James Baldwin once said, “The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” From the second I started my education here, I’ve constantly seen and interacted with black staff working as servers, security guards, janitors and the like. More now than ever, black staff members at the University of Pennsylvania matter and without them our University wouldn’t be half of what it is to us today.
It may be to the surprise of some, but this problem is not new. In fact, Penn’s recruitment of black staff rather than faculty is woven into Penn’s black history. The century is the 19th, and what comes to mind is a black man by the name of Albert Monroe Wilson, also known as “Pomp.”
Albert Monroe Wilson was born in October of 1841 on Spruce and 9th streets, which at the time was just blocks from the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. While Albert attended Bird’s School and was consistently at the top of his class, his education was unfortunately cut short due to social unrest in 1850 that led to riots, in which Wilson — who was just nine at the time — was hit in the head by a brick thrown by a rioter. The resulting head fracture and surgery left him with a lifelong scar and sadly ended his formal schooling.
Later in life, Wilson went on to work as a devoted staff member at Penn who never married due to his dedication to the University. He worked regularly from seven in the morning until later than seven at night, each day except Sunday. Outside of New Year’s Day, Wilson also worked on holidays .
Although he was a staff member with little education, Wilson had a passion for the medical field. He was regarded as a medical healer in Philadelphia’s African American community at the time, and he utilized what he learned in Penn’s medical school laboratories and classrooms to help the greater good. In fact, Penn’s first African American medical school graduate Nathan Francis Mossell (class of 1882) acknowledged Wilson’s medical expertise and work in his autobiography. According to the autobiography of Mossell, Wilson was allowed to attend medical lectures at Penn, although he was not allowed to receive any form of a degree from the medical school.
Despite Wilson’s death in 1904, his life and legacy live on campus everyday. People like Wilson are the core of this University and I firmly believe that their work and attributions deserve the same reverence as those of us, our professors and our administration. As many staffers on our campus today work to make Penn the institution that it is every day, the vast majority of whom are black, it saddens me that similarly to Wilson, many staffers fall underappreciated and even forgotten.
Most importantly, the majority of Penn’s staff does not receive the same treatment as Penn faculty due to the hiring process of our University and the fact that many of these staffers are directly employed by third parties. Faculty members — which includes professors, administrators and the like — receive a number of benefits such as wide tuition assistance for their children and spouses, but these are not extended to our staff members, even if they have family attending the University.
In light of Baldwin’s quote, when I think about this discrepancy I wonder what it means for me to attend a university where its staff, the majority of whom are black, feel undervalued. The security guards that work night shift after night shift whom I speak (and sometimes dance with) with everyday will not receive the University’s generous retirement plan that is offered to its faculty. The dining hall workers who ask me about my column and my writing in the midst of the long line behind me won’t receive large deductions on tuition. The Gourmet Grocer cashiers whom I argue Steph Curry statistics with and talk about politics at 11 p.m. won’t receive an ease on the admissions process because they aren’t considered faculty. And this does not encompass the unfair treatment they receive from students on campus, who largely ignore their hard work.
He was an expert in university life and the medical field but was not allowed to fully develop his passions in the latter. Albert Monroe Wilson taught Penn a lesson in black history that I believe it has ignored: There is no difference between our staff and our faculty.
CALVARY ROGERS is a College sophomore from Rochester, N.Y., studying political science. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Cal’s Corner” usually appears every Wednesday.
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