Known for making the lives of others better by believing in them and providing opportunities to succeed, Jesse Milan, 92, was fondly remembered for his role as a longtime educator and civil rights leader after his passing on Feb. 8 in Overland Park, Kansas.
In 1954, the same year of the landmark Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision that ruled racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional, Milan became the first Black public school teacher hired in Lawrence, and in 2004 he was appointed by President George W. Bush to the commission commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic case.
At the urging of Baker University education chair Lowell Gish, Milan joined the Baker faculty in 1969, becoming the university’s first Black professor.
“When I was a kid, my mother would always call me her little professor. In 1969 when I signed that contract as an assistant professor of education at Baker University, I took that contract to my mother in the hospital and said, ‘Mama, you planted the seed,’ ” Milan said in a Baker alumni publication to commemorate the university’s 150th anniversary.
As Baker’s first Black professor, Milan believed he was in a position to serve as a role model for minority students. Early in his tenure, he called a meeting of Black students to create Mungano Wa Wanafunzi Weuzi (Brothers and Sisters in Unity), a Swahili name suggested by a Kenyan student. The organization helped teach students how to become involved, understand leadership, and succeed.
More than 50 years later, Mungano continues as a multicultural organization open to all Baker students and leads an annual candlelight vigil and march through campus. Milan often returned to campus, participating in the march years after he stopped teaching in 2001. He also continued to bring students from the Kansas City area to Baker so they could learn about the academic opportunities and understand the support system they would have at the university.
Teresa Clounch, former associate dean of students and director of multicultural affairs at Baker, became acquainted with Milan through his involvement with Mungano.
“His support of the students who were underrepresented was foundational to their success as students and members of the community. His presence, persistence, and perpetual support of the students was his legacy.”Dr. Teresa Clounch
The Milan-Harris Award for Diversity at Baker University was created in his honor in 2000. A year later, Baker awarded him an honorary Doctor of Education.
Written by Steve Rottinghaus, '14 MSM