Thu 28 Jan 2010
First, an apology for any grammar mistakes and lack of clarity. I had great plans to spend this afternoon revising this piece and the excellent work of the students who wrote this history of Black Williams deserves those revisions (sad note: I had to revise this sentence twice due to grammar mistakes!). Unfortunately, my own work has a deadline and has called me away from this much more fun endeavor.
I engaged the report (available here), written as a winter study in 2003 (the story of that alone is interesting and told in the introduction) in four ways, though only one will be the focus of this write up:
1. As an example of a winter study: Wow. I never did anything like this for winter study. Hats off to all involved for doing something intellectually engaging, but also valuable to the Williams community.
2. As a fellow academic (in other words, with swords sharpened and ready to impale): The lack of citations bothers me a little and I wonder if they should have attempted to first find the narrative arc of Williams and then split up the chapters. Then again, see my above comment. Any critique comes only after acknowledging how superior this work is to 99% (90% whatever, you get the idea) of the stuff submitted for winter study.
3. For lessons to learn: This is a history with which a new president must grapple and must try to move forward.
4. Awkwardly: HA! I know all of the authors as classmates and many as friends. Kind of strange to review this for ephblog knowing what I know about that winter study (shades of Sharifa stressing out while I looked at her thinking “dear god, it’s a freaking winter study!” Guess she was right about making sure this work came together and I was wrong when I thought it was no big deal. Lesson: Sharifa’s always right).
More details below
I focus, obviously due to this CGCL’s mission, on method three. So no more about the quality of the writing or the research, but on larger lessons to be gotten from the text. I find three to be an ideal number, so I’ll start with three:
1. The more things change, the more they don’t: You know all those innovative programs to help students from certain high schools to succeed? The “feeder” concept has long been used for prep schools, but it’s also got a 100 year history with Black Williams:
“Washington, D.C.’s M Street School was a feeder for Williams when it came to black students. Carter Lee Marshall was one who went on to Williams and did very well in life. Graduating as valedictorian of his class at the M Street School, Marshall joined Williams’ class of 1920. He served briefly as a private in the army in 1918, graduated Phi Beta Kappa at Williams, and moved on to Howard University, where he received his M.D. in 1924. He also studied at the University of Vienna and completed a residency in dermatology at Harvard.”
This strategy works, but on the margins. Yes, students from these schools succeed and do great things and these feeder institutions (like M street) often are due to alumni involvement (an earlier Black undergraduate was a student and later teacher there). This is a great model for success in helping some but it works only in small pockets with small numbers. Efficient but limited. Is that what we should strive for?
And I remember this as though it were written about 2002, not 1972:
“Of the changes in the snack bar following the occupation, the institution of a ticket system for ordering and picking up food—still in use today—seems to be the most significant. Many white students felt that the whole incident was overblown; some pointed out that the snack bar’s employees showed a bad attitude towards any student, black or white, particularly during rush hours. They argued that any sensitive person might well feel discriminated against from time to time. However, the administration agreed to set up a grievance committee featuring at least one member of the WAAS.”
Similarly, this quote stood out to me:
“The lone black member of the class of 1934, and the last black graduate of the 1930s at Williams, was Sterling M. Lloyd, younger brother of Rupert A. Lloyd, Jr. At Williams, Lloyd worked in a microbiology lab, played in a local jazz band, and waited tables in a fraternity house. After earning his M.D. at Howard University’s College of Medicine in 1939, Lloyd served his internship at Cleveland City Hospital. He returned to Howard in 1945 and practiced there until 1963, when he began teaching internal medicine at the College of Medicine and lecturing at the university’s School of Social Work. Later in life, Lloyd apparently offered to find minority candidates for administration positions at Williams, but no record of a response to this offer exists.”
A shame if the response was that silence. How much more can the alumni of Williams do to help? There are efforts through Alumni Relations and the Black alumni network, but what more can be done?
