Oct. 23, 2009

Historian: Early black students were 'part and apart' at CU

Cornell's motto, "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study," led many African Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s to pursue college degrees here, said Tompkins County Historian Carol Kammen in a talk Oct. 15 at the Africana Studies and Research Center.

Kammen, a visiting scholar who has taught Cornell history for 25 years and studied letters, diaries, student records, newspapers and photographs of black students at Cornell, is the author of "Part and Apart: The Black Experience at Cornell, 1865-1945" (2009). She also discussed how African-Americans experienced Cornell early in its history, how they put together their lives here and some of the difficulties they faced while in attendance.

Although there are no statistics on how many black students actually attended Cornell in the late 1800s, she said, "Cornell was the only major institution in 1886 to which a male and female African-American could apply and go together," she said, such as Charles Cook and Jane Datcher, cousins from Washington, D.C.

"They came here because our charter says 'every person' -- which meant African-Americans could come," said Kammen, adding that she could not find any evidence of prejudice at Cornell at that time. She pointed to several examples of early photographs that depicted black and white students comfortably together on campus.

Since most black students were not included in traditional white student organizations, they formed their own, she said, such as a literary union in the 1890s and a debate club in the 1900s, inspired by the writings of W.E.B. Dubois.

Another prominent organization that began in the early 1900s at Cornell was Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African-American fraternity in the United States. It was started in part as a result of Dubois' Niagara Movement, which was based on the idea that individuals had the responsibility to know about current problems and to try to solve them.

The fraternity, which originally started as a discussion group, also created a sense of community for black students at Cornell, and they used their off-campus meeting site as a place to socialize as well, Kammen said.

She pointed out, however, that in the 1920s and 30s, social acceptance of blacks at Cornell as well at other universities started to wane as racial prejudice and tension toward them were rising across the United States.

Black women in particular began to have a hard time at Cornell, she noted, especially when Dean of Women R. Louise Fitch would no longer allow them to live in campus dorms in the 1920s.

In the 1930s, due to the depression and the fact that people just didn't have money, along with a number of other factors, the enrollment at many universities began to decline, and so did the enrollment of black students at Cornell.

Even in sports, racial tensions flared -- during football seasons during the early 1940s, alumni communicated with the director of athletics hoping that the football coach would not field its black athletes.

By 1945, there were very few black students at Cornell.

The event was part of the 40th anniversary celebration of Africana studies at Cornell.

Graduate student Marcus Walter is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.