September 2015

In Black and White

Feature_2Left to right: Lillian Alfrebelle Russell ’34, Enid Appo Cook ’31, and Gloria Millicent White ’48.

By Florence Goff

Like so many of the elite institutions of higher education in this country, Bryn Mawr was established by privileged White people: James W. Taylor, a physician, provided the money and James Rhoads, the first president, the leadership.

Only a few years later, in 1893, one of the most forward-thinking women of her time, M. Carey Thomas, became president and remained in that role until 1922. Thomas had an insatiable desire to promote rigorous education for young women, something that was just not done back then. But throughout her nearly 30-year tenure, she remained positive that Bryn Mawr was conceived for young White women.

Thomas was what was then called a eugenicist. She believed that only certain people, mostly Anglo-Saxons, were built for rigorous intellectual pursuits. In her 1916 opening comments to the freshman class, she said, “If the present intellectual supremacy of White races is maintained, and I hope that they will be for centuries to come, I believe it will be because they are the only races that have seriously begun to educate their women. One thing we know beyond doubt is that certain races have never yet in the history of the world manifested any continuous mental activity nor any continuous power of government.”

Thomas was not unique in her thinking. At the time, an adherence to eugenicism prevailed among privileged White people across this country. To her way of thinking, Thomas was in very good company.

In 1901, Jessie Redmon Fauset had just graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls, then a feeder school for Bryn Mawr with an agreement that the top four graduating seniors would receive a full four-year scholarship to the College. Fauset was one of those young women, and she accepted that scholarship. But when she presented herself, on the first day of classes, it was discovered that she was a young woman of color.

Thomas leapt into action. For about 30 days, Fauset was allowed to attend classes but was quickly shipped off to Cornell. To cover Fauset’s tuition, Thomas pledged 10 percent of her personal funds and solicited money from friends, relatives, and other college presidents. Again, Bryn Mawr was not unique: All those college presidents understood Thomas’s predicament.

Fauset went on to become a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She seldom spoke about her 30 days on the Bryn Mawr campus; her personal papers are silent on the subject, but a biography written by her younger brother includes a paragraph or so about his sister’s brief time at an elite college in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, her being sent off to school somewhere else, and her embarrassment, or shame, at what had happened.

Move forward to 1927, with Marion Park as president of the College. Enid Appo Cook ’31, the first Black student to graduate from Bryn Mawr, arrived on campus and, shortly after, Lillian Alfrebelle Russell ’34. But the only two African-American women at the College never lived on campus. They stayed instead with faculty members until arrangements could be made for them to live with Black families in the local community.

It was not until 1944, when Katharine McBride was president, that the first residential Black undergraduate—Gloria Millicent White ’48—arrived on campus. Six years later, Evelyn Jones Rich ’54 was one of only four African-American women at Bryn Mawr. Although Rich has said that much of her time here was difficult—she felt her professors didn’t always give her full credit for the caliber of her work or give her the same opportunities to work with them that some of her peers received—she also said that her experience gave her the grit that allowed her to accomplish some of the things she did later in life.

In other ways, though, the College did support Rich. When it came to McBride’s attention that a local restaurant had denied service to Rich and a Black male companion, she wrote to the owner and involved the College attorneys in a successful effort to persuade him to change restaurant policy. What is memorable about this incident is that the College felt a responsibility to its students and supported them—quietly, firmly, and successfully.

Through this period, Bryn Mawr moved along one student this year, two students there, three students here. The lack of anything approaching a critical mass made life lonely for Bryn Mawr’s Black students and required them to navigate between two worlds—playing whist with the maids and porters in their quarters, then walking upstairs for tea and bridge in a dorm mate’s room.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Civil Rights movement was in full force in the country, with its impact felt on every college campus. Like most other institutions of its type, Bryn Mawr started to court women of color, particularly African-American women. But the College didn’t enjoy a reputation for welcoming people of color, and enrollment slumped along. In 1962, there were only 14 Black students at Bryn Mawr.

The early 1970s, though, saw a critical mass of African-American students on campus. In 1971, they presented a list of demands to McBride. Among those demands? More faculty of color and better conditions for staff, in particular the maids and porters.

The students also demanded a place of their own, a place where they could see each other on a regular basis, a place where they could talk without needing to educate or explain or “be polite” in the way they talked. In 1972, Perry House became the Black Cultural Center and soon after a residential space for African-American and Afro-Caribbean students.

