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