Segregated Student Housing and the Activists Who Defeated It

 

The Early Fight for African American Rights in Minnesota

The number of African Americans in Minnesota nearly doubled between 1900 and 1920 to 9,000, with the majority settling in the Twin Cities. The states from which most African Americans hailed at the end of the 19th century were eastern and midwestern, not southern. It was not until the 1940s that there was a significant increase of the population—to 14,000 people—not even one percent of the state’s residents.

African American migrants to Minnesota had reason to be hopeful about life in a state that was granted statehood in 1858. Its citizens strongly supported the Union during the Civil War. Through the work of a small number of African American activists and their allies in the Republican Party, they achieved an impressive number of civil rights protections. In 1865, the Constitution of the State of Minnesota banned segregation, including in schools. In 1868, African American men received the right to vote when citizens voted for the the equal suffrage amendment to the Minnesota state Constitution, which preceded the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by two years. In 1885, the State Legislature passed the Equal Accommodation Act that threatened fines and imprisonment for those who deprived African Americans of the right to use all public places and hotels. In 1897, the Legislature added saloons to the list of establishments where segregation was unlawful, although the fines that could be levied against violators were decreased.

William D. Green, Degrees of Freedom: The Origins of Civil Rights in Minnesota, 1863-1912., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2015) 88-90.

However, those rights offered African Americans virtually no access to economic and vocational advancement. School integration was never achieved because white parents refused to allow their children to learn in the same classrooms as African American children, and schools for the latter were impoverished. No legislation protected African Americans’ right to live where they wished or their right to employment until the modern Civil Rights era.

William D. Green, Degrees of Freedom: The Origins of Civil Rights in Minnesota,1863-1912,(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2015), 456-459, 464.

Therefore, the reality of African American life in Minnesota was little different from their experience in less progressive states. Employment in the late Nineteenth Century and in the 1920s and beyond reflected national trends. Clustered in domestic and personal services such as barbers, janitors, and servants, not even two percent of African American men and women worked as professionals in fields such as acting, law, the clergy, and medicine. Poverty level wages for workers made home ownership nearly impossible, and the possibility of accumulating any savings or investments was out of reach. Surveys of employers and unions in 1926 revealed that almost 80 percent would not hire an African American employee and unions would not accept them for fear of white workers leaving.

David Vassar Taylor, African Americans in Minnesota, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press 2002), 17-28, 57-63.

Racism took a more pernicious form in the 1920s, when Minnesota counted 100,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan by 1928. In 1920, a mob of thousands of white Minnesotans in Duluth lynched three of the six African American circus workers who were accused without evidence of raping a young woman, as police stood by. The event was met with condemnation by some and hearty support by journalists and police in the region.

https://www.mnhs.org/duluthlynchings/lynchings

The University of Minnesota’s Vision for African American Students in the Early Twentieth Century

A very small number of African American students attended the University of Minnesota beginning in the late Nineteenth Century. Andrew Hilyer was the first man to graduate in 1882. Scottie Primus Davis was the first woman to graduate in 1904. By the end of the 1920s, 39 African American students attended the University as undergraduates and in professional schools. Because the University of Minnesota was founded as a land grant college in 1851, its mission was to serve the people of the State of Minnesota. However, it did not serve all Minnesotans equally.

Young, Gifted and Black: Ninety Years of Experience and Perceptions of African American Students of Minnesota 1882-1972, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota General College Magazine), 1- 5; Steve Trimble,“The Search for Scottie Primus Davis,” Ramsey County History, 56 no 4 (winter 2022): 21-29.

Lotus D. Coffman (1875–1938) served as president of the University from 1920–1938. The state’s population grew rapidly during this time and, anticipating that increase, Coffman wanted the University and the state’s secondary school system to be poised to respond. To that end, he appointed a Committee of Seven in 1924 to explore the issues relevant to education. It was headed by C. W. Boardman, a Minnesota educator.

The Committee spent three years developing their report, based on vital statistics on the state’s population, which included demographic information about parents’ occupations, place of birth, income, and residence, as well as other data. Their final report in 1927, among other things, called for extending opportunities in higher education to students who lived outside of the Twin Cities, who were children of immigrants, or who were from lower social classes. The Committee appeared to champion a vision for equality of opportunity for the children of the State of Minnesota.

However, the authors’ final report manipulated the 1920 census data available to them in their analysis of who was likely to attend the University. The data included in their report, on which they based their recommendations, excluded all citizens of color from the State of Minnesota. Specifically, their analysis left out nearly 9,000 African Americans, which was twice the number of those in the census who were categorized as “other,” and more than many of the immigrant groups who were left in the report’s tables. This “scientifically” produced vision for the 20th Century University of Minnesota simply excluded African Americans and other minorities.

Mark Soderstrom, Weeds in Linneaus’ Garden: Science and Segregation, Eugenics and the Rhetoric of Racism at the University of Minnesota and the Big Ten, 1900-1945, (PhD Dissertation, History Department, University of Minnesota), Chapter One.

The Committee of Seven’s report and President Coffman’s vision of social segregation were rooted in the related ideologies of this period of “race science” and eugenics. These theories were integral to the ideologically driven view of a racial hierarchy and classification system for the world’s population. European and European Americans imagined a “science” that demonstrated their superiority and sought to maintain a “pure” white race. Many sought immigration restrictions from countries in Europe where the populations were Catholic and Jewish, as well as non-white. They also opposed social interactions between whites and non-whites in the United States. These ideas were widespread in much of academic life in this period and permeated social policy.

Erika Lee, America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in The United States, (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 113-120.

Despite these obstacles, a small but growing number of African Americans from inside and outside the State of Minnesota continued to enroll at the University of Minnesota. By the late 1930s, about 70 African American students were on the campus. In that decade, one of the central features of university life—where and with whom students lived—became the center of the fight for racial justice staged by African American students and their allies.

Open Doors-Closed Doors: A Tradition of Segregated Housing at the University of Minnesota

Jewish and African American undergraduate students were accepted at the University of Minnesota without any known quotas on either group, in contrast to many private colleges and universities throughout the country. No African American students were admitted to Southern white colleges from the height of the Jim Crow era between 1890 and 1935 until the 1956 decision by the Supreme Court to integrate schools in Brown v. Board of Education. Segregated African American colleges were necessitated by the 1896 legal precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson. The funding for higher education created by the Morrill Land-Grant of 1890 created educational opportunities for southern African Americans in segregated colleges, which lacked resources but made higher education available. Small numbers of African American students also attended Northern colleges and universities during the late nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century.

file:///Users/prell001/Downloads/hbennett,+Journal+manager,+MUv17n2-2006-07-03_BlackUndergraduates%20(4).pdf

Quotas in Northern universities grew in prominence in the United States in the 1920s. They limited African American (already hindered in educational opportunities) and Catholic students’ enrollments, but they were especially directed toward Jewish students, who were beginning to seek education in private colleges and universities in growing numbers.

Despite the University of Minnesota having no formal quotas for Jewish and African American applicants, administrators found ways to track these groups. Applicants for admission were required to include their race and religion on their forms. Just as the United States passed laws that excluded immigrants deemed “undesirable” from Eastern and Southern Europe, as well as from Japan in 1921 and 1924, most administrators in higher education fought, in one way or another, to exclude or monitor Jews and African Americans.

Marcia Graham Synnott, The Half-Opened Door and Admissions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, 1900-1970, (Westport: Greenwood Press,1979),13.

African American student housing was the most visible expression of the University of Minnesota’s racial discrimination and embrace of social segregation. The battle for racial equality in housing stretched beyond the campus to politics in the Twin Cities, the state and even the nation.

As Jewish and African American enrollments increased, at President Coffman’s insistence his staff began to monitor those students’ small but growing numbers. He also required them to track the numbers of Jewish and African American out-of-state students, as he warily anticipated what he viewed as minorities’ unwelcome desire for on-campus housing. University administrators considered the presence on campus of Jewish and African American students to be a “problem” that required their attention. Within a few years, directors of student unions, including the University of Minnesota, also began monitoring the numbers of Jewish and African American students using their facilities, due to similar anxiety about their social interactions with “regular students.”

Physicals of Negro and Jewish Students

Student Health Services provided physical examinations for all incoming students. At Registrar R. M. West’s request, Dr. Ruth Boynton, who was head of  Health Services, was asked to provide information on the numbers of freshmen Jews and African Americans over three years. President Coffman wanted this information to monitor the growth of minority students, which concerned him.

 

Physicals of Negro and Jewish Students

Student Health Services provided physical examinations for all incoming students. Registrar West requested information  from Dr. Ruth Boynton, head of Health Services, about the enrollments of Jews and African Americans over a three-year period derived from their physicals.   This information went directly to President Coffman, who constantly monitored the number of Jewish and African American students and their housing needs. The monitoring revealed Coffman’s concern about the presence of minority students and anxieties about their growing numbers.

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Tracking Negro and Jewish Students from Out of State

The University Senate monitored, at the request of President Coffman, how many out-of-state students were enrolled at the University who were Jewish or “Negro,” defining both groups as outsiders. By this point, Coffman had already outlawed integrated on-campus housing with the support of the Board of Regents.

Tracking Negro and Jewish Students from Out of State

President Coffman requested the University Senate to track data about students in the mid-1930s. He wanted specifically to track “Negro and Jewish out-of-state students.” These students required on-campus housing, and Coffman opposed integrating taxpayer-funded dorms. New York Jews were a subset  of who was tracked because Coffman believed they were the source of radicalism on campus. This document appears in the Chase files because it was sent to him by someone from the University of Minnesota, most likely Dean Edward Nicholson, who had access to the University Senate minutes. No other person in the University administration with access to Senate minutes appears in the voluminous files of Ray Chase. Chase also was interested in tracking students who were from out of state who were Jewish or African American.

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J.E. Patrick, Student Union Director to G.R. Higgins, U of Minnesota Student Union Manager Regarding “Confidential Survey on ‘colored and Jewish Students.”

J.E. Patrick, who headed Indiana University’s Student Union sent this letter to the University of Minnesota’s student union manager. It included the tabulation of surveys of student unions throughout the country asking about Jewish and African American enrollments, and socializing between whites and African Americans.

J.E. Patrick, Student Union Director to G.R. Higgins, U of Minnesota Student Union Manager Regarding “Confidential Survey on ‘colored and Jewish Students.”

This 1939 letter and the attached survey results reveal how closely student union administrators were monitoring the presence of Jewish students, the number of African American students, and the deep anxiety about social interactions between white and non-white students. The caution to keep the letter “confidential,” is likely related to J.E. Patrick’s concern that student union directors will be considering how to limit “privileges” of African American students to participate in student unions. It appears that Patrick sent the letter to the University of Minnesota’s Mr. Higgins as a response to a query about housing for African Americans.

