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Making Sense of Diversity:
A Series of Friday Noon Conversations at Bryn Mawr College

November 18, 2005

Florence Goff and Karen Tidmarsh

"Examining Our History:
Inclusion/Exclusion at Bryn Mawr"


Prepared by Vanessa Christman
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged
in the On-Line Forum

Powerpoint presentation | Additional notes

Note: This Diversity Conversation was more of a sharing of information than a discussion, but conversation occurred here and there as the presentation unfolded, as well as at the end. This summary, therefore, is more of a condensation of the material shared than a recounting of the discussion.

Florence began the discussion on Inclusion/Exclusion at Bryn Mawr by stating that there is much more material to be presented and discussion to occur on the topic than can be included in one hour. Her plan, therefore, was to give a fast-paced overview of the history of BMC in terms of the introduction of African-American women to this campus; Karen would then take a few moments to contextualize the experiences—and then add to that perspectives and experiences of other underrepresented women at the College.

Before they launched into the topic there was another caveat: this would not be a history lesson; the topic is too broad, and Florence and Karen are not historians. Those looking for thesis or dissertation topics should take note, however—there is plenty of material to be explored!

Making use of a PowerPoint, Florence provided general background on the beginnings of BMC: Joseph Taylor “directed in his will that his money be used to erect buildings ‘for the comfort and advanced education and care of young women, or girls of the higher classes of society.'” These women were to be “of high morals and good attainment.” Founded in 1885, Bryn Mawr was the first college in the country to grant a Ph.D. degree to a woman. As a photo of the first class shows, there were no women of color.

Cut to Jessie Fauset, ca. 1901, and the era of M. Carey Thomas. At the time, four to five top-ranking students from the Philadelphia High School for Girls—which was sort of a feeder school for BMC—were offered a scholarship at the College. Jessie Fauset, a “colored girl,” won one and decided to enroll. She was allowed to attend classes for about a month, and then the records show that she went off to Cornell (where she did extremely well. She later was to become the “godmother” or “midwife” of the Harlem Renaissance.). This was a trial for M. Carey Thomas, then president of BMC, who had not been through “these issues” before. Apparently she contributed 10% from her own funds; raised 50% from other funds; Cornell presumably provided the rest—to get Jessie to go to Cornell. As Florence pointed out in reading from a letter, M. Carey Thomas always misspelled Jessie's name. Thomas wrote of a “pressing need to raise money.” She later wrote, “With respect to the colored girl, Jessie Faussett [sic], it seems to me it is taking her very long to graduate.” In fact, she graduated magna cum laude in four years!

Someone asked if the Bryn Mawr scholarship wasn't transferable. Another person asked if those approached for subscriptions (donations) know they were being asked to finance a “colored “ student? Some discussion ensued about how little is known from that time. Fauset and her story can be seen as a sort of emblem of the era.

There was much that was problematic about this period in Bryn Mawr's history, in terms of its inclusion of students from diverse backgrounds. It appears Thomas felt “pushed” on “this Negro and Jewish matter”. She felt Bryn Mawr was not the right place. In a letter from Thomas' papers, a teacher (?) from the Baltimore/Washington area inquired about students of color attending BMC. They were advised to seek admission at colleges in the New England states. Thomas stated in her correspondence that since “at Bryn Mawr we have students coming from the middle and southern states, perhaps [African-American students] would not be comfortable.” Even if this could be seen as a reasonable argument, in fact, only 1/6 of the student body came from the South.

Florence read from a speech that President Thomas made to the student body in 1916, in which she made the following comments: “If the supremacy of the white race is maintained, as I hope it will be. . . .” “it is the only race to educate women. . . .” “certain races have not intellect, government.” “If the laws of heredity mean anything, we're jeopardizing . . . by [a] headlong intermixture of the races.” Florence shared that Thomas questioned each new member of the student body: “Where did you come from? Where did your parents come from?”

As Florence took the group forward in time, she documented a very slow move toward a more inclusive, more diverse student body. Around 1920, a student from New England , presumed to be African-American, stayed only a week. In 1927 the Board of Directors voted to authorize the president to reply to inquiries that “colored” students would be admitted only as non-residential students. In 1931 Enid Cook was the first black undergraduate to earn an AB from Bryn Mawr. She lived with families in the area during her four years here. Lillian Russell, who graduated in 1934, had come from the Boston area, where regional alumnae had tried to tell her Bryn Mawr was not the place for her. She decided to come, however, and she also lived with families in and around Bryn Mawr.

