The classes on race relations took place 40 years ago and more.

 

But there are moments, many of them heated and emotionally charged, that resonate to this day with some of the University of North Florida students who took the course.


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Peter Kranz, the psychology professor who taught “Human Conflict: Black and White” at the college from 1972 to 1977, pushed his students to be candid, no matter how negative their notions might be.

He’d ask them questions about racial perceptions and stereotypes, then write their answers on the blackboard. Here they are, let’s confront them.

But honesty didn’t come easily, not at first, said Marguerite Stewart, who was in one of the early classes.

“For a really, really, short time, people were cordial,” she said. “People were reluctant to say what they were thinking. Stereotypes? We skated around that for a while.

“The one that I remember was whites smelling like wet dogs when they get wet,” said Stewart, who is black. “Once that came out, people started being honest.”

Over time, the students who challenged and angered each with their frankness started to see positive changes. They began to form bonds with those whom they initially felt they had little or nothing in common with.

“Everybody wanted to know about everybody else,” said Harold Lee, who took the class in 1973. “What they found out was that people are alike more than they are different.”

Those bonds will be revisited at an informal reunion of Kranz’s “Human Conflict” students on Friday at River City Brewery, said Ann Witherspoon, who went through the class in 1977 and is leading the reunion effort.

Friday’s gathering is just a chance for people to catch up and get reacquainted, she said. On Saturday, a group will meet at UNF for a roundtable discussion on the impact of the class, and to begin planning a community event at the school in the spring on race relations.

About 90 students participated in the course over the years, said Kranz, now a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He plans to be at the reunion, along with San Francisco-based author and journalist Terence Clarke, who is working on a book about the class.

A TIMELY TOPIC

Kranz, who grew up in New York, came to UNF on the heels of the civil rights movement. He didn’t know a lot about Northeast Florida, other than “in the past, segregation existed, and segregation continued to be an issue.”

The university, which had just opened, “wanted courses relative to time and place,” Kranz said.

“The demographic at the school was black and white,” so a class that engaged students in a racial dialogue seemed logical.

Kranz was grateful when administrators “showed the courage and guts to go along with the concept,” he said.

He told them he wanted small classes, with even representation of race and gender, and they said yes. He wanted the students to spend a weekend at a black university, and they said yes.

He wanted a seven-day home stay, allowing black students to live with white families, and white students to live with black families.

“And they said ‘OK,’ “ Kranz said. “That was a challenge, but that’s really what made the class.

“Conversations are not enough. The contact, the interaction, really made a difference. Those experiences brought the class together.”

Kranz was 32 when he started teaching “Human Conflict” and described himself rather jokingly as “the crazy white professor.”

But he was emotionally and intellectually invested in race relations and equality. A childhood friend was killed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 while working to help blacks register to vote in Mississippi. And he was empowered by such books as Price Cobbs’ “Black Rage,” which was credited with furthering a national dialogue on race relations after its publication in 1968, and was read and discussed in his class.

Witherspoon and Stewart said Kranz encouraged a “gloves off, no-holds-barred” atmosphere in the classroom.

“We all knew he cared, though he challenged and pushed us,” Witherspoon said, and there were many turbulent moments as students expressed resentments and fears.

“There will always be rough patches in race relations,” Kranz said. “But you have to be honest and open. You can’t be afraid, and you’ve got to work through it.”

Witherspoon was living on Jacksonville’s Eastside when she enrolled at UNF. Her childhood exposure to whites, “and the pain and harmfulness of prejudice,” shaped what she described as the militant attitude she brought to the class.

Mike Bennett, who took the class in 1973, had no exposure “to any other cultures or races” when he was growing up in Oceanway, he said.

“You could say I was ‘pristine white.’ But I grew up in a Christian family, and I was not taught racism.”

By the time he went to UNF, Bennett was living in a “hippie-Jesus commune in an old church in Springfield,” had a black roommate, and was working with youth programs at an all-black church. “My cultural world was turned upside down, but it didn’t bother me,” he said.

Still, his early memories of the UNF class were painful.

“I remember a lot of frustration and anger,” he said. “Here I was, wanting to learn with an open heart, and I was being attacked. Here was a class where everyone could be open and share their feelings, and I was [perceived as] the bad white guy.”

On an intellectual level, he understood the social dynamic that was taking place, he said. “But emotionally it was really hard on me.”

Bennett said he was “always hoping Pete would rescue me, but he didn’t.”

Over time, “my connections with my classmates grew, and the bonds grew,” he said. “I think we understood what we needed to do in the class.

“No matter what we said in the class, we were able to separate that from the idea that we had work we needed to do.”

Students such as Bennett and Lee indeed found the home visits that Kranz so strongly believed in transformative.

Lee, who grew up in an all-black community in the city of Alachua, spent a week at the home of Ernie Mastroianni, then a television reporter and later the Duval County property appraiser. A white household was a puzzlement to Lee, who had relied on depictions he’d seen on television in programs such as “I Love Lucy” and “Leave It to Beaver.” What perplexed him were the twin beds in the TV couples’ bedrooms.

“If that was the case, how did they have children?” Lee smiled as he recalled his arrival at the Mastroiannis’ home and seeing their two young sons.

“The first thing that popped into my mind was, ‘Where did those two boys come from?’ The first thing I did when I walked down the hall was take a quick look into the [parents’] bedroom. I saw a king-size bed. And I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ “

Though he was apprehensive about the week, he began to relax in what proved to be a warm, welcoming atmosphere.

Bennett said he remembers the experience “like it was last week.” He stayed at the home of Ben Campbell, then UNF’s director of admissions.

“He and his wife took me to their sons’ room, introduced me, and offered me one of the bunk beds,” he said. “I was a long-haired hippie freak.”

Campbell was “a gentleman’s gentleman,” Bennett said. “It just blew me away. Their acceptance of me … the Campbells were so kind.”

LESSONS FOR LIFE

“One of the reasons the classes were so important was that people could come together and become socially closer to the truth,” Kranz said. “I wanted to provide them with experiences and information they could use in their lives and in their professions.”

His former students talked about how they benefited from the course.

“The best part of the class: It cemented my level of comfort with all people, with all races and genders,” Witherspoon said.

“This class taught me how to deal with people, no matter who was with me,” Lee said. “It was about learning how to maneuver within a system. This class taught me no matter where you are, you can make it.

“I like to think I wasn’t raised to be prejudiced,” Bennett said. “But we all prejudge — whether it’s gender, age, race, any category, we all prejudge. The class really helped me become aware of that. By denying that that exists, you are denying any ability to grow.”

“That first class was so raw, and then it was like a slow healing process,” Stewart said. “In life, the whole point of integration, once you start intermingling, you start building relationships. One on one. It builds from one person to the next. So was it wasn’t hard being the only black person in a situation.”

Clarke, the author, whose working title for his book is “An Arena of Truth: Human Conflict in Black and White,” said he plans to describe the racial conflicts that existed in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the evolution of community study and racial confrontation groups.

He will explore how Kranz applied the concept in his classes at UNF, and “why this kind of solution is relevant now. I want to bring it to the present because of what’s going on in this country now.”

Kranz said he believed a course like “Human Conflict” should be mandatory at universities today, given the current controversies stemming from race.

“I would teach it in the same way,” Kranz said. “No holds barred.”

David Crumpler: (904) 359-4164