Faculty Spotlight: Getting Educated

Photo: Thomas Sanders

Photo: Thomas Sanders

—Steven Millner

My maternal ancestor—a plantation slave and mother of three of her master’s children—was emancipated in the 1840s and sent north with three bags of gold. She settled in southern Ohio, bought 160 acres of farmland and built a barn whose cellar served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. During my childhood summers, I visited that cellar with my brothers and sisters. As kids, we didn’t make much of it. Now we take pride.

Because the hospital in Columbus, Ohio continued to have a segregated maternity ward for “Negro women,” my mother refused to give birth there a third time. A child whose birth included an act of social protest, I was born in an upstairs bedroom. My mother named me Steven, in part to honor legendary abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to live up to that life start.

Both my mother and father attended Ohio State but neither finished, so they preached the need to finish college to all their children. In 1960 we moved to Los Angeles “to get educated” and did.

Coming to San José State College in 1968 from the heat and smog of Los Angeles County was one of the best life decisions I made. This was really a white campus when I arrived—150 Black students, fewer than 50 Chicanos and virtually no Asian-Americans—and the Vietnam War continued, but I was determined to stay in college and graduate. I lived in a legendary frat house on 11th Street, was in a race riot with Hell’s Angels, had personal “combat” with the Pasadena, California Draft Board, met personalities as diverse as Cesar Chavez and members of the Black Panther Party—experiences that have lasted a lifetime.

In 1982, with a doctorate from UC Berkeley, I became one of five black faculty members to teach at the University of Mississippi when Ole Miss still flew the Confederate flag. Ultimately I had enough sense to return to San José State. My wife and I wanted the best education and atmosphere for our own children, and California remains America’s promised land.

Professor Millner teaches in the Department of African-American Studies

Jody Ulate

Jody Ulate, '05 MA English, is editor of the Washington Square blog and printed alumni magazine.

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7 Responses

  1. Natalye Brannon says:

    Hi Dr. Millner:

    I had the absolute privilege of taking several of your classes while I was an undergrad at San Jose State 20 years ago. I have carried the lessons I learned in your classes with me through every stage of my life since college and have often wondered what your take on different current events would be. Although I have have many amazing teachers in my life, you stand above the rest. I cannot thank you enough.

    Best Wishes Always,
    Natalye R. Brannon

    • Jody Ulate says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Natalye. We have shared it with Professor Millner. Here’s his response:

      Ms. Brannon: I am heartened to get a message such as yours in these challenging times. Whenever a professor is remembered after a few years they should be humbled. As I am. That you recall some of the content of our classes is uplifting. Perhaps it is because I consistently sought to remind students that correctly studying the journey of African Americans is to confront our most difficult social challenges. Most importantly I always reminded each generation that the obstacles they face may seem to be impossible to overcome. Yet I’ve always tried to help students realize that there were once people who got through the horrors of a slave system; later others overcame the injustices of a “Jim Crow Era” and more recently modern citizens have surmounted the debilitating effects of a type of racism that can sometimes erode one’s personal sense of worth…yet today’s challenges are daunting. But you should take heart as we can see the tremendous breadth of all these “new ones” now “standing up” or “taking a knee.” So broadly diverse and spread out all over this land. It gives me renewed hope that we can see ongoing positive change. Rare has it been that so many have stepped forward…let us hope that Mr. Floyd’s passing may have opened a torrent that douses some of these modern plagues…that will only happen though if today’s younger adults “keep on keeping on”…it’s my hope and sincere belief…that this new generation…will also “Overcome” in today’s sometimes heartless environment …

  2. Carolina Avendano says:

    Mr. Millner,

    I was looking at SJSU website to decide what major I will take….. and I saw your picture there. I felt so happy to see you here and proud of had you as my History teacher. You are one of my inspirations to continue my studies.

    Carolina Avendano

  3. james gillespie says:

    GO Spartans

  4. Taneeka Bourgeois-daSilva says:

    I had the pleasure of taking a class with Dr. Millner back in 1998. I appreciate his dedication to his field of study and his students!!

  5. steven millner says:

    Thanks for the comments

    • Carlisa Barnes says:

      Hello Dr. Millner,

      I hope that you are doing well. You are an awesome teacher and mentor. Thank you!

      All the best,
      Ms. Carlisa Barnes

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