Civil Rights and Smith College Before 1960

Civil Rights and Smith College Before 1960

The questions of racial equality and race relations have always been contentious in America. Smith College has long questioned its own views about and reactions to the question of race. In a letter written by Mabel Allen (1883) in 1880 to her mother, the relationship between African Americans and Smith College is brought up. As Allen writes, “…we…discovered that the colored people in Northampton had no ministir [sic], church, or Sabbath-School, accordingly we decided to see what could be done.”1 The underlying assumption in the letter, of course, is that it would not be possible for the “colored people” to join white people in the churches that already exist. This is just a very early example of how Smith College students viewed the problems of race relations, an evolution which would climax with the modern Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

Around the turn of the century, the overall attitude at Smith about race relations was in line with that of the rest of the country. An article in the Smith College Monthly from November 1902 by Helen M. Chestnutt ’01 is about the Tuskegee Institute. “When some of them [students] first arrive, they are so ignorant they must be taught the use of night clothing…Such is the work that Tuskegee is accomplishing. It is teaching the negro to be a good and intelligent citizen. He learns that there is much more in life than loafing and smoking.”2 The article takes an embarrassingly paternalistic tone, which is only a slight improvement over its initial discussion of whether emigration, “amalgamation or intermarriage” would be effective in handling the “race-problem”.3 It is evident that the overall view by white America that African Americans were second class citizens at best, barely civilized at worst was thoroughly embraced by at least this single alumni from Smith College during the time, but to such an extent that those views were printed in the college’s publication.

This general perception of the issues surrounding African Americans in American society continued well into the 1920s. Race was considered a problem that the country had to contend with, but that it was not of pressing concern. An excellent example of this view is an article in the College Weekly in 1928 “Mr. Pickens Discusses Negro Race Problem.” This article talks about the similarities of whites and “negroes” but still considers the two different: “We know that physically he [the African-American] is like us but cannot believe that we have the same mental make-up…If the negro had his wish, the American white man would become the finest white man in the world, because he knows that he himself would then become the finest negro in the world… “The negro and the white man,” said Mr. Pickens (the Field Secretary of the NAACP) in conclusion, “have the same interests and problems, and when we allow for the difference in circumstance and opportunity in recent history, we find them very much alike.””4 This conflicted view, of whether blacks were actually the same as whites is characteristic of documents from the 1920s. The 1930s, however heralded a change in tone and topic.

With the 1930s, the articles written about race relations start struggling with a new problem. Instead of questioning whether it is possible to bring African-Americans up to the standards of civilization, and whether they really are people, too, the 1930s brought up the question of whether it was possible for black and white to live in harmony, and if it was, how that was to be achieved. The Smith College Religious Association provides some of the best records of Smith College’s views about civil rights during the 1930s. An article entitled “What Shall Students Think About Lynching?” from 1934 gives advice about how to encourage students to fight against the lynchings that black people in the South faced. Its advice was to, “Write IMMEDIATELY to President Roosevelt and to the congressman…pledging your support in their efforts to secure the passing of a federal anti-lynching bill.”5 At that time, awareness of the problems and attitudes associated with segregation was just beginning to grow. “An Analysis of Segregation,” from 1937, states that the types of segregation are, “1. Segregation by law…2. Segregation by custom…”6 This booklet concludes with “Statements Made Against Segregation”, with a “recognition that very few people speak this way…”7 The 1940s continued the general trend of interest in racial equality at Smith College, but with very little actual action. Eleanor Roosevelt was invited to give a talk in February, 1946 about the “interracial question”, but had to cancel her trip.8

Kindly, Nell Taylor ’51 was willing to talk about her experiences as a black student at Smith in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Mrs. Taylor came from a different background than many African American students of the time, attending high school at Hunter College High School of the State University of New York, where the graduation and college admissions rates were very high. There she took college level courses which gave her an excellent background in academics. At the beginning of her first year at Smith, there were very few minority students. She states that her graduating class had only five black students, only two of whom graduated. Overall, she says, the 1950s were a time of passiveness on campus, that there weren’t “any kind of political statements.”9 Mrs. Taylor, was active in student government at Smith, serving as Class Secretary as a freshman for her class, and as President of the Student Government her senior year, graduating Cum Laude. As she says, that achievement did get some attention by the press.  The Brooklyn Eagle newspaper reported her as the first Negro woman elected head of a major student college council in the United States. 10 It was, she notes, considered “novel” for those days.11

