director of admissions, director of Black Activities, associate dean of students, freshman basketball coach and lecturer in English. In a strongly recommended summary found in Carleton’s archives by Carleton grads Benjamin Wood and Sarah Entenmann, Black students recall him as the primary reason they entered, stayed and graduated.  

Warren Simpson, quoted above, explained at the Memorial Service: “I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. I came to Carleton College at age 17 in 1966. When I first met Fred, he told me that he had to leave Harvard University after his second year for academic reasons. However, he returned after a year and was able to graduate.”

Simpson recalled, more than 50 years after that conversation took place, what Easter taught him: “I was having a tough time at Carleton and had never experienced academic failure. The inspirational message I extracted from Fred’s undergraduate experience is that, ‘If I get knocked down (which I now know will happen to all of us in some form or another at least once during our life’s journey), you can always pick yourself up, dust off and keep moving forward.’”

Asked about the service, Mallory Easter Polk, one of Fred’s two daughters, told me, “The speakers were able to encapsulate his spirit in so many beautiful ways, affirming his efforts to help Black and Brown students gain access to higher education and encouraging them when they hit bumps in the academic road.  Let’s all ‘keep on keepin’ on,’ as he would say.”

Charlotte Polk, one of Fred’s four grandchildren, moved and amused service participants with examples of Easter’s report cards at age five, where he received perfect marks for “playing well with others” but needed improvement in “covering mouth when coughing.” Polk recalled, “He was funny, wise and level-headed.”

Easter was an incredible teacher. I was one of three white students, along with about 25 Black students, in a Carleton class that he taught in 1968. He welcomed everyone. We read a book titled “Black Families in White America,” by Black scholar/sociologist Dr. Andrew Billingsley.  That class had a huge positive influence on my life.

I was raised in Wichita, Kansas, during the 1960s with two strong views about Black Americans. First, I was taught that they deserved equal rights in housing, education, jobs, health care and every other field. Second, I read several books presenting many Black people as “culturally deprived.” They needed “fixing.”

Easter and Billingsley disagreed, pointing out that many Black Americans had succeeded despite terrible challenges. Easter asked us to recognize and build on the strengths of Black Americans. He readily acknowledged shortcomings that everyone has. He encouraged students to avoid bitterness and self-pity. He inspired us to spend our lives trying to make things better.

Easter and I last met a few days before he died. We talked about a recent campaign in which high school students successfully challenged the state of Minnesota. Attorney General Keith Ellison’s brief affirmed that the student’s research was correct: High school students who were laid off due to the pandemic deserved federal “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.” But it took two Minnesota Court of Appeals rulings before students received what they had earned (more than $30 million).

That’s the kind of constructive action that Easter urged and modeled for decades. Though he was very weak, he responded to the students’ successful effort with a huge smile and commented, using one of his highest compliments: “Outstanding.”

That’s the right word for Fred Easter: “Outstanding”! 

Joe Nathan, Carleton, 1970, Ph.D., formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: [email protected] 

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    Larnzell MartinNov 11, 2022 at 12:19 pm

    As one of those Black students helped by Fred to survive and thrive, thank you for such a wonderful article.