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Survey Results in 1939 of Student Union Directors Secretly Tracking “Negro” and Jewish Student Enrollments in 36 Universitis

In 1939, the Student Union Director of Indiana University sent to his counterpart at the University of Minnesota the results of a survey taken of 36 universities with regard to Jewish and African American enrollments of men and women. This page includes the University of Minnesota, which was identified as a campus with above a one percent enrollment of African American students.

Survey Results in 1939 of Student Union Directors Secretly Tracking “Negro” and Jewish Student Enrollments in 36 Universitis

In 1939, the Student Union Director of Indiana University sent to his counterpart at the University of Minnesota the results of a survey taken of 36 universities with regard to Jewish and African American enrollments of men and women. They identified those institutions whose enrollments of African Americans had risen above one percent. They viewed any increase in those enrollments as possibly necessitating some control on the “privileges” extended to African American students, which is not spelled out. Student unions were settings where students could mix freely and might have created social contact across races, which was a source of constant anxiety among university administrators.

It is unclear why Jewish students were monitored other than their being categorized as “different.” The University of Minnesota similarly monitored enrollments of both groups.

He asked to keep the source a secret.

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At the same time as the University monitored minority students, it also exerted more control over where any student could live, which culminated in a 1932 policy. The University now required students to live only in housing that met its approval. They could live at home, in a dormitory, in a cooperative housing unit, or in privately owned boarding houses, all vetted by administrators. The University, therefore, played an increasingly important role in controlling students’ lives by deciding what was acceptable housing, ultimately exercising the right to support racially segregated housing.

The case of a boarding house excluding Jewish students is discussed in the essay “Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota.”

President Lotus Coffman was committed to the expansion of the University and the value of a liberal arts education, but segregated housing was central to that vision. In Coffman’s view, a fundamental racial hierarchy in society as well as in the University, was not only necessary but should be built on unique privileges to white students. Until his death in 1938, he argued for the complete social separation of students of different races. Consistent with that view, he supported the right of owners of off-campus housing to exclude minorities beginning at least in the 1920s, and he was the architect of taxpayer-funded segregated housing on campus beginning in 1931.

Lotus D. Coffman

Lotus D. Coffman (1875–1938) served as president of the University from 1922 until his death in 1938. He led the campaign to keep University housing segregated from 1931 to 1937.

Lotus D. Coffman

Lotus Delta Coffman (1875–1938) served as the fifth president of the University from 1920 until his death in 1938. The University of Minnesota grew during his tenure to become the third largest university in the United States. He expanded both the physical plant, and oversaw the growth of the student body and faculty.

Though committed to the liberal arts, Coffman was an ardent supporter of social segregation among the students. African American and Jewish students were admitted in growing numbers during the 1930s, and he used housing as a medium to support a racial hierarchy on campus. He was the architect of segregated, publicly financed student housing. As he expanded opportunities for white students, he carefully monitored the increase in minority students. He envisioned segregated housing for African American male students, which the University created after Coffman’s death. He embraced a form of eugenics in his interest in social segregation.

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Student activists made integrated housing a campus issue from the late 1920s through the 1960s. African American students and their allies who, over the decades, participated in the Negro Student Council, the Progressive Party, the Student NAACP, the Student Farmer-Labor organization, the Civil Rights Committee, and many others worked with the NAACP, the African American press, the Urban League, Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House, Hallie Q Brown Community House, progressive governors, and legislators to force the University of Minnesota to stop racial and religious discrimination. These organizations repeatedly confronted University presidents over this period with demands to end segregated housing, as well as other issues.

Four University of Minnesota presidents responded to the issue of housing, race, and religion over more than two decades. Following Coffman’s support for segregation, President Guy Stanton Ford (1873–1962) ended it in 1937 as acting president. Ford’s policies were reversed, however, by Walter Coffey (1876–1956), who served as president from 1941 to 1945. Coffey formally supporting segregation until 1942, and informal segregation persisted for the remainder of his presidency. James Lewis Morrill (1891-1979) served as president from 1945 until he retired in 1960 and demanded an end to racial and religious segregation in University-approved boarding-houses.

These four presidents, three of whom were born within a few years of one another, all white and all midwestern, took different stands on racial integration in student housing. The fight for and against segregated housing in the decades that stretched from the 1920s to the 1960s reveals that there was never a single consensus on racism and antisemitism during these decades in Minnesota. Rather, the struggle against these rules and attitudes was consistently waged by university presidents and administrators, student activists, African American defense organizations, and governors and legislators. Students never stopped struggling for justice and were supported by many of those in power.

There are few photographs in this section on housing of the African American students who led the struggle to change the University of Minnesota and challenge its racial hierarchy. An African American Greek-letter fraternity and sorority had existed since the 1920s at the University but were never included in the Gopher yearbook. Only a few African American students’ pictures appeared in the yearbook. They were rarely part of campus organizations, which were highly segregated. Their story is told, then, in part, through the names and activities of every African American student activist who appeared in the Minnesota Daily, or the African American press, as well as those names found in the papers of deans and presidents of the University in folders marked “Negro.”

The names stand in for the images that do not exist.

Slamming the Dormitory Doors on African American Students from 1931-1935: John Pinkett Jr., Norman Lyght and Ahwna Fitti, and the Beginnings of President Coffman’s Insistence on Segregated Housing

In October 1931, at the start of his freshman year, John Pinkett, Jr., of Washington D.C., moved into Pioneer Hall, the newly built men’s dormitory. Only a few hours later, President Coffman was notified by housing authorities that an African American student intended to live there. The University president came to the dormitory to speak to John Pinkett. After spending a single night, Mr. Pinkett moved off campus. It was clear that he was asked to leave. The correspondence between Coffman and John Pinkett’s father, and Coffman and L.O. Smith, president of the NAACP, reveals not only outrage over how the student was treated, but surprise at the racism. Coffman’s defense was disturbing for its unapologetic support of segregation. He wrote to the NAACP president who led campaigns for racial equality in the Twin Cities, “the races have never lived together nor have they ever sought to live together.”

Pioneer Hall Publicity Material

A brochure of the first dormitory for men to be built on the campus in 1931. President Lotus Coffman blocked John Pinkett, an African American male student from Washington D.C., from taking his room for which his parents had paid.

Pioneer Hall Publicity Material

This brochure advertised Pioneer Hall, which was to open in 1931 as the first dormitory for male students. It lays out a vision for dormitory life and the virtues it would build for male college students.

Housing segregation was formalized when John Pinkett, Jr., an African American student from Washington D.C, was refused the room in newly-built Pioneer Hall that his parents paid for the first day of his freshman year. Lotus Coffman’s vision for a liberal education explicitly rejected integration.

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John Pinkett Sr. to President Lotus Coffman on his Son’s removal from Pioneer Hall

John Pinkett, Sr., a successful Washington, D.C. businessman, wrote to President Coffman in 1931 to express his outrage after learning that his son was asked to leave Pioneer Hall.

John Pinkett Sr. to President Lotus Coffman on his Son’s removal from Pioneer Hall

John Pinkett, Sr., a successful Washington, D.C. businessman, wrote to President Coffman in 1931 to express his outrage after learning that his son was asked to leave Pioneer Hall.

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L.O. Smith to President Lotus Coffman

Lena Olive Smith, president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP, wrote to President Lotus Coffman to protest the removal of John Pinkett Jr. from Pioneer Hall because he was African American. She notes that the dormitory is tax-payer supported, and condemns the discrimination, labeling it as “unsavory.”

L.O. Smith to President Lotus Coffman

Lena Olive Smith, president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP, wrote to President Lotus Coffman to protest the removal of John Pinkett Jr. from Pioneer Hall because he was African American. She notes that the dormitory is tax-payer supported, and condemns the discrimination, labeling it as “unsavory.”

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President Lotus Coffman, University of Minnesota, Letter to L.O. Smith of the NAACP

President Coffman sent this letter to L.O. (Lena Olive) Smith, president of the Minneapolis NAACP and Minnesota’s first African American woman lawyer, in response to her complaint that John Pinkett, Jr. was removed from Pioneer Hall because he was African American.

President Lotus Coffman, University of Minnesota, Letter to L.O. Smith of the NAACP

President Coffman replied to the letter he received from the head of the Minneapolis NAACP, L.O. (Lena Olive) Smith, condemning his decision to remove a John Pinkett, Jr., an African American student, from Pioneer Hall, the first men’s dormitory. This 1931 letter is Coffman’s first defense of segregated housing, and his distorted insistence that this was what African Americans wanted.

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In 1934, the next student to be barred from campus housing was Norman Lyght. Mr. Lyght arrived at the University from Lutsen, Minnesota, at the height of the Depression, with a federal aid grant that required him to live in a campus dormitory. He was not allowed to spend a single night on campus by the University housing authorities. No one explained to him why he could not stay in the dormitory to which he had been assigned.

Norman Lyght’s story was uncovered in the archive in a report written by undergraduate Warren Grissom, chairman of the Interracial Committee. Grissom, an African American, presented the report about the state of segregated housing to Local 44 of the American Federation of Teachers in 1937 at the invitation of Department of Political Science professor, Benjamin Lippincott.

Warren Grissom Report on Housing

This 1937 report by Warren Grissom documents the University’s refusal to allow African American students to live in on-campus housing.

Warren Grissom Report on Housing

Warren Grissom, an undergraduate student, was invited by Professor Benjamin Lippincott in 1937 to present a report to the American Federation of Teachers, Local 44, which had an on-campus chapter, on the history of segregated student housing at the University of Minnesota. The report is signed by the members of the Interracial Committee, the Negro Student Council, which was formed in 1937, and the Progressive Party, as well as the African American Greek Letter fraternity and sorority.

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W. Gertrude Brown

Miss W. Gertrude Brown (1898–1949), Head Resident of Phyllis Wheatley House, a settlement house that served African Americans on the north side of Minneapolis. She was a major figure of African American life locally and nationally, and called on by the University of Minnesota to house African American students that Lotus Coffman excluded from on-campus housing.

 

W. Gertrude Brown

W. Gertrude Brown (April 20,1888–1949) was the Head Resident of the Phyllis Wheatley House, a settlement house that served African Americans on the north side of Minneapolis for thirteen years from 1924-1937. The settlement house countered racial discrimination and offered job placement, childcare for working mothers, and a gathering place for social justice activism. It was also a setting that fostered women’s leadership.

She was a major figure of African American life locally and nationally, and an international leader in social work and the settlement house movement.

Each time an African American student attempted to move into student housing, Miss Brown was called and asked to find housing for the students. She was on the front line of responding to the University of Minnesota’s racism.

