‘Upending the Ivory Tower’

Author discusses his new book about history of black activism and the civil rights movement at Ivy League universities.

September 25, 2018

Ivy League universities today boast about having diverse student bodies. But for much of their histories, these institutions were almost entirely white. As the colleges started to recruit and enroll black students in the 1960s, many leaders of the institutions were stunned to find that the students were not remotely happy about their situation. They didn't just want to be admitted -- they wanted changes in the institutions. Fifty years ago, these tensions exploded on a number of the campuses.

A new book, Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League (New York University Press) explores this history. The author is Stefan M. Bradley, associate professor and chair of African American studies at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles. He responded via email to questions about his new book.

Q: Much discussion of the civil rights movement in higher education focuses on the desegregation of all-white universities in Southern states. What were the general patterns of black enrollment at Ivies prior to the civil rights movement?

A: From the late 1800s through the 1950s, black students trickled into the Ivy League in small numbers. While enrolled in the Ivies, early black learners experienced what scholars have aptly termed “Jim Crow North.” Although they were among the most privileged of their race, black students, by and large, suffered from isolation and neglect as they survived solitude in the Ancient Eight institutions. They, like their racial peers in Southern universities, were desegregating institutions that glorified white history and culture; however, the Ivy League proudly created America’s leadership class. All Ivy schools but Princeton University admitted black students before World War II; few, however, encouraged racial integration.

Housing was a major issue for institutions like Harvard that were liberal but not so much as to allow black learners to sleep among their white peers. Additionally, some black students were regularly “blackballed” from participating in campus events; that led to the creation of a black fraternity at Cornell University and altered college policies regarding fraternity life at Dartmouth College. The exceptions to the mistreatment and neglect of black students were varsity athletes, whom white students and officials loved to celebrate mostly on the fields and courts. When not competing, however, even star athletes were daily reminded of their “otherness.” With the goal of uplifting the race after graduation, black students, before the arrival of the modern civil rights movement, did their best to endure in the Ivy League without causing major disruptions.

Q: What inspired leaders of these institutions to try to enroll more black students?

A: Many Ivy officials had altruistic motives when altering admissions practices regarding race, but mostly it took the specter of the civil rights and Black Power movements to catalyze access. Dartmouth president John Sloan Dickey had been on U.S. president Truman’s Civil Rights Committee that produced the document “To Secure These Rights,” so he learned the effects of racial oppression on black people and sought to make changes at his institution. Princeton’s president in the 1960s, Robert Goheen, the son of Presbyterian missionary parents, ushered in a dramatic shift to university policy as it concerned black students. To finally admit black students at what the book characterized as the “southernmost Ivy” because of its allegiance to racial segregation and degradation (not to mention its strong affiliation with sons of the Confederacy) was no small feat. The Navy’s V-12 program, along with a New Jersey state law banning segregation, aided Princeton’s desegregation after World War II. Goheen revealed, however, that it took the civil rights movement to open his eyes to the need for education to equalize life chances for black people. Cornell’s president, James Perkins, was on the board of the United Negro College Fund, so he had sympathies.

Significantly, students -- black and white -- demanded changes as well. In a lesser-known 1968 demonstration, black Pembroke College women led Brown University black men of the Afro-American Society in a “walkout” to help President Raymond Heffner reflect on the paucity of black learners at their institutions. When the boycotting black students coalesced with black Providence residents and 800 white students in the height of the Black Power movement, university officials set new goals and found $1.2 million in resources to finally recruit and admit higher numbers of black students. That scenario played out throughout the Ivy League.

Q: Across the institutions, many of the black students who enrolled early on found themselves facing hostility and ignorance. Why were these institutions so poorly prepared to welcome black students?

A: None of these institutions was designed with black students or faculty in mind. Officials never had to consider what life would be like for black people (other than service staff) on campus. Scholars have highlighted how enslaved black people built these education centers and served the white students and officials. Certainly nothing about the infrastructure, culture or curricula welcomed black students. White Ivy administrators and educators had no inclination as to the thousands of racial slights (today called microaggressions) and other forms of racist behavior black students endured once accepted. Students like W. E. B. Du Bois, J. Saunders Redding, John Hope Franklin and Vera Marcus also described the sheer isolation they experienced.

Some of the black students I interviewed explained that perhaps white Ivy officials believed black learners were just white students with darker skin, not considering the circumstances that shaped black life and that required transitional assistance. Frankly, before the 1960s, Ivy officials had never conceived of recruiting students in general (other than those enrolled in Eastern boarding and day schools), let alone black learners. These institutions had always relied on their prestige and traditional methods. Finding and admitting high-achieving black students took an extra effort for which many administrators and alumni were not prepared. On campus, black students were treated as visitors but not a part of campus life. That is why they took the lead in welcoming themselves by establishing black affinity groups. Later, in some instances, they lobbied for black housing and lounge spaces. Some institutions established transition programs to help black students acclimate to the new environment. The racial isolation and regular mistreatment within the Ivy League was traumatizing to many early black students, who had never wanted to be racial pioneers or soldiers; they just wanted to be educated.

