Black Student Alliance On the Rise in the Name of James A. Welton

James A. Welton wears a cap and gown in his graduation photo, showcasing the end result of his dedication to getting an education (Photo courtesy of Albion College’s Library Archives).

Education, that power by which the soul smitten with the love of the true and beautiful essays to comprehend the universe soars to the heavens, penetrates the earth, studies itself, questions the past, anticipates the future, traces out the laws of nature, binds together in a systemized form all the objective and subjective forms of knowledge, rises from the finite and transient to the infinite and eternal. 

James A. Welton.

James A. Welton was born in Mt. Meigs, Ala. before he came to Albion College in 1900, where he would become the first African American student on Albion’s campus. Welton was raised by Clara and Richard Welton, both of whom were enslaved before becoming sharecroppers soon after liberation.

On campus, Welton was not only a student, but a leader as well. He was a member of the Electric and Antoniades Literary Society, which was made up of the most excellent students in all aspects on campus. He was also a member of the debate team and Sigma Nu Fraternity. By his junior year, Welton was elected class treasurer. During his time at Albion he also wrote articles  for the Pleiad and worked on the Albionian. 

Welton was well known around campus for his public speaking  skills. His graduating class of all white students voted him as class orator, which allowed him the honor of giving the speech at his class graduation in 1904.

Welton (second person in the second row when reading from left to right) with his graduating class. Welton is the only African American student in his class (Photo courtesy of Albion College Archives).

According to a plaque found in the Welton House, Welton went on to receive his teaching certificate and returned to Alabama to teach as a professor of mathematics and Latin at the State Normal School in Montgomery, Ala., where he also coached football. Welton married Mary Louise Campbell Jenkins in 1905 and resigned from his position at the State Normal School soon after. In 1907, he moved to Birmingham to become a manager at the Union Mutual Aid Insurance Company where he was later promoted to the position of Auditor.

Despite all that he contributed to Albion College, however, Welton was not invited into the Alumni Association until 25 years after he graduated. According to documents in Albion’s archives, the reason Welton was not invited into the Alumni Association sooner was because of a policy that stated that in order for alumni to be inducted into the association, they had to pay a membership fee.  The mass mail notifying all alumni of this policy was not sent out until after Welton’s death. Albion College later inducted him into the association regardless of the unpaid fee. 

In 1929, Welton’s success was ended by an act of hatred. According to a declaration found in the Welton House, Welton was hung for seeking a college education. More information can be found in the Welton House.

James A. Welton has an informational plaque posted inside the Welton House that gives a plethora of information surrounding Welton’s life. Most of the information about Welton featured in this piece comes from this plaque.

Black Student Alliance: Taking on the Welton Spirit

The Welton House on campus now serves as a house for Black Student Alliance. Inside, information about Welton’s legacy can be found  (Photo by Aura Ware).

According to the Welton House sign, In 1985, the former Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority lodge was given to Black Student Alliance (BSA) as the Black Student Alliance house. The BSA house was then dedicated to James A. Welton on Sept. 28, 2002. BSA now calls it “The Welton House.”

Fast forward to 2020, BSA is now on track to becoming closer to reaching goals of standing together, building friendships, producing leaders, and most importantly, creating a legacy with the Welton name in mind. BSA has a history of working vigorously to ensure that voices of Black students at Albion College have a space to be heard. Opening up the Welton House to BSA’s general members for food, fun and education is where this initiative starts.

“This year BSA’s meetings are more interactive, and this welcomes more involvement from other people on campus,” said Makiya Gratton, a sophomore from Detroit.. “I like us using the Welton House. It’s more closed off.”

Student art posted in the Welton House. The poster says “standing together, building friendships, producing leaders, and creating a legacy,” which showcases the goals and values of BSA (Photo by Aura Ware).

BSA has also been working over the past years to improve its impact on campus, yet this year seems to be very noticable for the general members.

“This semester, it seems like everything is planned out. Everyone participants and BSA does a lot of things that students are interested in while also giving students the chance to suggest future events,” said GaQuesha Garret, a first-year from Detroit. “That is why I come [to the Welton House] every Sunday. I really appreciate the effort the executive board members put in. So, every student should get involved with BSA.”

An important part of making sure that BSA is upholding Welton’s resilience and leadership is working to keep BSA’s name in a good light. It is also important to BSA’s executive board to utilize the house that was given to BSA in Welton’s name.

“Imagine coming into a classroom, and you are the only Black person. And then imagine feeling that same way when entering an entire campus,” said  Treasurer of BSA Alex Butler, a sophomore from Chicago.. “When you try to integrate your culture into another culture, you can possibly lose a part of yourself. And, with that sacrifice he made, I believe James A. Welton is a miracle.”

Welton is the beginning of Albion College’s Black history. If it wasn’t for him opening up doors that were never opened on Albion’s campus before, this campus could look a lot different today.

“Without James A. Welton, there is no us. He broke down the floodgates, and here we are today,” said Jayson Sawyer, a Junior from Evanston, Ill., and Sergeant of Arms for BSA. “The Welton house is like a safe haven for Black people, and it’s establishing a place where Black people can just be.”

BSA’s executive board is well aware of the importance of keeping BSA together in any kind of circumstance. Doing this in memory of Welton  is as important as doing it for the sake of current Black students on campus. 

“BSA has embodied the Maya Angelou ‘Still I Rise’ mentality, which is what James A. Welton would have done in situations of hatred like we’ve seen in the past,” said BSA President Jada Stewart, sophomore from Chicago. “We are here. We are one. You can’t break us down, and we are a united front.”

BSA will do what it has to do to make sure Welton’s name and the Welton house are always used as a resource for encouragement for Black people on campus despite challenges.

“There may be issues with this house. However, we still continue to use it and make it a comfortable space for us because we don’t get that anywhere else,” said BSA Vice President Khaiylah Johnson-Bustamente, a sophomore from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Welton was the first person to make Black history at Albion College , but he will not be the last.

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