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In 1931 and 1934, when Pinkett and Lyght were barred from Pioneer Hall the University contacted Gertrude Brown (1888–1939), Director of the Phyllis Wheatley House, an African American Settlement House on the north side of Minneapolis. University deans expected her to find housing for these and other African American students that the University refused to accommodate. The Wheatley House provided social services and meeting rooms for African American organizations, and housed college students and visiting luminaries who were excluded through segregation from living on campus or staying in local hotels.

Howard Jacob Karger, “Phyllis Wheatley House: A History of the Minneapolis Black Settlement House, 1924 to 1940,” Phylon. 47, No.1 (1st Qtr.,1986),79-90.

In 1933, Ahwna Fiti, the third African American woman admitted to the School of Nursing, attempted to move into the newly built Nurses Residence Hall (later Powell Hall), where all students were required to live. She was barred from moving into the dormitory by the key enforcers of segregated housing. They mobilized immediately to demand that Ms. Fiti find other housing. However, President Coffman then received competing opinions about the matter.

Elias P. Lyon (1867–1937), Dean of the Medical School, took exception to removing Ms. Fiti. He demanded that President Coffman respect the professionalism of the nursing program that required students to live together, and he reminded the president that as dean he had initially opposed integrating the School of Nursing. However, he could see no excuse for segregation if African American women were admitted to the nursing program.

For a discussion of the integration of the School of Nursing see Ann Juergens, “Lena Olive Smith: A Civil Rights Pioneer,” William Mitchell Law Review. 397 (2001): 433-435.

During the previous year, nursing students had lived together in a University cottage that was racially integrated. Now, Dean of Women Anne Blitz argued that nursing student housing had to be segregated.

President Coffman rejected Dean Lyon’s demand. Fiti was turned out of her home.

Dean Lyon Supports Integrating Nurses Hall to President Coffman

Letter from Dean Elias P. Lyon to President Lotus D. Coffman urging him not to force an African American nursing student to leave the Nurses Hall because of her race.

Dean Lyon Supports Integrating Nurses Hall to President Coffman

Letter from Medical School Dean Elias P. Lyon to President Lotus D. Coffman urging him not to force an African American nursing student from Nurses Hall, despite the insistence of the Dean of Women and other members of Coffman’s staff. Lyon rejected the segregation of the residence.

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William Middlebrook to Lotus Coffman Opposing Integrating Nurses Hall

Comptroller William Middlebrook’s letter to President Coffman expressed fear that integrating this dormitory could set a precedent for undergraduate housing.

William Middlebrook to Lotus Coffman Opposing Integrating Nurses Hall

Comptroller William Middlebrook wrote to President Coffman in opposition to integrated housing for the nursing program at the University of Minnesota. President Coffman sided with Middlebrook and against Medical School Dean Elias Lyon. Middlebrook proposed paying Ms. Fiti, the nursing student, to live elsewhere. Coffman did not agree. Middlebrook argued that allowing any African American student to live in any student housing would create racial integration, which he opposed.

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Montage of Nurses Hall

This 1936 Gopher yearbook page on the School of Nursing focuses exclusively on white women and emphasizes the nurses as feminized and only partially as medical professionals.

Montage of Nurses Hall

This 1936 Gopher yearbook page on the School of Nursing at the University of Minnesota reveals some of the reasons that the administration would not allow integration of the newly built Nurses’ house. Half of the montage is focuses on nurses as feminine rather than as professionals. They were expected to learn to pour tea and to socialize by a fireplace and on a terrace. These expectations were clearly not thought of as the norm for African American women.

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The University’s stand on segregated housing in the early 1930s mirrored a notorious example of white neighbors attempting to force out a young African American family that purchased a home in South Minneapolis. In 1931, Arthur Lee, a WWI veteran and postal worker and his wife Edith moved into their new home during the summer. They were confronted by mobs of white people, sometimes numbering 3,000, who threatened them and demanded that they leave. They were supported by civil rights attorney Lena Olive Smith, who just a few weeks later would write to President Coffman to protest his treatment of John Pinkett at Pioneer Hall.

https://eastsidefreedomlibrary.org/the-arthur-edith-lee-family-story/; Mapping Prejudice: Visualizing the Hidden Histories of Race and Privilege in the Built Environment” documents the history of restrictive housing covenants in Minneapolis and St. Paul that enforced segregated housing. https://mappingprejudice.umn.edu/

The Student Fight to Open the Doors, 1931-1935

Student groups at the University of Minnesota organized opposition to discrimination against African Americans at least as early as the 1920s. Activists drew on well-established traditions in the Twin Cities where African Americans were anything but passive in the face of racism. Their leadership was central through the social, religious, and defense organizations that they built.

Community groups such as settlement houses in Minneapolis and St. Paul played important roles in creating social, economic, and political networks. Similarly, NAACP chapters were established in St. Paul in 1913 and in Minneapolis in 1914 to combat discrimination. The Urban League, founded in the 1920s, focused very effectively on creating job opportunities for African Americans, as well as taking on other forms of discrimination.

One of the first examples of the fight for African American student rights appeared in the Minnesota Daily in June 1930. The Biracial Committee of the campus YMCA and YWCA surveyed limits on African American students. The Daily headline declared the existence of race prejudice, which they found in neighborhood restaurants that would not serve African Americans, the total lack of housing, and even classroom treatment by some professors. They called for change.

“Race Prejudice Exists at U”

The Minnesota Daily in June of 1929 announced the Report of the Biracial Committee of the YMCA and the YWCA. It reported that prejudice against African American students was pervasive.

“Race Prejudice Exists at U”

In 1929, the University of Minnesota YMCA and YWCA conducted a study on racial discrimination on campus. Though the committee undertaking the study refused to draw conclusions, the data and stories they collected draw a damning picture of life on campus for African Americans, who were often held to higher standards in classes, discriminated against in nearby restaurants, and afforded poor and segregated accommodations in housing. The report is one of the earliest surveys of racial discrimination on the campus.

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The expulsions of African American students from dormitories in the years that followed this report had a strong effect on students. Even before the Negro Student Council was founded in 1937, African American students challenged these policies, serving on committees of the All-University Council, and the YMCA and YWCA.

Students Officially Challenge President Coffman’s Policy on Segregated Student Housing, 1934-1935

The Minneapolis Spokesman, the popular African American newspaper, reported on November 30, 1934, based on a Minnesota Daily story, that Lee Loevinger, the student chair of the Board of Publications, charged that the University would “not allow Negroes to live in Pioneer Hall.” He introduced a resolution at the regular meeting of the All-University Council on November 16, 1934, to end discrimination against minority groups. He called on the University to assure that “all citizens including those of all races, be admitted to the same official University privileges.” Dean of Student Affairs Edward Nicholson moved to “table the resolution.” Both men withdrew their measures, and the “Council president was instructed to appoint a committee of three to investigate the charges.”

“Student Leader Hits ‘U’ Racial Discrimination,” Minneapolis Spokesman,Nov. 30, 1934. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025247/1934-11-30/ed-1/

Six months later, in May of 1935, the All-University Council Committee on Negro Discrimination submitted its report. The committee was chaired by Howard Kahn, a progressive white Jewish student, and included Arnold Walker, an African American graduate student and leader, and Robert Loevinger, also a progressive white Jewish student.The report requested that one African American student be admitted to Pioneer Hall as a resident. The request was supported by eight carefully argued pages which laid out the legal, educational, and moral rationales for equality in housing for African American students. The report cited Minnesota statutes and common law that outlawed both inequality in education and the failure to provide accommodations for minorities. It described the experiences of other universities that were queried by the committee about racially integrated dormitories. The committee reported on the experiences of the University of Chicago, University of Wisconsin, and Dartmouth College, where no problems resulted from racially integrated dormitories. In fact, the report called on the University of Minnesota to take moral leadership to foster mutual understanding of one another for the good of both groups.

The report also detailed the harm to African American students with no access to on-campus housing. The authors surveyed the 24 non-resident undergraduate and graduate students of the 49 enrolled African American students. Most of these students lived well beyond the campus neighborhood, requiring lengthy commutes, which often made it impossible for them to work in the evenings. The report authors also took a house-by-house poll of the 62 University-approved boarding houses available to students. Fifty-eight of these residences would not accept African Americans.

Kahn, Walker and Loevinger noted in their report that they met with President Coffman before they began their research to learn his view of segregated housing and how to change this policy. President Coffman informed them that “the best interests of both Negro and whites are served by Negroes’ residing elsewhere than at the official dormitories.” Coffman also explained that change would only occur if “conditions alter materially enough to cause the President to change his mind.” Coffman further insisted that “the University cannot force white students to live with Negroes.” Finally, they were informed by President Coffman that “the policy of the University is subject to change at any time the President may see fit. There are no administrative rules on the matter.” President Coffman clearly and unambiguously situated his power and authority in the decision to segregate student housing.

Report of Council Committee on Negro Discrimination

This eight-page document created by the All University Council on Negro Discrimination laid out the rationale for integrating housing and requested that one “Negro male” be admitted to Pioneer Hall. It was sent to President Coffman, who with the support of the Regents, rejected it.

Report of Council Committee on Negro Discrimination

This remarkable eight-page report was produced by an integrated group of undergraduate and graduate students as members of a committee of the student government, the All-University Council’s Committee on Negro Discrimination. It was sent to President Coffman in 1935 with the request that one African American male student be admitted to the dormitory. The authors covered legal rights for integration. They queried colleges and universities throughout the United States about integrated student housing. They spoke to students on the campus. It represented an impressive effort and commitment to the racial integration of student housing.

President Coffman and the Regents rejected their request on the grounds that it was not good for white and “Negro” students to live together.

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President Coffman Firmly Established Racially Segregated Housing in 1935 as an Accepted Norm of University of Minnesota Life with the Support of the Board of Regents

Lotus Coffman formalized his four-year campaign to segregate taxpayer-funded student housing with exclusively white residents in response to the first organized student response to that segregation. The All-University Council called on President Coffman to integrate Pioneer Hall in 1935. For the first time, the President requested that the Board of Regents support his policy, and its members voted unanimously to do so at their meeting on July 31, 1935. They affirmed two of Coffman’s central ideas. The first was that the “administration exercised discretion and final judgement as to where students should reside.” The second was that “the housing of Negro students at Pioneer Hall would not be conducive to their best interests nor the interests of other students residing there.”

University of Minnesota Board of Regents. (1935). Minutes: Board of Regents Meeting and Committee Meetings: July 31, 1935. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, https://hdl.handle.net/11299/45471. https://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/45471

President Coffman wrote to the student government in August 1935 to inform its president, Theodore Christianson of the decision. The letter provided the prevailing rationale for denying all African American students the right to live in university housing until 1938, when Acting President Guy Stanton Ford changed the policy.