Q: Protest movements at these colleges stunned the institutions and society. How were the protest movements perceived?

A: Several Ivy League institutions were caught flatfooted when black students and their allies chose to disrupt by way of protest. Many white officials believed they had done enough to ensure racial equality by allowing black students to attend. For young people, who had grown up during the civil rights and Black Power movements, desegregation did not obligate them to gratitude, and merely being present among the white elite was not impressive. One student from Yale University explained that he could never fully be a “Yale man,” so he and his peers set about creating a black Yale experience and eventually a black Ivy experience. Then, some students, taking clues from black consciousness campaigns off campus, chose not to assimilate culturally.

This pluralistic approach and resistance to suffering in silence was especially perplexing to liberal Ivy presidents, who had authorized officials to allocate resources toward the transition of black students. Many black learners fashioned themselves representatives of the larger antiracist and anticolonial movements of the world. So, in the late 1960s, liberalism, moderation and conservatism were all enemies of radicalism and militancy. For conservative leaders like Grayson Kirk at Columbia, black student activists coalescing with militant Harlem community members and Black Power leaders like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown caused great consternation, as the New York City mayor was deeply invested in not provoking more violent uprisings in the neighborhood weeks after the death of King. Although severely disconcerted by protest, several presidents credited black student dissidents with reframing their ideas about the black experience.

Q: As you look at the various responses to these movements, do some colleges' responses stand out as particularly well thought out, and some as particularly foolish?

A: That is difficult to answer because these institutions had never been confronted with such intense black-centered demonstrations and demands, so officials believed they were doing their best to react positively. Some of the universities and colleges benefited from watching the drama of demonstrations unfurl throughout the Ivy League. After the rebellion and strike at Columbia garnered the world’s attention in spring 1968, officials at the other Ivy institutions wondered if it could happen at their colleges. It could and did. In 1969, the Harvard administration, like that of Columbia, called the police to remove protesting students. To Ivy officials who believed in the exact rule of law, allowing police onto campus to restore order must have seemed prudent, but the tactic backfired in several instances when police brutalized mostly white students. Police violence on campus resulted in the radicalization of moderate students and faculty, as well as strikes at multiple Ivy campuses. At Harvard, the black faculty and staff organization warned the administration if police harmed black students, who had aligned themselves with black laborers, the external community reaction could be disastrous.

In May 1970, Yale’s liberal president, Kingman Brewster, did well to heed such warnings as he worked to accommodate Black Panthers and antiwar protesters who arrived in New Haven by opening the campus and offering some amenities. One report revealed, however, that a Yale official ensured that a bus containing some of the most radical agitators met with mechanical problems and did not make it to campus. At the University of Pennsylvania, President Gaylord Harnwell, seeking to quell a demonstration against expansion into black West Philadelphia, orchestrated a quadripartite commission that included student protesters, black community activists, administrators and faculty. When black students at Cornell armed themselves after a cross had been burned at the black women’s residence and after white fraternity members attacked them during a building takeover, James Perkins, university president, acquiesced to all the demonstrators’ demands to defuse potential lethal violence. He lost the confidence of many faculty and administrators who believed Perkins’s decision to be appeasement, but no lethal violence occurred. Incidentally, Thomas Sowell, a black conservative economics professor, resigned in dismay after the demonstration.

Q: Many of the black students enrolled in the period about which you write went on leading positions in society. What lessons did they learn from their time in the Ivies?

A: Great question. Those who graduate from Ivy institutions go on to lead the nation and world (see the presidency, Supreme Court and special counsel at this very moment), so it is significant that black Ivy students became successful professionals and societal leaders. Gerald Horne, a Princeton antiapartheid activist who has gained acclaim as a pre-eminent scholar of history, explained that “activism is one of the best teachers.” Black students in the Ivy League learned individual and larger-scale lessons. They learned how to speak up for themselves and organize when they were violated. Additionally, students observed the power of mentoring. At each of the Ivies, there were black faculty and staff members who may not have always agreed with the students’ actions but who made their offices and homes available to the young learners so that the students could know that they belonged and were intellectually valuable.

Black Ivy students also learned that their survival and achievement was not just about themselves; they were part of a collective. People who could never hope to take classes at an Ivy school supported black students in the hopes that the young learners would use their privilege and influence (what is referred to in the book as Black Student Power) to open doors for others. In the Ivy League, activists demanded and achieved increased black admissions and the employment of black faculty and staff, but they also pushed back against the mistreatment and neglect of black residents surrounding their institutions and in the world. Finally, they learned that there was nothing particularly sacred about tradition in the Ivy League -- especially the traditions surrounding exclusive whiteness. By decolonizing the curricula to include black studies units, and in creating their own affinity groups and spaces, they learned how blackness could enhance even the most elite white institutions. Laudably, most of the people featured in the book continued to think about themselves as part of a larger movement for black freedom and used their Ivy influence (through black alumni networks or their careers) to engineer opportunities for others.


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