YSU to honor city great Simeon Booker

Simeon Booker left Youngstown in 1938 after being denied equal access as a black student at what was then Youngstown College.

White students were allowed to dances, lectures, sports events and more.

Black students were not.

Simeon went on to a landmark career as a journalist whose cunning work started with the killings and attacks in the 1950s. It ended nearly 60 years later amid the euphoria of the election of Barack Obama.

In those tumultuous years, where there were killings, beatings, arsons, marches and more, there was Simeon — writing away to ensure America was forced to see what was happening to black Americans at the hands of white America.

His peers are a who’s who of civil-rights leaders — Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys included.

This December, it all comes home to Youngstown for Booker.

When the fall graduates of Youngstown State University receive their diplomas Dec. 15, the school will bestow an honorary doctoral degree upon Simeon, who also will serve as commencement speaker.

It’s in a sense, a degree he was denied from his hometown college 70-plus years ago.

Mind you, he could have earned a Youngstown degree, and many black students did back then.

But they had to make a tough decision that today seems unfathomable: Accept the indignity of being treated as less than white students.

Black students could attend classes and graduate, but it was a different, and lesser, campus experience than for whites. It wasn’t an official policy, mind you. It cannot be found in any historic campus documents.

It’s just the way things were, and all sides accepted and moved along with it.

Simeon would not stand for it, and he left.

On Dec. 15, he returns.

YSU has announced that Booker will receive an honorary doctor of letters degree. The fall commencement will be at 2 p.m. in Beeghly Center.

The honor is a result of several months of work by a handful of folks. I’m thrilled to be part of the group.

I profiled Simeon in a lengthy article in June. That article garnered attention from several folks who became committed to the thought that a native son of such accomplishment needed to be honored in some way.

We went to work on several ideas and continue that work today. The commencement is the first of the ideas.

YSU approved the commencement honor last month.

Simeon’s life story captivates all who encounter it.

He chronicled his half-century of American history in a new book, “Shocking the Conscience,” published with his wife, retired attorney and former journalist Carol Booker.

As our ad-hoc group has quietly crafted some ideas to honor him, it’s been rewarding the number of people who, when they absorb Simeon’s exploits, react with a “Really? And he’s from here?”

Count among the captivated some current YSU students who dived into 70-year-old YSU yearbooks to locate black students from Simeon’s era. As they, too were discriminated against along with Simeon, we wanted to find them and learn their story similar to having learned Simeon’s.

College records that old are spotty. The only sure way to learn identities was to roll up sleeves and find them, and that’s what students did this week.

That’s an area where you can help, too. If you know of any surviving black Youngstown College students who attended before 1950, we would like to interview them. Please email me their contact information.

Those of us who’ve embraced Simeon’s story are thrilled with YSU’s honor for this December.

Proud, too, are the Bookers.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

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