First annual symposium sheds light on Ogden's history

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(Photo by Tyler Brown) Allen Holmes Diversity Symposium speakers (left to right) Linda Oda, James Gillespie Jr. and Eulogio Alejandre discuss Ogden’s past.

The Weber State University Center for Diversity and Unity hosted the Allen Holmes Diversity Symposium: “Where We Were, Where We Are, Where We Are Going” on Tuesday to celebrate the history of the WSU community, as well as to discuss where it could go from here.

The symposium encompassed two separate events, one in the morning and one in the evening. Panelists included Linda Oda, WSU professor emeritus (teacher education); James Hurst, higher education expert; Eulogio Alejandre, coordinator of WSU’s Student 2 Student program; James H. Gillespie Jr., retired Utah Law Enforcement and Department of Corrections officer; Stanley Ellington, Ogden NAACP first vice president; and Sarah McClellan, project director of the Northern Utah Coalition, Inc.

Adrienne Andrews, assistant to the president for diversity at WSU, facilitated the panel discussion, and gave an introduction as to the effect Allen Holmes had on what was then Weber College. Not only was Holmes the man who led the 1959 Weber College basketball team to the Junior College National Championship, the MVP of the tournament and a Junior College All-American; his influence extended to the classroom and to the halls of the campus as he encouraged racial acceptance by being a positive role model and a friend to his classmates, despite the racial intolerance common in the area.

“Allen was bigger than all of that,” Andrews said, “and he has always remained bigger than all of that. In the face of hostility, he met it with opportunity. In the face of aggression, he met it with friendship. And he served as a model . . . to change the culture on campus, to change the culture in our community by his living example.”

The Diversity Symposium addressed the racism and bigotry of Utah’s past, and each of the panelists related stories of how they grew up, and the difficulties that came therein.

“I think it’s important to know that when Allen got off the bus from Phoenix, Ariz., the story goes that he looks around, and he’s the only black guy he can see,” Hurst said. “And he said, ‘When’s the next bus back to Phoenix?’ Fortunately, he stayed. . . . This guy contributed to the (social) education of scores of students.”

Gillespie gave a brief history of how Historic 25th Street used to be.

“25th Street in Ogden was really well known from 1944 to 1946 as the second-most notorious street in the United States, and that’s because every troop train stopped at 25th Street, right at the Union Station. So there was more murders, more prostitutes, more arrests, more robberies than anywhere else outside of New York.”

Gillespie went on to speak about the rumored opium dens hidden beneath the streets.

Hurst described how the diversity that naturally surrounded 25th Street was actually something the locals embraced.

“Earlier, when you talked about the sex workers? Well, let me tell you, that was the best cheap date in Utah. You got a couple of girls, drove down to 25th Street, and you could watch these really interesting characters, and it wouldn’t cost you a dime.”

The panelists described how life before the Ogden Mall, built in 1980, was more personal.

“I really miss that, going through downtown Ogden,” said McClellan, who shared her memories of shop owners coming out of their stores to speak with potential customers on the street. “The mall took all of that away. It became kind of impersonal.”

Ellington emphasized that while progress has been made, there is still a lot of work to be done in Utah.

“The racial bigotry you still see is in employment — even in the state of Utah, you do not see people of color in any of these (higher-up) positions.”

McClellan agreed. “In Ogden, there is only one black principal. We need mentors in the school system. We need people of color in decision-making positions. I think that has a lot to do with how we intermingle. We should be past that now . . . we should be able to interact with each other.”

Andrews said it is much harder for people to dislike her or demonize her if they have the chance to talk to her. “It’s incumbent upon each of us here tonight to reach out.”

Andrews, who hopes to make the symposium an annual event, announced the $25,000 endowment to the Allen Holmes Diversity Symposium from members of the Ogden and WSU community to Brett Perozzi, associate vice president of Student Affairs.

“If we can foster conversations like this,” Perozzi said, “this symposium will skyrocket.”

The symposium celebrated how far the community has come, but members of the audience spoke up to voice their concerns about how things have yet to be perfect, agreeing with Hurst when he said, “There’s enormous progress worth celebrating, but folks, there is still stuff to do.”