2. The history we have is startlingly impressive/underutilized: We know about Gauis Bolin and Sterling Brown, but what about the many other alumni unearthed in this story? How do we institutionalize that knowledge of what Black alumni have done better? I was floored by the successes of these alumni—form getting elementary schools named after them to chairing academic departments of major universities in the 1950s (no small feat) to being appointed ambassadors, to being the only Northern member of the board of the SCLC! And that’s only the alumni who graduated before 1950. For one more recent example, Gordon Davis ’63 was the first Black president of the Lincoln Center for the performing Arts (got his bicentennial award in 1993, btw).
3. For all the complaints, and there are many, there is some joy: In a letter to “Dr. Gus” from a recent Black alum in 1945 (sidenote: how did they find these things?!?):
“During the course of the discussion he mentioned that his youngest brother had a son that had gone to college in the States. When I asked him where he replied “Williams College” no less! Turned out that this chap was Johnny Cracknell’s uncle. He said that Johnny was a Captain of a landing barge in the Royal Navy had seen plenty of action during the invasion of France etc. Was a really big thrill for me as so far I’ve run into damn few Williams men, or even fellows that were at all acquainted with Billtown. We had a quite a discussion over Williams and this chap seemed to know a good bit about the old place—apparently Johnny must be a damn good salesman.”
4. Please, please read about the WAAS office takeover (page 45-47): One tidbit is fascinating:
“Although the members of the WAAS who organized the occupation of Hopkins have been described as militant and inflexible, their actions were nonviolent and were carried out with respect. For instance, after a resolution had been reached, the occupiers asked that they be given more time to leave the building so that they could properly clean up after themselves. Some of the students who had used administrator’s desks left notes thanking them for their use. One student reportedly left money on a desk to pay for the box of crackers he had eaten during the takeover.”
I doubt my dad, when he helped in a similar takeover (over defense related research @ Harvard) was so kind! They also note that the same students fought for coeducation, a remarkable gesture as much of the Black activism of the time was unfortunately very patriarchal.
Ok, I said 3 but you actually got 4. Sorry, the office takeover is too important to leave out. There are many more rich details throughout the document, especially in the post 1970 sections (in 1980, the BSU met with the trustees. How often does that happen now?; In 1985 or 1986, two Black students attempted a citizens arrest on a CIA recruiter visiting campus). I’d guess that the things from 1970 on are more known both due to the larger Black population, the relative recency of those actions, and the upsurge in campus activism sparked by the 1960s, but I do wish we had more from the earlier Black alumni experience.
So what really does a new President learn? Williams isn’t all that different from other schools in terms of the many under-appreciated success of its Black alumni. It has the same racial tensions as anywhere else (often over the practically identical stimuli), and there’s something structural and/or cultural (or both!), either at Williams or in society in general (or both!) that has not changed and leads many Black undergraduates—from the 1910s to the 1930s to the 2000s—to feeling like a lonely outcast. A stronger declaration of this history—its ups and downs—might help undergraduates put their experiences into perspective, gain new allies, and let both black and non-black Williams students skip over some of the tensions that are repeated every couple of years. Perhaps knowing that in the 1980s, white students thought the BSU was unnecessary and unnecessarily hostile will convince current white (and asian and latino) students who feel that way to question whether that’s really the reason they don’t go to BSU events (if they don’t). Maybe knowing that same thing will help spur the BSU to be more active in getting white (and asian and latino) students to feel more engaged and welcome? I refuse to believe this cyclical history warrants pessimism…instead, it is just further proof that each class and each president experiences these moments of growing up/growing a racial consciousness for the first time. Knowing that, in all likelihood, someone will do something racially insensitive in the next two years might help the college respond in a less ad hoc, more effective way. If there’s anything to learn for a president (other than what I’ve already posted), its that the college administration should be building bridges now so when whenever racial tension occurs, they’re better prepared for it.
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