President Coffman asserted that segregated housing was essential to the University of Minnesota and did not constitute discrimination. Coffman not only claimed that racially segregated housing served both white and African American students best—he insisted that only white students were entitled to live in campus housing paid for by Minnesota taxpayers.

President Lotus Coffman to All-University Council President Theodore Christianson Rejecting the call for integrated dorms.

President Coffman’s letter to the All University Council’s Committee on Negro Discrimination rejected the request for integrated housing.

President Lotus Coffman to All-University Council President Theodore Christianson Rejecting the call for integrated dorms.

President Lotus Coffman sent this reply to the All-University Council’s Committee on Negro Discrimination in response to its eight page report calling on the president to allow one African American male student to integrate Pioneer Hall. The document laid out the legal arguments for integration, and demonstrated that a growing number of colleges and universities in the north had integrated housing. Coffman rejected their suggestion on behalf of the Board of Regents, and acknowledged that there were issues around housing. Secretly, members of his administration were laying the groundwork to create segregated housing for African American males.

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President Coffman Secretly Plans for Racially Segregated Housing

Lotus Coffman’s response to the All-University Council Committee on Negro Discrimination report included his admission that there was a problem, and that was the lack of adequate housing for some students. Coffman asserted that the Regents hoped to address the deficiency as quickly as possible, “including for Negro students.”

African Americans in the Twin Cities monitored what happened on the campus through the press. The Minneapolis Spokesman editorialized that the University and President Coffman needed to learn lessons in fair play and tolerance from students. The article termed the decision by President Coffman and the Board of Regents to maintain segregation as a “disgrace and a blot on this commonwealth’s fair name.” The concluding line of the article noted that “Lotus D. Coffman was never the same since visiting Tuskegee Institute several years ago.” It was a prescient observation as Mr. Coffman was already formulating a plan for segregated men’s dormitories.

“Students Give Lessons to Teachers”article in the Minneapolis Spokesman about Segregated Housing

The Minneapolis Spokesman article, “Students Give Lessons,” appeared on October 25, 1935 to protest President Coffman’s support for segregated housing on campus.

“Students Give Lessons to Teachers”article in the Minneapolis Spokesman about Segregated Housing

The Minneapolis Spokesman article, “Students Give Lessons,” appeared on October 25, 1935 to criticize President Coffman’s support for segregated housing on campus, and to praise the work of students who led the fight for integrated housing.

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The Committee on Negro Discrimination’s case for the University’s legal responsibility to provide accommodations for African American students was clearly not lost on the President or the Board of Regents. Without making explicit what type of housing he had in mind for African American students in 1935, several documents in the archive reveal how his plan began to take shape.

University Comptroller William Middlebrook, who was one of the key enforcers of segregated housing on campus, pursued an option for housing for “negro (uncapitalized) men students” with Housing Director Catherine McBeath. Middlebrook characterized the need for housing for African American students as an “insistent demand from certain quarters,” rather than simply the need for student housing. Middlebrook and Coffman sought to turn an available building near campus into “housing for six negro (uncapitalized) men.” While other Big Ten universities at that time excluded African Americans from dormitories, or had no student housing, only southern universities enforced racial segregation as the ideal solution. Coffman’s dream of segregated housing for African American students would be realized and immediately challenged in 1942, several years after his death.

Discussion of the history of President Coffman’s ideas for using an “International House” for segregated housing for African American men appears in the Report on the Taskforce for Building Names and Institutional History pp 22-24.
William Middlebrook to Mrs. McBeath Requesting Information About Segregated Housing for Negro Men

This letter is an early inquiry into whether a University-owned property could be used to create a segregated residence for African American men by Comptroller William Middlebrook to the head of housing.

William Middlebrook to Mrs. McBeath Requesting Information About Segregated Housing for Negro Men

Throughout the 1930s, President Coffman sought a “solution” to the “problem” of housing African American male students. This 1936 letter from Comptroller Middlebrook, who oversaw housing for the University, to Catherine McBeath, who managed housing, reveals Coffman’s preferred solution. In this letter, Middlebrook inquired about the availability of a University-owned property to house “Negro men.” He advocated “Jim Crow,” or segregated housing, a vision that was finally realized after his death in 1941, when the University created the “International House.” That segregated housing unit led to massive protests and the final end of campus segregation.

 

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President Coffman alluded to this plan for segregated housing again in a letter to Roy Wilkins (1901-1981), one of the University’s most important alumni. Wilkins would ultimately head the national NAACP and was an American Civil Rights leader for more than fifty years. Mr. Wilkins wrote to President Coffman in 1936 to express his shock that African Americans were being excluded from dormitories.

Coffman’s response was repeatedly dishonest, particularly when he wrote that “the local leaders of the Negro race apparently have preferred that separate living quarters be provided, and they have undertaken to provide them on their own account.” He added, “However, the University now has a building of its own in which Negro students who are not members of the fraternity or sorority may live.”

The NAACP’s opposition to segregating Pioneer Hall, protests in the African American press, and the 1935 demand for integrating the dormitory all reveal Coffman’s lie about African American support for segregation. However, his claim that a building existed where African American students may live likely references the correspondence with Mrs. McBeath. However, the property on Beacon Street S.E. provided no such housing when this letter was written or thereafter. That Coffman also insisted to Mr. Wilkins that no policy existed barring integrated dorms and that he believed no problem would exist if they were integrated was precisely the opposite of every stand he had taken and continued to take until his death.

Lotus D. Coffman to Roy Wilkins

President Coffman’s letter responds to Roy Wilkins’ concern about housing discrimination directed at African American students.

Lotus D. Coffman to Roy Wilkins

President Coffman’s letter to Roy Wilkins, already a prominent Civil Rights activist in the NAACP and an alum of the University of Minnesota, responded to Wilkins’ concern about African American students being asked to leave student housing. It contained a remarkable number of lies. Coffman repeated, without any proof, that John Pinkett, Jr. was sent by an organization to integrate the dorm. He claimed, without embarrassment, that a building would be used for African American student residences, which did not occur while he was president. He insisted that African Americans themselves sought to live separately. Coffman was so committed to segregation that he twisted facts to fit his purpose.

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Excluding African American Women Students from Campus Housing, 1936-37

With Lotus Coffman’s plan firmly in place for white-only dormitories, exclusion of African American students persisted. Young African Americans from out-of-state and outside the Twin Cities found themselves barred from moving into another form of student housing, cooperative cottages.

In 1936, incoming students Audrey L. Beatrize of Cyrana Lodge, Turtle River, Minnesota, and Elizabeth Murphy of Baltimore, Maryland, looked forward to their first homes at the University in the cooperative cottages, located on Beacon Street on the East Bank of the campus. They planned to join other women students in sharing meals, some cooking responsibilities, and common spaces.

When Housing Director Catherine McBeath learned that these young women, accompanied by their mothers, were African Americans, she informed them that they had to find other housing because of “University policy.” She had the full support of Dean of Women Anne Blitz, who vigorously supported segregated student housing. Once again, Gertrude Brown was contacted at Phyllis Wheatley House to find these students housing away from campus with African American families.

Dean Anne Blitz as an Enforcer of Segregated Housing

Dean Blitz’s zeal for segregation was striking. Shortly after Elizabeth Murphy and her mother were notified that there was no “home” for Elizabeth at the University of Minnesota, Blitz received a letter from the Dean of Women at Howard University, Lucy Diggs Slowe. Howard University is a historically Black college and was segregated when she wrote to Dean Blitz to ask her to be certain to look after Elizabeth, the daughter of a very close friend.

This correspondence between Dean Anne Blitz of the University of Minnesota and Dean Lucy Slowe of Howard University was one more occasion for Dean Blitz to reiterate the University of Minnesota’s commitment to segregated housing. Further, Dean Blitz insisted that housing segregation was an economic necessity, which revealed the administration’s fear that white students would not live in a dormitory that was racially integrated.

When Dean Blitz genially wondered in her response if Dean Slowe would attend their next gathering of Deans of Women in New Orleans, Dean Slowe had to point out to her that she would not be allowed on an elevator in the hotel where they were gathering because she was an African American. Slowe declined to attend.

These three letters reveal the very different assumptions held by these two Deans of Women. African American Lucy Slowe was shocked that the University of Minnesota, a northern university, would create segregated housing. Dean Blitz assumed, without embarrassment, that the races should be segregated in the United States, whether it is in a dormitory or a hotel.

Lucy Slowe letter to Anne Blitz Regarding Student Housing

Dean Lucy Slowe Diggs of Howard University requests help for her friend’s daughter to find housing.

Lucy Slowe letter to Anne Blitz Regarding Student Housing

Dean Lucy Slowe Diggs of Howard University requested help from the University of Minnesota’s Dean of Women, Anne Blitz, to help her close friend’s daughter find housing. She was to learn that Dean Blitz would not help because the incoming freshman woman was African American

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Anne Blitz to Lucy Slowe Responding to Query

Dean of Women Anne Blitz replied to Dean Lucy Slowe’s 1936 inquiry about her friend’s daughter who would be attending the University of Minnesota, to explain that there was no housing for “Negro students.”

Anne Blitz to Lucy Slowe Responding to Query

Dean of Women Anne Blitz replied to Dean Lucy Slowe’s inquiry about Elizabeth Murphy, her friend’s daughter who would be attending the University of Minnesota in 1936. Dean Blitz explained that there was no campus housing for “Negro students.” Blitz suggests that the cause of segregation was economic, because  white students would not stay in dormitories. In fact, Ms. Murphy was barred from moving into student housing by what was in effect a policy of segregation.

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Lucy Diggs Slowe Reply to Anne Blitz Regarding Students

Dean Slowe wrote to Dean Blitz about her shock and disappointment that African American students were not allowed to live in on-campus housing as a policy of the University of Minnesota.

Lucy Diggs Slowe Reply to Anne Blitz Regarding Students

Dean Slowe’s letter responds to a double injury of racism. First, she expresses her disappointment and amazement that a large public northern University would discriminate against African American students by excluding them from on-campus housing. Despite various administrators’ insistence that there was no “policy” excluding African American students from housing, Dean Blitz insisted there was.

The second indignity that Dean Slowe mentioned was that for her to attend a national gathering of deans of women in New Orleans she would be forced to use a freight elevator and would not be able to dine in the dining room. Dean Blitz seemed oblivious to students’ and the dean’s experience of racism.

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Dean Lucy Diggs Slowe

Lucy Diggs Slowe (1885–1937) was the Dean of Women at Howard University from 1922–1937. She was the first African American to serve as a Dean of Women in the United States, and corresponded about segregated housing with Dean Blitz.

