When retired Maj. Gen. Byron Bagby and Vicki Wilkerson were growing up in Callaway County, educational opportunities for Black children were limited.
"Growing up in Fulton, I went to all-Black schools until I was in the sixth grade," Bagby said. "It took 13 years for the word to get to Fulton, Missouri, about the 1954 Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Board of Education)."
Wilkerson and Bagby shared stories about diversity and inclusion Tuesday night during William Woods University's "Bridging Differences Symposium: Conversations on Gender, Race and Equality."
Bagby's parents didn't have a high school education — there wasn't a Black high school in Fulton. By the time Bagby reached that age, he was able to attend Fulton High School. He went on to study at Westminster College and served for 33 years in the U.S. Army.
Wilkerson, who today works as a global trade compliance officer for SalesForce.com, grew up in Auxvasse. She attended William Woods.
"I was kind of steeped in this kind of activist role from a very, very early age, as a lot of our family and friends in Fulton were, because in many cases, we were on the frontline of segregation and integration," Wilkerson said. "We had to be prepared when we walked into those previously white spaces."
Today, Wilkerson and Bagby serve on the William Woods University board of trustees.
"I've sailed down the Nile River with the chief antiquities professor in Egypt," Wilkerson said. "I've attended a wedding at the Vatican performed by Pope John Paul II. If there's a door that's open, and it looks safe, I typically open and go in."
Wilkerson cited her education at William Woods as an important influence on her life.
"It's been because of this wonderful start at William Woods, I had the audacity to claim a seat at the table, sometimes invited, sometimes uninvited, but I always managed to find a way to stay," she said.
At Westminster, Bagby joined the Army ROTC program and was commissioned as a lieutenant.
"I will tell you, even though I've traveled all over the world and had some tough experiences in Fulton, I still cherish my foundation that I received growing up in Fulton, Missouri," Bagby said.
William Woods Diversity and Inclusion Committee member Travis Tamerius moderated the discussion. Tamerius asked Bagby and Wilkerson to share snapshots reflecting issues of diversity in America.
Bagby brought up gender inequality in college athletics. Bagby, a college basketball fan, referenced recent complaints about differences between workout areas at the NCAA women's and men's basketball tournaments.
"The one for men looked like a Planet Fitness or Gold's Gym with weights and dumbbells and barbells and all kind of ropes to do exercises, and the women's looked like the gym I've got here at home with a second-generation bench and some dumbbells and a couple of yoga mats," Bagby said. "That is absolutely gender discrimination."
He also mentioned a more personal experience. A few years ago, Bagby stayed at a hotel in Austin, Texas, after a hunting trip with his son. Though he had confirmation of early check-in, he was told he would have to wait because the room wasn't ready when he arrived.
While waiting in the lobby, a white man without a reservation walked up and asked for a room — the other man was immediately given one, even though Bagby had been told there were none available.
"My heart rate goes up several beats and when the gentleman leaves, I asked the desk clerk, 'You told us you were out of rooms and didn't have any that were available?'"
All the clerk could say was that the room became available right when the other man walked up. Even though Bagby was already waiting, it wasn't given to him.
"I don't care how many degrees I've got, the rank I had in the military, what kind of home I have, what kind of cars my wife and I drive — I am a Black man when it's all said and done, and that's how people judge me," Bagby said.
In describing a moment that has stuck with her, Wilkerson told the virtual audience about a time when she invited someone over for dinner.
"It was a Black man from the East Coast, and it was holiday time, and I was going to make a special pie because it was part of our family tradition to make a Jeff Davis pie," she said.
When she told him what the pie was called, the man left.
"I said, 'Well, what happened?' and he said, 'I'm not going to have any dinner when you're serving a pie that's named for a Confederate soldier,'" she said. "And that's when I realized that I didn't really know enough about my own personal history in this country."
Wilkerson set out to better understand the history of race in the U.S. She explained the importance of confronting bias and privilege while recognizing the history of everyone.
"It's not appropriate to go through life thinking you're innocent or being completely ignorant," Wilkerson said. "It's incumbent on all of us to re-educate ourselves around where we came from and where we can go."
She said that for much of her professional history, she was the only Black person in the room.
"I worked in white spaces my entire career," Wilkerson said. "There was no one that looked like me in the law firms that I worked in for probably a decade or in the high-tech companies. I was coming as the rainbow unicorn for a lot of people."
Wilkerson recalls people touching her hair and speaking in slang to her. When working at NeXT computer — founded by Steve Jobs before Apple — Wilkerson said she was the only Black person in the company.
For one presentation, it was her job to explain to the leaders of the company how hiring practices were going to be impacted by changing demographics and a more diverse country.
"He (Steve Jobs) was in the conference room, which he always was with his black turtleneck, and his feet up on the desk and leaned back," she said. "I'm coming up to the front of the room to make my presentation and I started talking about demographics and Steve sits up and he goes, 'Holy shit, boys, we've got to stick together.' I thought, 'Well, that's the problem.'"
An audience question asked whether Wilkerson experienced discrimination from other students while studying at William Woods. The answer was yes.
She explained how when she was a freshman, one of her suitemates was upset because she was struggling while Wilkerson was succeeding academically.
"She attacked me in the ladies room," Wilkerson said. "And she called me the N-word. I was scrappy enough and I was little enough that I learned how to get away from people who were bigger than me. I did face that, but I was undaunted."
Bagby said he has never seen the country as divided as it is now.
"When you see deaths, many of which are at the hands of law enforcement officials, a lot of Americans who before would not have believed there are issues in our nation now see what was caught on camera — it's obvious something is wrong here when those kind of issues take place and we are in a divided nation," he said.
Bagby noted the importance of honest communication and listening to others.
"But I believe that by and large, most Americans, and most individuals around the world, are good people," Bagby said. "Sometimes they've gotten bad information and they may be studying something that's wrong or having a bad information feed, but I think most people, by and large, are good people. They want to do what's right and want to do what's best for their community and their nation."
Wilkerson brought up recent awareness about racism against Asian Americans and attempts to bridge the gaps between the Black and Asian communities.
"I was at a symposium this morning talking about how can we bridge the gaps, because in many cases, the Black communities have been ostracized within the Asian community and we are suffering from the same issues — trauma is trauma," she said. "But one of the things that I think we need to be mindful of is that no racial or ethnic group is a monolith. We are all intersectional beings."
Wilkerson noted that beyond just race, sex, gender and ethnicity also impact everyone.
"To not put all of those flavors into the pot and to be appreciative of what they brought to the table I think is where we're falling short," she said. "But I'm encouraged because I see more and more people understanding this."
The speakers were asked what advice they have for white individuals.
"I think you have to, one, be quiet and listen," Wilkerson said. "When appropriate, ask what someone's experience has been. Then be quiet and listen again."
Bagby also had a point to make about white privilege.
"Many white people need to understand that they are privileged," Bagby said. "It's not a function of money or housing or the jobs you have — it's not having to travel around the United States as an African American."
Whenever he travels, Bagby is sure to keep his wallet and paperwork easily accessible because he knows there is a large chance he will be pulled over simply because of his race.
Bagby recommended that if a white person is in a hiring position, that they consider diverse, qualified candidates.
"Maybe don't pick someone who looks just like you and will act like you," he said. "Also understand that there are different types of diversity."
Wilkerson recommended students ask about demographics of communities before taking a job.
"Try to find some way to bridge the gap, to have that conversation, to have that acknowledgement from someone who doesn't look like you that you can be an ally — and not a performative ally — that you can be a true ally," Wilkerson said. "Because you believe that other people have a right to be as well."