Lecture Details History Of College Integration

Corinne Lestch

By Corinne LestchThe Daily Northwestern

After the lecture on Southern women who attended Northern colleges during the post-Civil War period, Evanston resident Michael Marsh lingered to look at the pictures as the room was clearing out.

“They didn’t have this … in school when I was growing up,” Marsh said, referring to the lecture that had just taken place.

Saturday’s lecture, held at Evanston Public Library on 1703 Orrington Ave., took Evanston residents back to the late 1800s, when black college students faced persistent discrimination and harassment.

Evanston resident Joan Johnson, a professor of American women’s history and Southern history at Northeastern Illinois University, delivered the lecture.

Johnson spoke about the problems and controversies southern black women such as Portia Washington Pittman, the daughter of Booker T. Washington, faced after the Civil War while they attended college in the North.

Northern colleges, specifically Vassar, Bryn Mawr and Wellesley – which Portia Washington attended – were among the most prestigious in the country at the time. The appearance of black women at elite schools caused upheavals in the post-Civil War period.

“As daughter of Booker T. Washington, her presence (at Wellesley) was fraught with a lot of political controversy,” Johnson said. “Very few African American students could do what she did.”

Johnson said many colleges used the large presence of Southern white students as a reason not to admit black students. She said administrators were more interested in placating southern whites than agreeing to desegregation.

Marsh felt his presence stand out when he attended an integrated high school in Chicago.

“Coming from a Catholic school where there were 2,000 whites and 200 blacks, (attending an integrated school) was interesting,” said Marsh, who eventually lived in Chicago for about 40 years before coming to Evanston.

Less than a hundred years before Marsh entered high school, the ratio of black to white students was more extreme at northern colleges.

“Colleges like Radcliffe and Smith were more welcoming,” Johnson said.

But when Smith College admitted a black student, administrators kicked her out of her dormitory when her white roommate from Tennessee refused to live with a black girl. It was only after Smith was sued by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that black students were allowed to live on campus, Johnson said.

“African American students faced a lot of harassment,” Johnson said. “Students used different slights to let them know they were not considered socially equal.”

At Wellesley, students had to fill up a table in the dining hall before starting a new one, she said. When a black girl sat down at a table in the dining hall, white students would wait outside the door until others filled up her table, and then proceeded in to start their own table.

“It’s ironic; I went to Catholic school all my life, but I’m figuring out things I never knew today, ” said Marsh, looking back at the pictures.

But black students were supported by faculty members at their respective colleges, Johnson said. Although whites lived on more comfortable social and economic levels, they were not used to authoritative figures telling them they were the ones who needed to change, rather than their previously subservient counterparts.

She spoke of a faculty member who told a white girl she would have to eat in the dining hall with everyone, regardless of the color of their skin. It was the first time the girl’s values had been challenged, Johnson said. The girl ended up affiliating herself with the Democratic Party after graduation and worked to remove the poll tax and integrate her prayer meetings at church.

“I think the change comes very slowly, but it eventually comes,” Johnson said.

Reach Corinne Lestch at [email protected]