By the 1980s and 1990s, you could walk out on campus and see growing numbers of African-American students, Latino students, and international students. The College’s efforts to encourage, to coach, to court students of color—and not just African-American students—had started to pay off. When Nancy Vickers was named president in 1997, the percentage of students of color closely resembled that of the population in the larger society.

A good thing, certainly, but still minority students saw a disparity between the level of respect and engagement offered their White peers and what they received. So they began pressuring for changes to the opportunities offered.

And President Vickers responded: “Because we are committed to diversity in its fullest sense, we’re responsible as individuals and as a community to identify and confront the aspects of our character, our culture, and the ways in which we function, which may reflect unconscious remnants of prejudice… Conversations of this kind require all of us to be equally responsible in how we speak and to keep ourselves open to learning from one another, but they also require us to take risk to share what we are thinking, even when we worry that we may be judged for it, and to plow through anger, and confusion, in search of understanding.”

Fifteen years into the 21st century, 
Bryn Mawr welcomes diverse classes year after year with the percentage of students of color ranging between 13 and 16 percent. Clearly, things have changed.

Still, questions remain. How do institutions like Bryn Mawr embrace diversity in all it complexities? How do we balance the individual’s right to free speech with the greater good of the community? How do we talk about racism in a community where there are no blatant racists yet incidents of aggression continue? How do we model a “post-racial” society?

I don’t have the answer, but I do have one more question for the smart, creative, brave women (and men) of the Bryn Mawr community.

Are you on it?  If not, get to it.

Florence Goff came to Bryn Mawr in 1973 as Coordinator of Special Projects for the Library. She served as the College’s Associate Chief Information Officer and Equal Opportunity Officer. A founding member of the Social Justice Partnership Program and a member of the College’s diversity leadership group, she also acted as an unofficial mentor to Bryn Mawr students. For the research for this piece, she has drawn on data collection conducted by Karen Tidmarsh ’71, dean of the Undergraduate College from 1990-2010.

 

Comments on “In Black and White”

  1. I was heartened to read about the progress Bryn Mawr has made in welcoming students of color since I attended in the early 1960s, when the student body was almost all-white, and the African-American maids were exiled to the dorm attics and not permitted to socialize with the students. Many students were, however, sympathetic to the civil rights movement and a few of us attended marches in Philadelphia and Washington to protest segregated facilities and job discrimination. I want, however, to set the record straight about Dr. King’s 1966 address at graduation: in 1964, the senior class voted to invite him to speak but he was uninvited because of protests from parents and alumni.
    Ilene Winkler
    Class of 1965

  2. As a graduate of Bryn Mawr as well as Cornell University and the Philadelphia High School for Girls, I was horrified to read the story of the relationship between my three alma maters in Florence Goff’s article (In Black and White, Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, Vol. 97, No.1.) The top four graduates of Girls High were offered scholarships to BMC in 1901, and after Jessie Redmon Fauset arrived at Bryn Mawr, she was sent off to Cornell after it was discovered she was a woman of color.

    May the new Cook Center and the increasing diversity of the student body serve as a clear contrast to this sad part of the history of BMC.

    Alice Diamond, M.A. 1977

  3. Greetings — I am, of course, impressed and pleased with the progress made by the college. I loved reading this history and would love to read more of it.
    I am curious about the “only” 14 Black students in 1962. That was the year when I entered and I do not remember seeing so many familiar faces. 14?? I am curious about the breakdown of what constituted “black,” i.e., foreign (from where?) vs U.S.
    Thanks so much,
    Sheila Walker ’66

  4. I was very moved, a few years ago — I believe it was the Volunteer Summit in the fall — when several BMC undergraduates presented papers they had written, during summer research fellowships, on the history of students of color at Bryn Mawr. While their presentation was going on, we all experienced a vivid demonstration of the insensitivity of White alumnae, when a table of those present, under the influence of wine, were laughing and talking during the presentation of some very difficult material about the suffering of Bryn Mawr’s earliest students of color. Furthermore, nobody shushed those women until I went over, from a table that wasn’t adjacent to theirs, and had to raise my voice to get their attention, to ask them to stop. This is the type of thing that people call “micro aggression” — it still makes life on campus difficult for students of color at many universities. At the university where I teach, students held a silent protest in the cafeteria recently where they held up signs, quoting things that people had said and done to them that were insensitive in this way. We all need to help our undergraduates of color — indeed, all citizens who experience these things — by speaking up against those who do it and making it clear to our students of color that we care about their wellbeing.

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