Dean Lucy Diggs Slowe

Lucy Diggs Slowe (1885–1937) became the Dean of Women at Howard University in 1922, and the first African American woman to hold the position of Dean of Women in the United States. She was a tennis champion, the first African American to win the title national title of the American Tennis  Association.

She wrote to the University of Minnesota Dean of Women, Anne Blitz, in order to ask her to find housing for the daughter of a close friend, who was African American. Her correspondence with Dean Blitz is an important statement of how racial segregation worked at the University of Minnesota and in the lives of a Dean of Women at an Historically Black College.

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Dean Anne Dudley Blitz

Anne Blitz (1881–1951) served as Dean of Women at the University of Minnesota from 1923–1949. She was strongly committed to racially segregated student housing.

Dean Anne Dudley Blitz

Dean Anne Blitz was Dean of Women at the University of Minnesota from 1923–1949, following two years as Dean of Women at the University of Kansas from 1921-1923. She was strongly committed to racially segregated student housing because she feared informal social interaction between white students and students of color. Her position did not change until 1938 when President Guy Stanton Ford outlawed excluding African American students from on-campus housing. Dean Blitz also worked closely with Dean Edward Nicholson to limit student freedom in political participation on campus.

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African American Students and their Allies Expand the Fight for Housing, and Realize their First Victory, 1937-38

The more President Coffman, his staff, and those who oversaw housing insisted on segregation, the more effectively and tirelessly African American students and their allies fought to defeat them.

In November of 1936, African American students founded the Negro Student Council (also called the Council of Negro Students), according to a Minneapolis Spokesman  article published on December 4, 1936. The newspaper reported that 35 students attended the second meeting, which was held in University of Minnesota Union. Arnold Walker, who was initially a temporary chair, announced that the group had been recognized by deans from Student Affairs (Nicholson, McCleery and Blitz) after meeting with students Walker, Nellie Dodson and John Brooks. They selected students to form committees that included “Housing,” “Discrimination,” “Student Alliance,” and “Forum Groups.” Their Discrimination Committee was to meet with leaders in the African American community, which included the Urban League, the Wheatley House, and St. Paul’s Hallie Q. Brown Community House. Like most other student organizations of the era, the group also anticipated committees for Dad’s Day and Homecoming.  The nearly 20 students listed in the report on the Negro Student Council is one of the best and only sources for finding the names of African Americans attending the University of Minnesota. Their names appear in the article.

Formation of the Negro Student Council is Announced by the Minneapolis Spokesman

The Minneapolis Spokesman announced the formation of the University of Minnesota’s Negro Student Council, its officers and student members.

Formation of the Negro Student Council is Announced by the Minneapolis Spokesman

The Minneapolis Spokesman announced
the formation of the University of
Minnesota’s Negro Student Council, its
officers and student members. It offers one
of the best descriptions of African
American students activists at the
University available. The group’s
committees, including housing, indicate
concerns of the students. The fact that the
Spokesman featured the event on the front
page reveals the strong ties between
leaders and students in the African
American communities of St. Paul and
Minneapolis.

 

Formation of the Negro
Student Council is Announced
by the Minneapolis
Spokesman

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The Negro Student Council became a crucial political organization, whose members led the fight to open the dormitories to all students, regardless of race. It also provided support and connection for all African American students. Arnold Walker, the first president of the Council of Negro Students, served on the committee of the All-University Council that proposed integrating Pioneer Hall. He was followed as president by Martha Wright.

One of the only accounts of the Council of Negro Students appeared in a semi-fictional story in the University Literary Review in 1937. Charlotte Crump was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota from 1935-1939. She studied to be a journalist, was active in campus politics, and was a founder of the Council of Negro Students. In the Literary Review, a supplement of the Minnesota Daily, Ms. Crump wrote, in the form of a series of letters to her older sister, an account of her experiences as an African American student “at a big Northern University.” In “This Free North,” her story, she described in detail how she and other African American students felt marginalized by the “ocean” of white students. She relayed how she was treated at a campus area clothing store, where she and a friend could not get a salesperson to wait on them, the long wait simply to pay for what she bought, and how salespeople ridiculed them. She also described the near impossibility of African American students finding on-campus housing, as well as her long commute to the only housing available to her. She concluded her story with the formation of the Negro Student Council (which actually happened in 1936). She wrote to her sister,

“At last we have our so desperately needed permanent organization of all the Negro students on the campus.

It’s really a fine thing. It’s going to give us a basis on which to work, a foundation on which to build. Now we can stand on equal footing with all the other groups and ask for what we want knowing that at least we have the consent of 70 in 14,000.

It gives us a kind of timid pride to know that now we are the Council of Negro Students of the University, and not just a handful of socially suppressed cliques with no common interests except our mutual exclusion from what some call “the brighter side” of college life.”

“This Free North” was subsequently published in Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, which was the magazine of the Urban League, Vol 15 (September 1937) pp 271-272, 285.

The appearance of ‘This Free North” led Dean of Women Blitz to ask Charlotte Crump to meet with her. In her request to meet, Blitz complained that Ms. Crump had not discussed matters with her in advance so that she would avoid “misstatements” in her story.

There is no record of whether they met. Crump’s story was remarkably accurate about housing, according to all other sources. Blitz was clearly unnerved by an African American student explaining what happened when her friends were not allowed to move into campus cottages to which they had been admitted.

“This Free North” in University Literary Review

Published in 1937, this semi-fictional story describes life on campus for an African American student, and includes incidents when African American students were not allowed to move into campus housing. It ends with the formation of the Negro Student Council. It appears in the Literary Review of the Minnesota Daily.

“This Free North” in University Literary Review

In this semi-fictionalized account of real events published in the Literary Review of the Minnesota Daily, Charlotte Crump reflects on her disillusionment with university life in a northern city, in particular the intolerance of white college students she encountered, who she associates with the frigid cold of the Minnesota winter. Written as a series of letters to her sister, “Marsh,” Crump recalls the struggle to organize African American students on campus and to address issues of discrimination on campus, namely the problem of segregated housing. She concludes with the formation of the Negro Student Council and the students’ pride in creating their own organization to represent their interests.

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Charlotte Crump Poole

Charlotte Crump (1918–1990) was an important activist at the University of Minnesota who led the effort to integrate student housing and campus life.

 

Charlotte Crump Poole

Charlotte Crump (1918–1990) was an important activist at the University of Minnesota. She entered the University in 1935 and appeared on the cover of Opportunity Magazine, a publication of the Urban League, as a freshman. She was a founder of the Negro Student Council in 1937, where she worked for the integration of dormitories and cooperative cottages on campus. Crump’s story “This Free North” appeared in the literary supplement of the Minnesota Daily, and it was singled out by the African American newspaper, the Minneapolis Spokesman, for its impact on the campus. She was the first African American to serve on the Minnesota Gopher yearbook and graduated in 1939. In 1939, she ran for the All-University Council.

She later became a journalist at the Pittsburgh Courier, worked at the national office of the NAACP in Washington, D.C., and moved to San Francisco where she founded the Jack and Jill Clubs.

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Arnold Walker also coordinated the efforts of the Negro Student Council to integrate taxpayer-funded student housing with the African American communities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. This 1937 Minneapolis Spokesman article quotes Walker’s call to mobilize citizens to write to Governor Elmer Benson and elected officials about the appointment of members of the Board of Regents. Recalling that in 1935 the Regents had supported segregation, the strategy involved lobbying legislators, who elected the regents, to support integration.

“Student Council to Fight Race Bias”

The February 19, 1937 Minneapolis Spokesman called on members of the African American community to oppose segregated student housing on campus.

“Student Council to Fight Race Bias”

In 1937, the Negro Student Council at the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Spokesman urged readers to telegram Governor Benson in support of fighting racial segregation and discrimination on campus. Led by Arnold Walker, the initiative hoped to dispel President Coffman’s theory that Twin Cities residents and students were “perfectly satisfied” with current conditions.

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The Council of Negro Students also formed important relationships with other student groups and members of the University faculty, who were committed to stopping racial segregation in student housing. These political alliances are revealed in a January 21, 1938 “Memorandum” on the “housing situation” for African American students written by undergraduate Warren Grissom and other students at the request of Professor Benjamin Lippincott, a distinguished member of the Department of Political Science. Lippincott chaired Local 44 of the American Federation of Teachers, which was a union-like organization for university faculty. The student signers of the memorandum list their affiliations as the “Interracial Committee,” “Racial Equality Committee,” “Progressive Party,” “Negro Student Council,” and the local chapters of the national African American Greek-letter men’s fraternity (Alpha Phi Alpha) and women’s Greek-letter sorority (Alpha Kappa Alpha).

Not only does the Memorandum, which may be found in its entirety above, provide information about the experiences of African American students and housing which appears in few other written sources, it also reveals the growing numbers of groups and interested constituents committed to bringing about change. These documents counter the assertions of those in power at the University that African Americans did not want on-campus housing. They also reveal the leadership of this work by African American students.

Warren Grisom attended a meeting of the Negro Student Council held at the Sterling Club a few days prior to his presentation to Local 44 of the AFT. The Minneapolis Spokesman noted that he “presented the case” regarding housing there, and “was assured of full support of the Council in an effort to once and for all settle the issue of the Dormitory at the University.” The article also noted “that the Administration refuses to allow the matter a proper presentation before the Board of Regents, while on the other hand issuing statements that there is no discrimination at the University and that Negro students prefer not to live in the dormitories.”

“Speaker Blames U Administration. Teachers hear of Race Students Housing Bar” Minneapolis Spokesman, January 21. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025247/1938-01-21/ed-1/seq-1/; The Sterling Club, founded in 1919, describes itself as the “USA’s oldest Afro-American’s Men’s Club” near the intersection of Dale and Rondo. http://thesterlingclub.org/oral-history/

Another measure of the success of student opposition to segregated housing is apparent in what may be the first letter to appear in the Minnesota Daily challenging President Coffman and his policy. Student Gordon Brooks wrote an “open letter” to President Coffman that was published on February 5, 1937, as a Letter to the Editor (“Over the Back Fence”). This letter reveals that African American student rights in general, including the right to live on campus, were of growing concern to all students.

Brooks took the president to task for his treatment of a “Negro student” at a student forum the previous day. When the un-named student (Arnold Walker, according to the Minneapolis Spokesman) inquired of the president if he was unaware that two students were denied lodging the previous fall, Brooks noted that Coffman “pointed at the student and silenced him.” “I am here,” Brooks noted the president intoned, “to speak on the significance of social matters as applied to the University and nothing else.” Garth wrote, “Do you mean to imply Mr. Coffman that the discrimination which is shown against the Negro on this campus is not socially significant?” Brooks used the remainder of his “open letter” to castigate the president for his insistence that thorough investigations were required to learn not only if African American students wanted on-campus housing, but if it would be beneficial.

