Robert Avon Bennett
Kenyon Class of 1954
Major: Philosophy
Hometown: Cumberland, Maryland

Pre-Kenyon Life
Robert Avon Bennett, Jr. was born in Baltimore, Maryland on January 11, 1933. The youngest of three children, Bennett attended Frederick Douglass High School where he was very active on the United Nation Youth Club debating team. While both of his parents completed high school, neither attended college. His father, Robert sr. was a postal employee and his mother, Irene, was a homemaker who was very active in the Episcopal Church. Growing up, Bennett served as an alter boy in his church as well as a teacher in the Sunday school. His ties to the church imbued Bennett with a strong desire to enter the ministry. These Episcopalian connections are ultimately what enabled Bennett to discover the Episcopalian affiliated Kenyon College.

After completing high school in 1950, graduating as the class valedictorian, Robert decided that he wanted to go out of state for college and really had little choice. Bennett had decided that after attending segregated schools all of his life, he wanted to try something different and explored the possibilities of attending predominately white colleges. Furthermore, the college system in Maryland was still segregated, and therefore would not allow him to attend any predominately white schools in Maryland. The state of Maryland was willing, however, to assist black students in paying for out-of-state colleges. Bennett applied to Harvard, Yale and other Ivy League schools, but was not accepted. He therefore applied to, and was accepted at, Kenyon College, entering in the fall of 1950.
Early Kenyon Life
When he agreed to come to Kenyon, Bennett had never visited the school, so he came to orientation site unseen. He initially remembers being very impressed by the scenery and rural atmosphere after having grown up in an industrial city. But was still a little apprehensive. The first few weeks were certainly a transition after coming from a predominately black environment.

Bennett entered Kenyon as a pre-theology major and as such, had an exemption from the draft, whereas many of his high school classmates were immediately drafted into the military after their high school graduations. This was in the midst of the Korean War. He was very interested in the humanities and eventually became a philosophy major.
He lived in "the barracks" a set of temporary housing that was left over from the post-WWI bulge in admissions. Following World War I, several Kenyon students were attending school on the G. I. bill. To accommodate the housing shortage, administration used a Federal Public Housing Authority's program for temporary G. I. Housing. Bennett recalls that several classmates were returning veterans who were in their late twenties. He became good friends with his roommate, James Yoshiro, a Japanese exchange student who later went on to become Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Japan.

Hartcourt T. Barracks at lower Right
Bennett admits to initially having had some reservations and feelings of academic insecurity. These feelings, however, only drove him to study that much more diligently. He quickly discovered that he was just as bright as the white students, and even brighter than some. Bennett attributes this to having attended segregated schools where an informal part of the curriculum was instilling black students with a sense of worth and equality to white students. Furthermore, he was taught by some of the best black teachers and administrators in the country. These educators had attended some of the best schools in the country, but could only teach at segregated black schools.
Organizations/Fraternities and Sports
Bennett lived in Hanna hall the remainder of his days at Kenyon. He had pledged the Archon Fraternity during his freshman year, and the Archons had divisional housing in Hanna. "Most of my social life was with Archon." Towards the end of his stay at Kenyon, he actually became president of the fraternity and sat on the Pan-Hellenic council, similar to the current Greek council. He found it ironic that he was making rules and passing legislation for other fraternities that he was not allowed to join simply because he was black. Bennett and others have stated that most Kenyon fraternities were informally segregated and would not admit black members. Archon, a local fraternity, was the only one at the time to do so. "Archon was the group for people who didn't fit in with the other fraternities… It was a very studious group." Not only a social outlet, Bennett found academic support in Archon as well. This was evident in the group's collective GPA of 3.5. Bennett undeniably added to this, graduating both Magna cum Laude and a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
In addition to Archon, Bennett participated in both Track & Field and Lacrosse as sporting activities. He was especially fond of Debate, an activity that he participated in during high school. This composed his social life at Kenyon. Robert felt that most of his real social life was still at home in Baltimore. "I didn't really participate in the dances and probably had two dates my entire time at Kenyon."

Race Related Incidents

In terms of race relations, it is important to place things within a historical context. Segregation was still the law of the land in this time prior to the Civil Rights Movement. There were 4 black students who entered Kenyon in 1950 and Bennett was the only to graduate in 1954. While they all knew one another, they did not band together. Coming from environs where racial segregation was imposed, Benner was actively trying not to segregate himself.

He recalls very few overtly racist incidents during his time at Kenyon. One similar thread is that black students claim to have experienced more racism in Mt. Vernon and while traveling at sporting events than on campus. When traveling to sports events, Bennett and other black students were not allowed to stay in the same hotels as their white teammates. Bennett also recalls being taunted by one of the other black students and a few white students with the nickname "U. T." standing for Uncle Tom, a derogatory term for "assimilated blacks." "In retrospect, I deserved it…Working in the president's house, I received a lot of perks and privileges."

Bennett recounts one personal event of real significance, which only hindsight provided. He recalls Professor Harvey, a Kenyon French Professor, coming up to him and congratulating Bennett on the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that sparked an end to legally sanctioned segregation. Coincidentally enough, the decision was announced the same day that Bennett completed his senior exams.

Bennet during senior year

As a philosophy major, Robert developed especially close relationships with philosophy professors Rice and Solomon. A very meticulous student, Bennett has a very impressive academic record, and only received one "C" in his Kenyon career, from English professor John Crowe Ransom. Bennett believed that this was an unfair grade and considers it to be one of the few racially motivated experiences that he remembers occurring at Kenyon. "It was common knowledge that Ransom didn't think very much of black people."
Undeterred, Bennett went on to graduate Magna cum Laude in the class of 1954.After graduation, Bennett won a Fulbright Fellowship and traveled through Europe, and studied at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Upon returning to the United States, he studied at General Theological Seminary in New York receiving his bachelors and masters in Divinity and was ordained as a priest in February 1959. He then attended Johns Hopkins University, receiving his Masters in Semitic Languages. He later attended Harvard where he received his Ph. D in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in 1974. Bennett has served as a professor of the Old Testament at Episcopal Divinity School, Harvard Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary and Several others. He retired to, and currently resides in Massachusetts where he runs a Bed and Breakfast with his wife.

Black Students @ Kenyon in the 1950s



Kenyon in the 1950s