Resistance to this non-residential policy eventually emerged. In the mid-to-late 30s an alumna wrote a letter of protest in the alumnae bulletin. Marion Edwards Park, third president of Bryn Mawr College (1922-1942), while she was sympathetic, was not willing to bring up the residency issue. Later in her presidency, an African-American woman lived in Radnor, which was primarily a graduate dorm. Finally, Gloria Millicent White, who received her AB in 1948, was the College's first African-American residential undergraduate student. Perhaps it was no coincidence, Florence pointed out, that this date is post-WWII, a period in which other colleges and universities were facing integration issues.

Evelyn Jones Rich, who graduated in 1954, described the unusual circumstances of her situation when she wrote, “I eagerly accepted the offer of admission to Bryn Mawr because I felt that it could prepare me to fulfill my role in promoting fundamental changes in our society. I was one of the first poor, black, full-time resident students to enter. I played pinochle with the maids and porters in Taylor 's basement and bridge with the girls with whom I lived on campus.” It was OK for her to go to a local place called El Greco's, since mixed groups of students were served there. Yet when she went there with a black man, she was not admitted. When Katharine McBride, Bryn Mawr's fourth president, approached the restaurant owner, he changed his policy to admit and serve black students. She paid students to test other area establishments' policies on admitting students!

Florence closed her portion of the presentation by suggesting that the staff in the College archives would be happy to let students see materials relevant to this topic. She offered some quotes (concluding with perspectives from 2005's Work in Progress ) via PowerPoint, to whet appetites:

Christine Philpot Clark '60—“Discovery and challenge, unknown in such sweet peaks before, certainly characterized my Bryn Mawr years; but so, too, did the culling and sorting through whitenesses that I did unconsciously. . . .”

Chandlee Lewis Murphy '63—“[ t]here was only one Negro per class (we often joked about being “THE Freshman, THE Sophomore, etc.”). . .”

Dolores Miller '70—“Bryn Mawr has certainly affected my life and I am truly a Mawrtyr, lantern, owls and all. But there is one thing the ‘Bryn Mawr experience' will not change, the fact that as long as my skin is black, the value of a Bryn Mawr education will not be the same for me as for a white student. . . .”

Mzimeli Moikemisetsi Morris ‘08—“The goal of this institution is to challenge women intellectually and socially. It is Bryn Mawr's responsibility to provide access to an education that is progressive; that not only gets us in the room together . . . but also helps us interact and learn from one another. Bryn Mawr is definitely a work in progress and I feel with more involvement among students, faculty, staff, and administrators, Bryn Mawr can meet its potential as a truly diverse institution.”

Nancy Vickers, President— “ Because we are committed to diversity in its fullest sense, we are responsible as individual 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. . . . The chance to make a difference here and now on these questions is a goal worthy of women who will become the change agents of tomorrow and of the staff and faculty who support their education”

Like so many colleges and universities across the country, Florence concluded, we have really started to seek—rather than just allow—students of color to come.

Karen then provided some context, in which Bryn Mawr's history can be viewed:

Oberlin, she said, was out in front, graduating its first African-American student in 1844. Among the Seven Sisters, Wellesley was ahead of the pack, graduating its first African-American student more than 40 years before we graduated our first.

According to Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz of Smith College , in her book Alma Mater , only Wellesley came out as accepting African-Americans. The NAACP was alerted about discrimination or prejudice at other institutions, especially Smith. At the turn of the century, even at Wellesley , African-Americans were lampooned—certainly were not made comfortable, but at least some were admitting blacks when Bryn Mawr was not. The Quaker schools lagged on this point—why?? Because they were close to the Mason-Dixon Line ?

As Karen pointed out, things began to change after WWII. According to Margaret Hope Bacon in Let This Life Speak: The Legacy of Henry Joel Cadbury, “[t]he war years had helped to sharpen Quaker consciences on matters of race. The relocation of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast, in response to racial hysteria, and their placement in virtual concentration camps had led the AFSC [American Friends Service Committee] to enter a protest and to launch a program of trying to place the students in colleges and others in jobs in less prejudiced areas. AFSC staff work in finding homes and jobs for refugees from Germany had also taught them lessons in anti-Semitism, and the movement of blacks into northern cities was making it clear that patterns of discrimination had to be ended in jobs and housing. How, then, could Quakers continue to justify having all white student bodies in some of their schools?”

Henry Cadbury—who taught at Bryn Mawr from1925-1934—took on the issue personally. He invited the school's first African-American student to live at his house, when residency in the dorms was not allowed. Potentially because of his influence on the Quaker community, “[t] he Oakwood School [admitted its first black student] in 1933, Media Friends School in 1937, and both Haverford and Swarthmore in 1943. These were still the exceptions, however. It was only after the April 1944 conference, led by Henry Cadbury, that the two bastions of Philadelphia Quakerism, Westtown and George School , were ready to move, in 1945 and 1946 respectively. After that, changes came rapidly. (Bacon, Let This Life Speak )

So, Bryn Mawr had been a sort of exception—only after 1944 did the rest of the Quaker schools in the Philadelphia area move on this.

