Changing Minnehaha’s history with a single face

Posted: April 12, 2013

The small office that outlooks the street before Harvest Preparatory Academy blazes with culture and personality. Framed posters proclaiming “Knowledge is power” are mounted to the wall, a photo of Barack Obama watches over the room, an African drawing of a woman hangs in back of the desk, and a bulletin board devoted to grandchildren and great grandchildren displays toothy and toothless school pictures.

The slight office, as the desk’s name plaque announces, belongs to Gaynell Ballard Ray (’58), director of admissions at Harvest Prep, and the first African American student to graduate from Minnehaha Academy. While the room is filled with stories, that is one it doesn’t tell you about.

From  age 13, Ballard Ray has been helping and connecting with children. She began working for the Union Gospel Mission, a Christian organization that helps the homeless, addicted and poor members of the Twin Cities community.

There she checked children into the Boys and Girls Club, was promoted to office manager, and eventually became the camp director of the Girls Club. She worked for the Boys and Girls Club until she completed college at the University of Minnesota.

“I knew, even when I was working back at the Boys and Girls Club, that my life was destined to work with people,” said Ballard Ray. “They gave me my start. And then attending Minnehaha convinced me of that even more. Being around people I wasn’t used to, just talking with them and getting experiences with them. It was enlightening. It was meant to be. Maybe if I didn’t get that experience, I wouldn’t be where I am.”

Her job at the Union Gospel Mission was the key to attending Minnehaha.

“The director [of the youth club], Woody Larson (’47), had some ties with Minnehaha Academy,” said Ballard Ray. “He asked me if I would be interested in attending the school that he went to. Of course, there was a tuition, but my parents weren’t financially able to pay for it, so Union Gospel Mission paid my tuition so I could attend.”

Switching to a new school is always an anxiety-ridden situation, especially when you are transferring from an incredible diversely populated school, like Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul, to an all-white school.

“When I first went, of course I got the stares,” said Ballard Ray, who came to Minnehaha for her senior year in the fall of 1957, not long after a the 1955 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the U.S. Supreme Court case which led to the integration of education facilities and was a major victory for the civil rights movement. “But then as I got to know the students, and they got to know me, I had no problems. I couldn’t have been at a better school. It being a Christian school, they looked at people not by the color of their skin, but who the person was.”

While stressful to begin with, the change in schools was quite beneficial.

“I had to adjust to how they were teaching,” said Ballard Ray. “I did not learn at public school. At Mechanic Arts, I wasn’t learning as much as I was at Minnehaha. Because I switched, I was more prepared for college.”

Her attendance at Minnehaha taught her more than just the Pythagorean theorem and how to use active voice in an essay.

“I learned how to work with people, even though I’m an independent person,” said Ballard Ray. “You can work with anyone, and you have to be more open to the values of life.”

Being the only African American student has its perks, as well.

“The best experience I had there was when I got to meet Hubert Humphrey,” said Ballard Ray. “Being the only African American student at the time I was there, I got to shake hands with him. He was really just happy to see that I was there.”

Attending Minnehaha changed many things in Ballard Ray’s life, but one thing remained constant.

“[Minnehaha] didn’t change my faith at all – I still worship the same God,” said Ballard Ray. “But I would say it made [my faith] stronger.”

Even though she only attended Minnehaha for her senior year,  Ballard Ray is a key player in changing the history of Minnehaha and is rightfully aware of this.

In 1971, Butch White was crowned homecoming king, Ramona English was a candidate on the Sno Daze royal court, Michelle Cornelious was a varsity cheerleader as a freshman, Tim Cradle played soccer, Earnest Johnson was a part of the student government, and Terry Dunn played trombone in the band.

If not for Ballard Ray, these African American students may never have come to Minnehaha, enriching the culture and creating a more diverse environment.

“I think my presence there made them more receptive to people of color that would be attending the school,” said Ballard Ray. “And a few years later, maybe three or four years after I left, [African Americans] began coming [to the school].”

Now Minnehaha’s student body is more racially diverse than ever. In 2012-13, non-white students make up 23.6 percent of the population from preschool to grade 12, and 21.6 percent at the Upper School.

“It is important for us to have a student body that reflects the diversity of the Twin Cities, and this is the goal that has been set for us by our board of trustees,” said Heidi Shannon, Minnehaha’s director of admissions and enrollment.

Minnehaha’s diversity is comparable with several suburban public schools and more diverse than many. For example, according to the Minnesota Department of Education, the minority population is 15.2 percent of the student body at Edina  High School, 20.1 percent at Eagan High School and 22.8 percent at Eden Prairie High School.

“As far as local private schools are concerned, Minnehaha is one of the more diverse schools,” said Paulita Todhunter,  Minnehaha’s director of diversity.

Ballard Ray sees this as a positive reflection on Minnehaha.

“It says that the school has always been open,” she said. “To me, they were more receptive. But I would like to see more students of color attend. I think if people knew more about what Minnehaha had to offer, they would have more students attend, and not just get the impression that it’s only for people who have lots of money. They have so much to offer academically.”

While Minnehaha was relatively receptive to Ballard Ray and made her feel comfortable, there were still traces of racism. As late as 1969, a homcoming button that was offensive to both Asians and Native Americans, was used to publicize school sporting events.

Minnehaha’s diversity statement, which can be found on the website, is this: “We welcome and embrace the wonderful diversity found in God’s Kingdom. We celebrate the uniqueness of individuals and cultures, as we strive toward inclusiveness that Christ demonstrated on earth. We prepare students to serve in a global community and integrate learning about diversity at every level of our curriculum.”

Todhunter believes that while Minnehaha is a wonderful community, there is still work to be done.

“I think when our entire student body embraces the spirit of connectedness with the human family, we attract more diversity,” she said. “We all need each other. We all bring gifts to the table. We all learn from each other. Of course I would love to see more students of color and students from lower socioeconomic levels attend Minnehaha simply because they bring to us more of the perspective we need to be better equipped to serve the world.”

Senior Bryanna Williamson,  a diversity club member, has a similar take on the school.

“Private schools generally seem to carry a heavy stereotype of rich, white kids,” said Williamson .”With that stereo type looming in the back of minds that don’t fit that criteria, [they] face greater challenges. It takes a strong individual to go to a school as a minority and lacks the history and culture of your own people, especially your ancestors.”

She believes if Minnehaha altered its environment, many would benefit.

“By reaching out and accepting  students based on more than where they’ve come from, or a test score could really help Minnehaha,” she said. “If we look at more kids that way and give them that love and support they too can flourish in this environment.”

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