The first letter to the Minnesota Daily Regarding housing discrimination

This 1937 letter to the Minnesota Daily may be the the first time discrimination against African American students in on-campus housing was published. Gordon Brooks wrote an “open letter” to President Coffman castigating him for refusing to answer a question about why two African American women students were not allowed to live in student housing

The first letter to the Minnesota Daily Regarding housing discrimination

This 1937 letter to the Minnesota Daily may be the the first time discrimination against African American students in on-campus housing was published. Gordon Brooks wrote an “open letter” to President Coffman castigating him for refusing to answer a question from a “Negro student,” who asked why two African American women students were not allowed to live in student housing. Brooks criticized President Coffman for not only refusing to answer, but for claiming that the purpose of the forum was to discuss “social issues,” which did not include racial segregation.

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Guy Stanton Ford Ended Segregated Campus Housing from 1937-1941

Guy Stanton Ford assumed leadership of the University due to President Coffman’s illness in 1937, and subsequent death on September 22, 1938. In the fall semester, another effort was made to integrate the cooperative cottages when Audrey Beatrize, an African American undergraduate who had been barred from moving into her assigned room the previous fall, was invited by another student activist to move into an open room in the cottage where she lived. Housing Director McBeath demanded that the residents vote on whether Beatrize could move in, which had no precedent. The young women voted 60–44 against admitting her. The majority of those who voted would not have even shared living space with Ms. Beatrize.

The vote to exclude an African American student from student housing gave Acting President Ford the opportunity to stop segregation. In a letter to Comptroller William Middlebrook, he directed the immediate opening of campus housing to any student who was a resident of the State of Minnesota, regardless of race. Ms. Beatrize was to be admitted to the cooperative cottage.

President Guy Stanton Ford

Guy Stanton Ford (1873–1962) was the sixth president of the University of Minnesota from 1938–1941. He served as the first Dean of the Graduate School and chair of the Department of History. He reversed Coffman’s policy on racially segregated student housing.

President Guy Stanton Ford

Guy Stanton Ford (1873–1962) was the sixth president of the University of Minnesota from October of 1938–1941. He served as the first Dean of the Graduate School and chair of the Department of History. President Ford overturned racial segregation in publicly financed student housing immediately upon assuming the acting presidency because of President Coffman’s illness. He played a critical role in bringing the William Schaper case to the Board of Regents. Schaper had been fired by the Regents as insufficiently pro-war in 1917. Not only did the Regents overturn the decision, but they also adopted a code of Academic Freedom for faculty that President Ford initiated. He transformed the University of Minnesota.

Because of his age, Ford was required to retire in 1941 and became Executive Secretary of the American Historical Association.

 

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Acting President Ford sent a copy of this letter to the Minnesota Daily upon the request of the editor, Jay Richter. In it, he laid out his rationale for the new policy, and his outrage at segregation at the University of Minnesota. Ford chose to publish the article in the student newspaper to make sure that his commitment to integration would not be undermined by those who worked with President Coffman to maintain segregation, such as those in the Housing Office and others in his administration.

Ford also noted that he did not expect the Board of Regents to object to integration, and there is no record of the Regents voting on this matter again. President, Ford was able to act independently. He wrote:

“I could not conceive of the responsible officer of this state University supported by all classes taking discriminatory action based on creed, or color, or political faith. Our classrooms are freely open to any qualified student who conforms to the purposes and procedures of an institution of higher learning. The same policy applies to our other facilities.”

“U Policy Permits Negroes to Use Housing Units”

Acting President Guy Stanton Ford submits to the Minnesota Daily the letter he sent to Comptroller Middlebrook stating the reversal in policy of racially segregated campus housing.

“U Policy Permits Negroes to Use Housing Units”

Guy Stanton Ford (Acting President of the University of Minnesota) submits a letter addressed to comptroller William Middlebrook to the Minnesota Daily on the subject of racially-segregated housing on campus. In the letter, Ford affirms that African American residents in Minnesota would be free to utilize housing and dormitory facilities on campus. The letter was submitted in response to recent controversies when African American students had been rejected from university-run accommodations. This statement reversed President Coffman’s policy in support of segregated housing. It appeared in the Minnesota Daily, in part, to make the statement as widely public as possible. Ford notes that he does not believe that he will need to consult the Board of Regents.

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“Dean Ford Ends Housing Ban”

This Minneapolis Spokesman article is an important record of the African American students who led the fight to integrate student housing and succeeded.

“Dean Ford Ends Housing Ban”

William R. Simms triumphantly reports on Dean Guy Stanton Ford’s decision to allow integrated student housing on the University of Minnesota campus in the Minneapolis Spokesman, which covered the struggle for integration from its founding in 1934. Simms quotes at length from the Minnesota Daily‘s coverage of the issue, whose editor, Jay Richter, published an editorial criticizing the administration for its policies of segregation. Simms also acknowledges the importance of other campus figures who contributed to the new policy, including noting the importance of Charlotte Crump’s “This Free North” story that appeared in the campus literary magazine.

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The Minneapolis Spokesman reported the long-awaited end of segregated housing on campus:

“The successful culmination of the long fight against the University’s discrimination policy on housing Negro students in its various housing units was seen as a result of the statement made by the Minnesota Daily on Tuesday of this week by Dean Guy Stanton Ford, acting president in the absence of President Coffman. In a drastic reversal of what had formerly been an “unwritten policy,” Dean Ford gave the Minnesota Daily a copy of a letter dated December 20th, 1937 and addressed to William T. Middlebrook, comptroller.

Organizations and individuals alike who never gave up the fight in the face of little or no advantage gained are to be commended. Especially noteworthy was the unprecedented action of Warren Grissom and Beatrice Schuck, respectively representing the Negro Student Council and the Hallie Q. Brown Forum, in carrying the issue to the Minnesota Branch of the American Federation of Teachers and eventually to Governor Benson.

Among those individuals who helped bring the matter to a climax were Charlotte Crump, whose “Free North” did much to set the campus thinking on the race issue and intolerance in general. Arnold Walker who single handed carried the fight two years ago: Helene Hilyer, John F. Thomas, and numerous white students.

Outstanding among organizations who have put their shoulder to the wheel in the interest of tolerance and fair play are the National Students’ Union, the Farmer-Labor Party, and the Negro Student Council.”

Helene Hilyer Hale

Helene Hilyer’s 1939 graduation picture is included among the graduates from the School of Education. The Minneapolis Spokesman lists her as an activist for the integration of student housing.

Helene Hilyer Hale

Helene Hilyer (1918-2013) was the granddaughter of the first African American male graduate of the University of Minnesota. She attended the university as an undergrad from 1934 to 1938—this graduation picture is included among the graduates from the School of Education. Her activities included membership in the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha for African American women. The remainder of her activities focused on peace activism. The Minneapolis Spokesman lists her as an activist for the integration of student housing.

Hilyer earned her master’s degree in 1941, but was unable to find a job teaching in Minnesota because no one would hire African Americans. She moved to New York and ultimately Hawaii where she held elected offices and was active in the Democratic Party.

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As triumphant as President Ford’s commitment to integrated housing was, there were clearly undercurrents of opposition. A file buried at the back of a file cabinet at the University of Minnesota’s Student Union revealed a correspondence between Indiana University’s Director of the Student Union and the University of Minnesota’s Student Union manager noted above. It appears that Minnesota’s Mr. Higgins was inquiring about segregated students housing and the accommodation of African American students. He learned that not a single northern or eastern university had segregated housing. Neither that norm, nor President Ford’s position, stopped University of Minnesota administrators from continuing to attempt to keep Pioneer Hall a white’s-only dormitory.

The 1939 Survey of Northern and Eastern Universities Reveals No Segregated Dormitories

Information about segregated housing was requested by the Manager of the University of Minnesota’s Student Union in 1939 from a Director of the Indiana University Student Union who had been involved with creating the survey . It reveals that no segregated housing existed in the universities surveyed. Though segregated student housing had been outlawed by President Guy Stanton Ford, some administrators continued to seek ways to keep dormitories only for whites.

The 1939 Survey of Northern and Eastern Universities Reveals No Segregated Dormitories

Information about segregated housing was requested by the Manager of the University of Minnesota’s Student Union in 1939. The information came from a survey of universities secretly undertaken by heads of students unions. It revealed that no segregated housing existed in the universities surveyed. Though segregated student housing had been outlawed by President Guy Stanton Ford, some administrators continued to seek ways to keep dormitories only for whites. The inquiry from the University of Minnesota suggests the question was still alive.

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President Walter Coffey Created a Jim Crow House for African American Male Students During WWII. The Largest Mobilization Against Campus Racism Followed

Walter Coffey became President of the University of Minnesota in 1941 on the eve of WWII, following President Ford’s mandatory retirement because of his age. He quickly undermined President Ford’s policy of integrated student housing. His staff, including Comptroller William Middlebrook and adviser Malcolm Willey, created a segregated “International House” in 1941 on 623 Washington Avenue SE, in a building owned by the University.

Walter Coffey

President Walter Coffey (1876–1956) served as president of the University of Minnesota from 1941 to 1945.  He supported the creation of the International House, whose purpose was to segregate African American male students.

Walter Coffey

President Walter C. Coffey (1876–1956) was president of the University of Minnesota from 1941–1945. He was introduced to students in the 1942 Gopher yearbook. President Coffey noted in the Gopher yearbook feature about him that the only drawback to his job was that he “met too many old people and too few students.” Coffey supported the creation of the International House in 1942, a misnamed residence that was to exclusively house African American men in order to keep dormitories segregated. Despite major campus upheaval, he refused to ever meet, or to allow his staff to meet, with students over the months of protest about his support for segregated housing. Although he agreed to integrate the house after meeting with representatives of the NAACP, he continued to work with his staff to ensure that African American men would not be allowed into Pioneer Hall.

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International in name only, it was NOT for international students, but for African American men. President Coffman had formulated this idea in the early 1930s. Several committees studied its feasibility and student interest. However, it was never built because the cost was viewed as prohibitive. While international houses were part of the landscape of higher education in this period to foster good relationships between foreign and American students, Lotus Coffman’s agenda was different. Beginning in 1931, he viewed the International House as a residence for housing African American male students to keep them out of other dormitories that would serve whites only.

After President Ford outlawed segregated dormitories, discussion of an international house disappeared. President Coffey, aided by the same administrators who had worked closely with Coffman on segregating housing, including William Middlebrook and Malcolm Willey, J. C. Poucher and V.H. Mohns, all aided the new scheme to create a residence exclusively for African American men students. Their commitment to University-segregated housing was, from their perspective, necessitated by the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House ending housing for African American students in 1942.