What about students from other ethnic groups? Jews reportedly said that schools like Wellesley said they'd “filled their quotas,” so they came to Bryn Mawr, which didn't have a quota.

But did BMC have quotas? President Park (1922-1942) said there was “no restriction” on the (Jewish) students the College admitted. Before her, President Thomas had said Bryn Mawr showed the “strictest impartiality. . .on religious matters.” And while Bryn Mawr did consist of a mix of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, the application asked about the applicant's religion. The College assured students the question was there to have information to send someone to their nearest “church.”

International Students were admitted to Bryn Mawr as early as 1889 (from Japan ). Other Japanese students followed. The first Chinese student came in1922, and she was followed by other scholars from China . Eventually, students from countries and ethnic populations that M. Carey Thomas would have said “have not intellect [or] government” were admitted to and sought at Bryn Mawr.

Questions and comments (limited, due to time constraints):

Can the letter from M. Carey Thomas that was quoted from in the discussion be posted on Serendip? Florence will send it to Vanessa.

Was Brecon known as the Jewish dorm? Karen replied that we didn't even own it— she can't say. It was a girls' private school, then a grad dorm; it became an undergrad dorm in the 1980s. Karen feels that because the College had no quota, it's doubtful there was a “Jewish dorm.”

President Thomas was anti-Semitic, as seen in her letters and her 1916 commencement speech—it's surprising she didn't allow students to change rooms if they were unhappy rooming with a Jewish student. Often anti-Semitism, it was explained, is not flagrant. Perhaps a feeling or fear went around that “the Jews will come after us. . . .”

International students were often sought out. Students from Africa and parts of the Caribbean might have been sought out over African-American students. International students were very well-to-do; therefore, it can be seen as a CLASS issue. But it can still be tied to nationality—for not even rich American blacks were allowed in certain places.

There is apparently no record of international students from Africa . South Africa = intellectual elite; Africa = “no propensity toward” intellectualism. So—black Africans were excluded.

In the documentary The Women of Summer , about the Summer Institute for Women Workers (@ BMC), there is a record of greater diversity. But the women who participated were not BMC students; BMC hosted. They came out of the factories of the day (1930s). There was probably not a good deal of interaction—probably the Bryn Mawr students were all away. There was, however, some faculty interaction.

The actions of Henry Cadbury show there wasn't blanket agreement about inclusion/exclusion on campus. Both the passage of time and the changing of the presidency allowed for change to occur.

Who moved toward embracing diversity? It appears the shift began with President Park , then continued with President McBride. However, neither Park nor McBride were ready to lead the charge. Apparently students and faculty talked about it—students thought the time was right. Miss Park said there were lots of stakeholders in this matter. During her time she felt the discussion needed to be carried further—she was not going to bring this (a move toward greater diversity?) to a vote at that time.

Changes did not come because one person was a leader; they came from the pressure of a variety of students, alums, faculty, and the current society.

An interesting message: We can all be a part of change—it doesn't always come from the top.

And the racism wasn't all from her (M. Carey Thomas)—the Tri-Co was even slower to move than Bryn Mawr. Eugenics was widely believed, especially by WASPS and the upper classes.

It was noted that the Rockefeller family (from which Rockefeller dorm takes its name) had a role in Eugenics.

What difference does it make to know this about Bryn Mawr? Is it useful? Karen put together a booklet, which was at one time given to all freshmen for pluralism/customs. When we talk about diversity now, it is important to know that this is not where the College has always been. Probably the students do know—they have a feeling—that people like them were excluded. It is better to know the facts, the history--to undo gossip.

As with many things, progress at Bryn Mawr has been “two steps forward, one step back.”

It was suggested that recent graduate Stephanie Richardson's (?) research on Black Women at Bryn Mawr be added to the research. Karen said that it would be good to direct students to the College's archives (Special Collections in Canaday). There is lots there of interest.

Florence supplied a selected reading list.

How do we continue? One way to leave this: if knowing your history makes a difference, maybe the next conversation you carry with you is what kind of difference does it make? How does it inform what happens today? Maybe that's where this conversation goes from here.

Discussion continues in the on-line forum on "Making Sense of Diversity."  The next Diversity Conversation, on December 2, will be a follow-up discussion about class at Bryn Mawr.

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