Sam Oni made history when he became the first Black student to be accepted to Mercer University. Though he spent only four years here, his experiences and actions as an undergraduate student during the civil rights movement helped shape Mercer into the University it is today.
Mercer connection: Earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology from Mercer
Years at Mercer: 1963-67
What he did: A native of Ghana, Sam Oni was recruited by Southern Baptist missionaries to attend Mercer. He was the first Black student to be accepted to Mercer and was joined by two more Black students, Cecil Dewberry and Bennie Stephens, when he enrolled in 1963. Oni lived on campus with his white roommate, Don Baxter, and was active in several student organizations, including the campus newspaper, The Cluster.
Why he is a legend: Oni enrolled at Mercer during a time when integration at other universities in the South was met with violence. While such violence was not present at Mercer, his time at the University and in the Macon community was not easy. Most faculty and staff tried to make Oni feel welcome, but many students ignored him or made remarks about him under their breath.
As a freshman, Oni made history again as the first Black person in Georgia to become a member of a Southern Baptist-affiliated church. But not all churches were as open as Vineville Baptist Church. In 1966, when Oni was a senior, he tried to attend Tattnall Square Baptist Church but was blocked from entering.
Oni has said that he experienced racism, loneliness and challenges to his faith during his time at Mercer but has credited “the handful of women and men, Black and white, in this place, in this city, in this state, who cared for me, nurtured me, protected me, consoled me and, above all, loved me.” Following graduation, Oni vowed never to return but has since reconciled with the University and is one of its biggest supporters.
After he left Mercer, Oni went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley and then moved to Nigeria where he worked with Project Ploughshare, an organization focused on rural development, and was managing director of TYN Ventures, an import-export company. He later moved to California and currently resides in Atlanta.
Quotable: “Sam Oni, Bennie Stephens and Cecil Dewberry made Mercer University a different and better University for every student, Black or white, Hispanic or Asian or American, who will ever attend one class here. … They are the founders of Mercer University.” — Mercer Chancellor Dr. R. Kirby Godsey, who served as the University’s president from 1979 to 2006 and spoke these words at Founders’ Day in 1994, as recorded in the book, “Macon Black and White: An Unutterable Separation in the American Century” by Dr. Andrew Michael Manis.
Mercer Legends is a series that highlights iconic figures who left a lasting impact on the University and its faculty, staff and students, as well as the community.