May. 28, 2009
Kammen documents early black student life at Cornell in 'Part and Apart'
Historian Carol Kammen faced a special challenge in researching her newest book, "Part and Apart: The Black Experience at Cornell, 1865-1945" -- starting with identifying the African-American students who came to Cornell.
More than 200 black undergraduates and graduate students attended Cornell in the eight decades covered by the book. Since the university was officially color blind, Kammen could not rely on official records.
"First, I had to have a name," she said. "Because the university did not ask for race, there were no documents I could consult."
Alumni records were helpful when available, "and sometimes one student's records gave clues to others from the same time," Kammen said. "It was picky research but exciting, too."
Starting from a partial list of African-American students in the University Library archives, she pieced together the students' history from hundreds of primary sources -- yearbook entries, student diaries, administrators' correspondence and newspapers. Cheryl Rowland, on the Rare and Manuscript Collections staff in Kroch Library, "was able to follow the slightest clues to locate archival materials," Kammen said.
Kammen has wanted to tell their stories since she began teaching at Cornell 24 years ago; she recently retired as a senior lecturer in history.
"The title suited the topic," she said. "They were part of Cornell; they participated in a number of activities. But they were also set apart by their race. If white students were having a party, it is unlikely that African-American students during this early period would be invited."
"Part and Apart" tells how black and white students interacted and how black students fit in by starting their own organizations, forming social structures that emulated white student life.
"Which doesn't mean they also weren't playing on baseball teams or singing in the choir, but they were also forming their own groups," Kammen said. "I think the need to feel real comfort in a group has been important for all sorts of students -- it was true then and is true today."
Robert Harris, professor of African-American history and national historian for Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity -- founded in 1906 at Cornell -- gave Kammen access to the Alpha archive, documenting the nation's first Greek collegiate organization for black students.
"They wanted to replicate the kind of social life they saw around them," Kammen said. "They would not have been invited to join fraternities -- many of them were cooks or assistant cooks in the fraternities."
An index to the book lists the students and the groups they formed.
"In 1890 there was a literary union. After 1900, there was an interracial W.E.B. Dubois reading and discussion group; in 1905-06 Alpha Phi Alpha was created; in 1915 there were students identifying as belonging to the NAACP; and in the late '30s there was the creation of a black sorority and the Booker T. Washington Club."
Kammen's book considers black student life in the context of decades of social and political change, from the post-Civil War era through World War II. The time frame intentionally predates the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.
"I stopped in 1945 because by the time of the Perkins administration, everything changes," she said, referring to James Perkins, Cornell president from 1963-69. "What I wanted to see was what Cornell was doing early on."
Kammen is the Tompkins County Historian; her other books include "First-Person Cornell: Students' Diaries, Letters, Email, and Blogs."
She will sign copies of "Part and Apart" June 6 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Cornell Store, during a Reunion Weekend book signing with 13 faculty members and alumni authors.