Civil Rights and Washington University: a complex history

| Senior Scene Editor

The history of race relations in St. Louis, Mo. may not be as dramatic as that of Jackson, Miss., recently depicted in the film “The Help,” but the home of Washington University has long been a battleground in the struggle for equity and tolerance. Most famously, in 1846 Dred Scott sued for freedom in the Circuit Court of St. Louis; he eventually lost his case before the Supreme Court. Many years later, Missouri, like 16 other states, enforced the segregation of public schools. At that time, the University refused admission to African Americans. Here Student Life reports the story of a university that once unjustly denied education to a tenth of the population but is now recognized as a leader in tolerance.

In many ways, Washington University has proven a more welcoming institution than many of its peers throughout history. Women first attended classes in 1869, and from its early days the University eagerly recruited Jews, unlike other universities, such as Columbia and Yale, which retained staunch anti-Semitic quotas into the 1940s. Even the initial policy toward African-Americans was open at first. In 1875, William Greenleaf Eliot, founder of the University, recorded the admission of a local African-American, but no further proof of this student is extant. At least seven African-Americans graduated between 1881 and 1896. Unfortunately, a slight incident in 1892 involving a secondary school run by the University prohibited further progress. The Post-Dispatch reported, “Some of the teachers said that the presence of colored boys created an objectionable spirit among the other boys.” The University interdicted the admission of African-Americans thereafter.

Integration for all schools waited until 1952 at the cusp of the University’s transition to a national university. Arthur Compton assumed the Chancellorship in 1945, and initially resisted a complete end to exclusive admissions policy. Compton was cautious; he could not afford to lose the support of the community or less liberal members of the board. The NAACP unsuccessfully sued the University in 1945 after four African-Americans were denied admission. The University reiterated its commitment to follow “the policy of the State educational systems as to segregation.” Chancellor Compton cited “local social attitudes” toward integration as a deterrent. He must have been mistaken. After the Second World War, many Americans, even in St. Louis, began to question segregation, which resembled recently defeated fascist policies. In 1946, the University’s chapter of the American Veteran Committee, an organization representing students on the GI Bill, endorsed the admissions of African-Americans. Furthermore, Saint Louis University opened admissions to African-Americans in 1944 without incident, proof that the city could sustain an integrated university.

Progress toward integration began in 1947, when the medical school accidentally accepted an African-American for a course in ophthalmology. The administration decided to permit the mistake to become policy for the medical school, though the change was not publicized. Washington University began a process of partial desegregation later that year. Despite objections from Vice Chancellor Belknap, who favored full integration, the University consulted a foundation specializing in improving race relations to discuss ending segregation gradually. In December 1947, the University announced that African-Americans could apply to the School of Social Work. In 1948, however, Compton again disappointed supporters of integration by expressing dissent to President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education, which recommended an end to “discrimination and its legal counterpart, segregation.” Compton favored progress “within the existing legal framework.”

Student reactions varied during this time. One student opined in Student Life that “Washington University [was] not the place for members of the Negro race.” The newspaper itself supported the decisions of the administration until 1951. In 1949, students formed the Student Committee for the Admission of Negroes (SCAN). SCAN’s greatest accomplishment arrived in May of that year, when a poll of nearly a third of the students indicated that 77 percent supported an end to segregation. Finally, after more years of stonewalling student and community protests, the administration relented. Undergraduate admissions were wholly desegregated on May 9, 1952.

Despite being the last institution in St. Louis to completely desegregate, Washington University remained far from racial equality. Though 10 years ahead of the first African-American matriculants to Ole Miss, dormitories were still segregated. This slowly resolved as Compton faced another great challenge: the University was running out of housing. Previously, students were mostly commuters from the St. Louis area, and many took a streetcar from downtown to the campus. Recent recruitment efforts significantly raised the caliber of students and began to make Washington University a truly national institution. The University began an ambitious project to develop the South 40 for undergraduate housing. With more space and new scholarships available, the University began recruiting African-Americans from inner city and underprivileged areas in 1963, an effort spearheaded by Margaret Dagen. Race relations calmed, and students began protesting the Vietnam War instead.

Other issues remained. In 1968, the Association of Black Collegians occupied Busch Hall for nine days in response to a claim of brutality by University police. Ten years later the University-wide Ad-Hoc Committee on Black Concerns published a manifesto, calling for, among other things, the establishment of a Department of Black Studies. Today, this is the department of African and African-American Studies. In 1989, African-American students and faculty rallied to increase the number of black students and professors and demand better facilities for the Black Student Association. Last year, Shanti Parikh became the first African-American female professor to complete the tenure track at the University.

Complications remain. In 2005, students staged another sit in to protest the wages of minority workers for the University. During the class trip to Chicago in 2009, several black men were turned away from Mother’s Bar. But on the whole, Washington University endorses acceptance of all peoples. In many ways, that is a reflection of the students here as well. The University’s history is important, not because it reflects on current students or administrators, but because it can serve as a model for future decisions. Hopefully, whenever issues of tolerance arise, students can look to Washington University’s struggle to desegregate. There we can learn the value of perseverance and the danger of resisting social justice.

This article is indebted to Rudolph Clay, the writings of Amy Pfeiffenberger, Candace O’Connor, and Ralph Morrow, and various articles from Student Life and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.

Subscribe