When asked about the civil rights movement, Mrs. Taylor recalled some hints of it. When she first came to Smith, some acquaintances at the University of Massachusetts enlisted Mrs. Taylor to join the NAACP in picketing a “favorite college hangout”, the Quonset Hut, at Amherst on Saturday nights because it would not serve black people. Several weeks later, she adds, she was called into the Dean’s (then called “the Warden”) office. The message was simple: “Smith girls don’t picket.”12 However, Mrs. Taylor remembers thinking, “Smith girls might not picket, but if there’s injustice, black people might!” She continued to picket, and was never bothered about it again.

The 1950s at Smith heralded a decade of increasing awareness of the problems faced by African-Americans. The National Students Association (NSA) stated in its report to the 3rd National Students Conference in 1950 that “one of the primary goals of the NSA has been to work for the elimination of discrimination and segregation in education…this goal of eliminating…unfair educational practices could not be isolated from the broader aspects of human relations…”13

The largest source of controversy during that time was the forced integration of Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 by President Eisenhower. The shock of the battle between the state and the national government reached everywhere in the nation, Smith College included. Initially, there was very little response to the President’s actions in terms of what it meant to integration. Rather, initial concern centered around the actual legality of the action. However, the president of the College, President Wright, addressed the students about the affair and integration, with a simple message, ““Well, do you believe in democracy or don’t you?””14 In general, articles written about it are in favor of integration, but one piece published in the Sophian, “Students Dispute Speaker on Segregation” gives an idea of the views of some Southern students. “Southerners at Smith reacted unanimously against the charge presented…Dr. Gallagher accused the whites of opposition to integration because they fear that the Negro children will do equally well as white children…Vicki Kelley, a native of New Orleans…asserts that in New Orleans the Negro is not ready for integration. “I have seen the poverty and ignorance they live in and do not believe that they are ready to be equals,” was her strong statement…The consensus of these views seems to come to the conclusion that “time works many wonders.””15

The debate over Little Rock continued through to 1958, when the Sophian stated that, “The “little rock” in Arkansas has turned out to be a Gibraltar-sized boulder blocking the vessel Spirit of Man on its voyage toward human freedom…since it has refused to die, it demands still further discussion…”16 From the discussion it received—both pro- and anti-segregation editorials appeared—it is clear that the issue was being addressed from a practical, first hand outlook rather than the removed, paternalistic view that was characteristic of the 1930s and earlier.

By 1959, attempts were being made to secure Martin Luther King, Jr. to give a sermon at the chapel, and it can be argued that for Smith at least, the issue of Civil Rights was on there to stay.17

1 Mabel Allen to mother, 11 January 1880, Class of 1883 Papers, Smith College Archive, Northampton, Massachusetts. 2 Chestnutt, Helen M. “The Problem of the South.” Smith College Monthly, November, 1902, 116-121. 3 Ibid 4 “Dr. Pickens discusses negro race problem.” Smith College Weekly, January 11, 1928, 8. 5 “What Shall Students Think About Lynchings?”, 1934, Records of Religious Organizations, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. 6 “An Analysis of Segregation,” 1937, Records of Religious Organizations, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. 7 Ibid 8 Eleanor Roosevelt to Miss Hendricks, 13 September 1945, Records of Religious Organizations, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. 9 Taylor, Nell. Telephone interview. 23 Feb 2009. 10 Ibid. 11 Ibid. 12 Taylor, Nell. Telephone interview. 23 Feb 2009. 13 “Report to 3rd National Students’ Conference”, 23-31 August 1950, National Students’ Association Papers, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. 14 Houston, Susan. “A Large Audience Hears Mr. Wright Discuss Arkansas.” The Sophian, October 8, 1957, 1, 4. 15 Schultz, Jean. “Students Dispute Speaker on Segregation.” The Sophian, October 15, 1957, 1. 16 “We Can’t Drop It Now.” The Sophian, September 23, 1958, 2. 17 Larry DeBoer to Richard Unsworth, June 22 1959, Records of Religious Organizations, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts.

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