Report of the Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History

Garland Kyle, an African American graduate student in mathematics, approached the housing office about finding a suitable residence that was less expensive than a dormitory. V.H. Mohns, who headed Pioneer Hall and managed some of the business of University housing, began a discussion with him about a residence for international students, as well as African Americans. Kyle expressed interest in what he understood would be an integrated house of white, African American and foreign students. Kyle was never informed that the only residents allowed in the house would be African American. The University updated the property for $6,000.00 ($100,000.00 in current dollars) and anticipated students moving in during the spring term.

Kyle’s original roommate, who was African American, decided not to move in, and he was subsequently joined by a white student as a roommate. Other white students, as well as Japanese American students awaiting admission to the University during the period of Japanese American citizens’ internment, wanted to join them. Some applied and were rejected for being white. Some students simply moved in. When Mohns was informed a white student was living in the house, he shut it down and locked out the residents. The University agreed to sacrifice their $6,000 investment to avoid integrated housing.

Mohns, among others, claimed certain “facts” about what led to the closing of what was typically referred to as the Washington property. He insisted that Kyle had agreed to a segregated residence, which Kyle denied. Kyle’s view was supported by a crucial office memorandum written by Coffey’s assistant, Malcolm Willey on March 24, 1942. It recounted a meeting between Willey and Judge Edward Foote Waite (1860-1958). Retired by then, Judge Waite lived a life in public service, including twenty years of presiding over juvenile court. For twenty years following his retirement, he continued to work to overcome “racial prejudice” and racial segregation in the public schools. He joined the board of the Urban League just as the conflict over the Washington Avenue house came to light.

https://www.mnopedia.org/person/waite-edward-foote-1860-1958

Judge Waite contacted Willey about the house on Washington Avenue. He had met with Garland Kyle and another African American student and learned with alarm about the University’s insistence that only “negro” (Willey never capitalized the word) students would be residents. He explicitly asked Willey if a Japanese or Chinese student would be able to live in the house. With striking dishonesty, Willey explained that was not possible since there were “adequate rooms for them on the campus.” He provided no evidence of that, and most boarding houses in the area excluded Asian-American students from housing.

When Judge Waite commended the University for having an African American student living in Pioneer Hall, Willey made no effort to correct that point. Moses Blackwell, the student to whom he referred, was being pressured to move into the segregated house on Washington Avenue. The student demanded that housing services write to his father to inform him that Blackwell had no other place to live, and that was why he was being asked to move. It is unclear if Blackwell moved into the house. He was never listed as a resident.

Vern Mohns Memo for President Coffey. Administration. Alphabetical. Negro, 1939-1942 (Box 20, folder 21). P 69. University of Minnesota Libraries. UMedia Archive; Vernes Mohns to Coffey, memo, 24 March 1942. Administration. Alphabetical. Negro 1939-1942 (Box 20, Folder 21): page 67. University of Minnesota Libraries. UMedia Archive. P 67. It is worthy of note that Mohns spied for Dean Edward Nicholson on at least one left-wing student group meeting and his report is found in Chase papers. This is detailed in the essay on Political Surveillance of the University.

Willey’s memo reveals that the University had no intention of creating an “international house.” Rather, the sole purpose of the house was to segregate African American male students, and to keep all other dormitories white. “The Statement of Facts” also affirmed that reality. It simply misstated the assent of African American residents.

Statement of Facts Regarding International Boarding House

The University’s claim about why it closed its segregated International House was based on unconvincing “facts” contained in an unsigned “Report on the Facts” provided to the Dean of Student Affairs.

Statement of Facts Regarding International Boarding House

The University’s claim about why it closed its segregated International House was based on unconvincing “facts” contained in an unsigned “Report on the Facts” provided to the Dean of Student Affairs. The agreed-upon fact was that Garland Kyle, a graduate student in Mathematics who was African American, sought housing through the University in the Fall of 1941. Another African-American student did as well. They were invited by Housing Services to move into a cooperative house at 624 Washington Avenue SE, refurbished by the University for over $6,000. Garland Kyle moved into the house in the winter quarter of 1942. He was joined by Harry Andre, a white student. Garland Kyle never agreed to the “fact” that this house would serve only African American men, nor did his roommate Benjamin Solomon, who ultimately did not move in.

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“Statements Issued in Housing Dispute”

In this Daily article, Garland Kyle and Harry Andre explained that they had never agreed to live in a segregated house created by the University of Minnesota.

“Statements Issued in Housing Dispute”

Minnesota Daily article detailing the charge against the University administration for racial discrimination in student housing, particularly for closing a cooperative house, misleadingly named International House. Students protested  that the house was closed specifically because the administration had decided that it existed “strictly for Negroes,” in order to maintain racially segregated tax-payer funded housing. The residents never consented to lived in a racially segregated house.

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“Negro Discrimination on Campus Charged”

The Minnesota Daily continued to cover the unfolding story of the segregated International House by interviewing students who were not allowed to move into the house who were white.

“Negro Discrimination on Campus Charged”

This report in the Minnesota Daily recounts instances of racial discrimination in University of Minnesota student housing. Garland Kyle, an African American graduate student, recounts an instance when a white student was compelled to move out of International House to maintain policies of segregation. Representatives for the NAACP argue that the strongest influence on the administration’s decision to reverse these policies would be widespread student protest.

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“Negroes Protest Discrimination,” A Letter Regarding the International House

In this April 9, 1942 letter in the Minnesota Daily, African American students laid out the injury created by segregation, and their demand for change.

“Negroes Protest Discrimination,” A Letter Regarding the International House

African American students published an “Open Letter to the Gentlemen in the Administration” in the Minnesota Daily, protesting the University administration’s policy of discrimination and the closing of the International House because students integrated it. By this point, the Negro Student Council appears to no longer be functioning.

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Unprecedented Mobilization–Calling Out Segregation in Wartime

A student uprising followed. If the fight to integrate housing in 1935 involved a few dozen students, the fight in 1942 involved over a thousand students. With the United States at war to fight for democracy in Europe, this blatant racism was noted by the activists on and off campus. Within a short time, African American students on campus acted together to protest the University’s insistence that the International House remain segregated.

“U Students Hear Protest” Regarding Segregated International House

The Minneapolis Spokesman reported on editor Cecil Newman’s remarks at a protest meeting in the student union regarding the International House.

“U Students Hear Protest” Regarding Segregated International House

Betty Alexander writes in the Minneapolis Spokesman about a meeting at Coffman Union organized to protest the creation of an “International House,” whose purpose was to provide segregated housing for African American male students. This segregated house appeared to reverse the 1938 decision to stop racial segregation s at the University of Minnesota. Alexander references a speech made by Cecil Newman, editor of the Spokesman, who applauded Acting President Guy Stanton Ford for a decision that was “based on the finest convictions of American democracy.” He compared Hitler’s theories to the promotion of segregation in the United States. He noted that rights for African Americans was the true test of American democracy for which a war was being fought.

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The Minnesota Daily reported in detail over many weeks on the events related to the University closing the International House because it was integrated, and Garland Kyle, the graduate student and resident in the house, became one of the most important leaders of the protest.

The Civil Rights Committee, an integrated group of student activists chaired by Leonard Lecht, campaigned to expose and defeat the segregated housing on campus as well. This group held its regular meetings at the Washington Avenue House, as Mohns noted with disapproval. He also noted that white members of the group applied to room there as well.

Along with many other campus organizations, the Civil Rights Committee pressured President Coffey to make a public statement on whether the University of Minnesota supported segregated housing. Its members would not back down from demanding the statement, and no member of the Coffey administration responded to the demand.

These activists built alliances with multiple student groups on campus, collected 1,200 signatures on a petition opposing segregation, organized rallies, and demanded that all student political parties with candidates running for election to the All-University Council take a stand on segregated housing. The majority of the All-University Council voted to clarify the housing policy but rejected supporting integration.

A “Committee of Six” emerged to support the student activists that included representatives of the NAACP chapters in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Minnesota Branch, and the American Federation of Teachers Local 44.

The Civil Rights Committee organized an April protest at Coffman Union where over 100 people rallied and heard from Garland Kyle and Cecil Newman, editor of the African American newspapers the Spokesman and St. Paul Recorder. The Minneapolis Spokesman offered the fullest account of the event.

Letters, post cards, and petitions from the Twin Cities and nationally poured into the University to condemn segregated housing. The letter writing campaign revealed that activists on and off campus were effectively mobilizing a variety of allies. These letters were addressed to President Coffey and took a variety of approaches to the problem of segregated housing.

They came from the Chicago Negro History Study Club, the University of Minnesota Hillel, the Central States Cooperative Movement, the Youth Committee for Democracy, based in New York City, the Minnesota State Federation of Teachers, the Jewish Anti-Defamation Council, Minnesota Representative Mabeth Paige, who served in the Minnesota House from 1923-1945, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Some letters and petitions compared on-campus segregation to Nazi policies, and others wrote about the importance of “tolerance” and ending prejudice for the future. They all described segregation on-campus as an intolerable and unacceptable position.

“Letters Protesting Segregated Housing”

These letters from throughout the United States were sent to President Coffey to protest the University of Minnesota’s policy of segregated student housing. They were part of an effective organized campaign by activists in the African American community and their allies in the fight for equality.

“Letters Protesting Segregated Housing”

These letters from throughout the United States were sent to University President Walter Coffey to protest the segregation of African American men in the International House. They come from a range of organizations that were committed to equality for African Americans and their struggle for civil rights, including teacher and social worker unions. One letter from the Jewish Community Relations Council is early evidence of support by the newly formed organization to combat antisemitism for an African American effort to integrate housing.

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The segregated International House prompted letters to the Minnesota Daily and Minneapolis newspapers, as well as national news coverage. Harold Field, an alumnus of the University of Minnesota, wrote with outrage to the Daily about the International House as he anticipated being drafted to fight in WWII in the coming days.

Letter to the Editor, Minnesota Daily, by Alumnus Harold Field Responding to Segregated Student Housing

A letter from alumnus Harold Field opposing discrimination in segregated housing in regard to the creation of housing exclusively for African American men.

Letter to the Editor, Minnesota Daily, by Alumnus Harold Field Responding to Segregated Student Housing

Alumnus Harold Field writes a letter to the editor, appearing in the Minnesota Daily on April 24, 1942. As a draftee, Field argues that by urging him to sacrifice for democracy, the University administration should also commit itself to the reversal of its policies of racial discrimination. He responded to campus protests against the creation of the “International House, whose purpose was to to provide segregated housing for African American male students.

