It wasn’t until Michael Jones began his first semester at the University that he realized the racial tensions and academic difficulties he would face.
When he returned to his alma mater, Lewis Cass Technical High School, as a teacher in 1992, he had one goal: to push his students to become independent so they could rise to meet the collegiate challenges he had faced.
“Just as much as the U of M was an eye-opener for me, I try to open the eyes of my students as well,” said Jones, whose mother is white and father is black.
Because he overcame fast-paced classes and a strained racial climate at the University, Jones – who was named one of the top five teachers in the state this year – had a rare opportunity to use his experience to encourage his students.
Jones began by employing physics problems from his old college textbooks to show that college standards are achievable.
“I ask them to gauge the difficulty of this problem from one to five, five being so super hard and one just being first-grade easy,” Jones said. “Usually they would give it a three or a four.”
Jones would then open the college textbook.
When the students saw they had solved college-level problems, their eyes lit up with the realization of “wow, I can actually do this,” he said.
Although Jones didn’t expect to encounter racism when he arrived at the University in 1985, it took time for him to adjust to a campus that was mostly white.
“I had some roommates who weren’t so liking of people of color,” he said, describing an instance when he checked his mail and found envelopes covered with racist slurs stuffed inside.
Financial restrictions also affected Jones, who came from a low-income family.
“Calculus was the hardest class because I couldn’t afford the book, so I had to go to the library and get the book, which was an earlier edition,” he said.
After earning his degree in molecular biology, Jones returned to teach at Cass Tech.
“I had some very difficult teachers here,” he said. “I try to be at least as good as they were. I try to make Cass Tech live up to the legacy it has had as being one of the exemplary schools of Michigan.”
Jones’s fellow teacher Dana Davidson, who attended the University at about the same time as Jones, had a much different college experience.
Davidson, who has taught literature at Cass Tech for 11 years, was active in various black community groups during her time on campus. She served on the executive board of the Black Student Union and also ran on the University’s track team.
While she played a part in major civil rights protests during the 1980s, she said she “did not feel a sense of ‘me against white people,'” Davidson said.
“It was more getting the University to respect and respond to the concerns of people of color and making it a place where more students of color would feel that was hospitable and comfortable to be at,” Davidson said.
At the time, black students made up an even smaller percentage of the student body than they do today. Less than 5 percent of University students were black.
“It disturbed me that there were so few African-Americans at the school so close to Detroit,” she said. “There are things that a fantastic university like U of M could do to empower more kids from repressed poor areas to come.”
Davidson said she did not indicate her race on her application to the University because she did not want race to be a factor in her admission.
“I thought I had the grades and the test scores,” she said, adding that her personal confidence helped her adjust to the overwhelmingly white campus.
Her rigorous high school education helped.
“Cass is academically competitive, so going to a school that was academically competitive was a very similar fit for me,” she said.
Davidson, like Jones, decided to pour her talents back into her alma mater, taking a job at Cass in 1994. In her classroom, she urges students to consider not only their personal lives but to reflect on issues from city, state, national and global perspectives.
“I think that if you create a class where students can talk about those things, then as a teacher you’re helping to form the folks who are going to come out here and change policy, raise families and sustain communities,” she said.