The large show of support surprised even organizers of the campus rally, who originally had reserved only a small conference room for an impromptu public forum.
Speakers instead were forced to address a sprawling crowd assembled outside on a campus walkway. University President Dennis Dease says it's the largest rally he's seen in his 17-year tenure. He expressed regret for what he called sick and evil actions.
"Not only our sincere condolences to the three young students here who suffered the indignity of this horrible hate crime, but also to offer them and all students of color here at the University of St. Thomas, all women, to all who are members of minority groups, our sincere and lasting support," said Dease.
Three African American students living in the same dormitory room found a total of four notes since Monday containing racial slurs. The most recent was late Wednesday night.
Three of the messages were on or under their door. Another was slipped under the door of a computer lab, where one of the students was working. Some of the notes contained threats. The university assigned guards to escort the women to class, and St. Paul police launched a criminal investigation.
Despite the large showing and reassuring words, the rally did expose some racial tensions on campus. St. Thomas junior Princess Gaye was one of several minority students who called attention to what they see as de facto segregation on the mostly white campus.
"We feel alone when we're in classes and you guys don't join our groups. We feel alone when we're talking to people and you guys are just looking at us," said Gaye. "You don't sit with us in the cafeteria. We're humans just like you. And to feel so separated on your own campus -- it hurts."
The three women targeted by the racist notes voiced strong support for the university. Aquanette Early says she believes the incident is isolated.
"I feel like I'm a valued member of the St. Thomas community. I felt that way before, and I feel even more that way now," said Early. "I know that when things like this happen they are not accepted. I'm just very proud to be a St. Thomas student, to call myself a Tommie."
St. Thomas officials say the university will initiate disciplinary action against any student involved in creating the racist messages.