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President W. C. Coffey Refused to Meet with or Reply to Students or Faculty About the Jim Crow House Until Organized Resistance Finally Succeeded

President Coffey remained silent throughout the weeks and months of protests and also forbade his staff to speak to others. He was invited by the on-campus Civil Rights Committee to meet with its members at the Phyllis Wheatley House, the Settlement House serving African Americans in Minneapolis, on April 24, 1942. The integrated group of student activists had strong ties in the African American community. Seven student groups, including the All-University Council, the Fabian Club, the Student Civil Rights League, the Student Social Workers Association, the Hillel Foundation, the Progressive Party, and the Northrop Club issued another invitation to President Coffey to speak at a meeting on May 6, 1942, at Coffman Memorial Union. He refused to attend either meeting.

It was not until the summer of 1942, and only after continued pressure from the NAACP and its allies, that President Coffey relented, met with two representatives of the Committee of Six and assured them that the University of Minnesota would end segregated housing. These two Minnesota Daily articles chart the President’s refusal to meet with students about University segregated student housing.

“Coffey Will Not Address Groups on Discrimination”

This May 7, 1942 Minnesota Daily article reports President Coffey’s refusal to address the topic of discrimination and student housing with students.

“Coffey Will Not Address Groups on Discrimination”

This article in the Minnesota Daily reports President Coffey’s refusal to address, or allow other administrators to address, representatives of campus organizations on the topic of discrimination and student housing. Despite the cancellation, the student committee on civil rights held a forum at the Student Union and seven campus groups agreed to pursue official action on the question. Students heard from graduate student Garland Kyle, who lived in the house and helped to lead the protest, and Cecil Newman, editor of the Minneapolis Spokesman.

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“Student Protest Rally is Today” in Minnesota Daily about Segregated Housing

An April 14, 1942 Minnesota Daily report on a large student protest objecting to the creation of a segregated “International House” for African American men.

“Student Protest Rally is Today” in Minnesota Daily about Segregated Housing

The Minnesota Daily reports on a large student protest organized to pressure the University administration into making a declaration on student rights and housing. President Coffey refused to make a statement on the closing of the International House when white students moved into a segregated house exclusively for African American men, or “the Negro problem,” despite a petition with over 1,000 student signatures calling for his reversal of longstanding discrimination policies on campus.

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Cecil Newman

Cecil Newman (1903–1976) founded the Minneapolis Spokesman and the St. Paul Recorder in 1934. He was a crucial leader in the civil rights struggle in Minneapolis.

Cecil Newman

Cecil Newman (1903–1976) was an American civic leader and founded the Minneapolis Spokesman and the St. Paul Recorder in 1934. Though a high school degree was his highest schooling, Newman was well-read—in 1965, Allen University in South Carolina awarded him an honorary law degree.

He was a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters that successfully fought against segregation in the 1930s and the 1940s. He was a crucial leader in the civil rights struggle in Minneapolis, and president of the Minneapolis Urban League in 1948. He was part of a new generation of Civil Rights leaders, who came out of the labor movement and brought about significant change after WWII.

His leadership of the local African American press was critical to the success of the decade-long struggle to end segregated housing at the University of Minnesota.

 

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The small size of the African American community had consistently made political effectiveness challenging. In the 1930s, however, a new generation of leadership emerged from the labor movement that gave rise to a different and more effective type of political activism. African American activists such as Nellie Stone Johnson, Cecil Newman, and Anthony Cassius built on their union work with the Pullman Porters and hospitality industry to create a strong political movement for African American rights grounded in their own independent organizations. Alliances with the Farmer-Labor and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Parties were important to realizing a broader national commitment to civil rights. During the struggle for racial integration in housing at the University of Minnesota in 1942, this growing strength was already apparent.

Jennifer Delton, “Labor, Politics, and African Identity in Minneapolis, 1930-1950,” Minnesota History. 57, no.8 (Winter 2001-2002):419-434.

The University Betrayed Its Commitment to the Principle of Integrated Student Housing

President Coffey promised R. A. Skinner and Rev. C. T. R. Nelson, leaders of the Citizens’ Committee, (also called the Committee of Six) that the University would integrate the International House.

“Coffey U Prexy Reverses Stand”

President Coffey finally agreed to integrate an on-campus house. This victory was reported by the Minneapolis Spokesman on July 31, 1934.

“Coffey U Prexy Reverses Stand”

The Minneapolis Spokesman reported that President Coffey agreed to a new housing project which would be open “to any qualified student who wanted to room there.” His decision came after intense pressure from on-campus activists and off-campus organizations when the International House closed because it had been integrated by students. The only record of his decision appeared in this July 31, 1934 issue of the Minneapolis Spokesman, which recounted a meeting between Coffey and the only two people whom he ever agreed to see: R.A. Skinner, President of the Minneapolis NAACP, and Reverend C.T.R. Nelson.

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President Walter Coffey to Heads of Citizens’ Committee Promising the Integration of the International House

President Coffey promised that the University would integrate the International House in this 1942 letter to the heads of the Citizens’ Committee. His administration continued policies to maintain Pioneer Hall as an all-white male dormitory.

President Walter Coffey to Heads of Citizens’ Committee Promising the Integration of the International House

President Coffey appeared to relent to the demands of students and community activists who opposed segregated housing for African American men. After refusing to meet with any of those involved in the protests, he finally agreed in the summer. He promised the co-chairs of the committee to change the policy that the International House would be integrated, but within weeks, his administration was working to devise a plan by which no African American student would live in Pioneer Hall and all of them would be directed to the former International House on Washington Avenue SE.

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However, at the same time Skinner and Nelson received these assurances the president’s staff had been hard at work a few weeks earlier proposing ways to undermine the integration of all other student housing. The staff and President Coffey were particularly committed to avoid making any public statement that either supported integrated housing or denied the University’s commitment to it. Coffey’s assistant Dean Malcolm Willey wrote an “office memorandum” about the future of student housing. He met with five other administrators to put the plan into action. Their goal was to maintain, as much as it was possible, Pioneer Hall as an exclusively white male residence hall.

“Willey’s Confidential Statement to Coffey”

Dean Willey’s confidential statement on the controversy surrounding segregated housing, written for President Coffey to use as “running notes” in his meeting with the Board of Regents in July, 1942. In the statement, Willey lays out a calculated strategy to reopen the International House while drawing the “least possible public attention.”

“Willey’s Confidential Statement to Coffey”

In June, 1942, Dean Malcolm Willey drafted a confidential statement on the International House and the growing controversy regarding the University of Minnesota’s policy of segregated student housing. Willey suggests the ejection of a white student from the house was “misinterpreted” by local community and rights organizations as an act of segregation, and he mounts a defense of President Coffey’s refusal to make a public statement on the issue.

The document ends with a series of considerations and he proposes that the University reopen the International House as a calculated means of both diverting any public attention from the matter and discouraging African American students from applying for residency in Pioneer Hall. Willey’s goal was to avoid the University of Minnesota making a statement of support for integrated housing or taking a public stand against it. Willey intended that Coffey read the statement as a set of “running notes” in the July meeting with the Board of Regents, and adds that “no vote of any kind” is called for, as the President had been authorized to take his own decision on the matter.

Coffey appears to agree with the statement and its suggestions, writing “Good” on the memo’s cover page.

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Willey’s plan required newly appointed Dean of Student Affairs Edmund Williamson to meet individually with every African American student who applied to live in Pioneer Hall in the fall of 1942 to counsel him to move into the International House, which was now renamed the Washington Avenue Student House. If the student insisted on living in Pioneer Hall, then Dean Williams would advise him of the rules he would be required to live by. This condescending admonition suggested that African American students were less willing to follow rules than white students.

However, the memo revealed that Dean Willey also advised the president that African American students could no longer be “kept out” of a dormitory. This reluctant conclusion suggested both how deeply the administration clung to the importance of segregation, and the lack of legal or moral support for it by 1942. Administrators actively feared an endorsement of integrated housing, and memos reveal their ongoing anxiety about African American and white students socializing together in dormitories more than a decade after President Coffman’s racist declaration that segregation was “healthy” for White and “Negro” students.

Into the Post War Years

By 1942, the University of Minnesota was one of the last Big Ten schools to still have segregated housing. While campus housing was at last integrated (in principle), boarding houses approved by the University continued to discriminate against Jews and African Americans. In the war years, householders could also refuse foreign and Japanese American students. A University of Minnesota oral history project included an interview with Professor David Cooperman (1927–1998) of the Department of Sociology and a founding faculty member of Jewish Studies. Cooperman was a graduate student and teaching assistant at the University in the 1950s, and a member of the on-campus Student NAACP.

Cooperman recalled that in 1948 or 1949 student activists demanded that the University reject boarding house segregation. He recounted, “Black students discovered that Dean Williamson’s housing office was noting on cards any communication from a landlord, ‘No Negroes accepted in this house.’ We went to Dean Williamson and said, ‘This is discrimination.'” Cooperman recalled Dean Williamson’s response to the students in his office when he boomed, “You’re absolutely stupid! This isn’t discrimination, and so long as I’m Dean of Students, we’re going to make these notations.” Professor Cooperman explained that the Student NAACP appealed directly to President James Lewis Morrill (1891–1979), President of the University of Minnesota from 1945 to 1960, who stopped the policy. Cooperman added that Dean Williamson became an advocate in favor of the rights of minority students in just the next few years.

Interview with David Cooperman by Clarke A. Chambers July 30, 1984, pp 28-29. https://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/47858. Digital Conservancy of the University of Minnesota Libraries.
Boarding House Preference Negro, Jew

As late as 1950, the University of Minnesota approved boarding houses for student residences right to restrict student renters by race, religion, and foreign birth.

Boarding House Preference Negro, Jew

Boarding houses had to be approved by the University of Minnesota for students to reside there. Householders who ran boarding houses were allowed to submit to the University of Minnesota preference cards indicating types of students who they would not accept. Jews and “Negroes” were the first two categories. By the 1940s, they also included foreigners and Asians. This document summarizes the boarding house preference cards by neighborhood and groups excluded. The University Senate collected this information and finally called on the University to reject the practice in 1954, in part due to the activism of the Student NAACP on campus.

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Yet, one other presidential directive to integrate student housing was foiled because the policy did not change until 1954, when exclusion of African Americans, Jews, and Asian Americans was finally stopped by the University Senate.

Conclusion

The history of the University of Minnesota’s policies on the exclusion of students from University housing by race and religion is a story of the persistence of racism and antisemitism, enforced by administrators who often ignored directives of presidents of the institution. These hundreds of documents and newspaper reports still provide an incomplete story, not only of the persistence of a racial hierarchy, but of the indignities and pain suffered by generations of students. The fight at the University of Minnesota to open the housing doors to all students came later than to most private and public universities in the north and remains a legacy of both racism and the courageous activism of students and their allies to fight it.