Black History Month: Notable moments leading up to the Black Manifesto

| Senior Editor

Four years ago, Student Life published “Invisible on Campus,” a five-part series focusing on the fight for Black undergraduate representation and inclusion at Washington University, both historically and in the present day. The series depicts the struggles faced by the University’s Black population, including both former and present undergraduates and faculty. The publication of the first Black Manifesto in 1968, examined in detail in “Invisible on Campus,” marked a turning point for Black members of the University community.

This Black History Month, it’s time to take another look. The fight for equality of Black members of the Wash. U. community has come a long way since the University’s founding, but by no means is it finished. As February comes to a close, let’s take a look at Wash. U.’s history in this two-part series, examining a detailed, yet non-comprehensive list of key moments in the Black history of the University before and after the publication of the Black Manifesto.

The identity of the first Black student at Wash. U. is not known with certainty, but is thought to have been Hale G. Parker in the 1870s; the first to receive a degree from the University was Walter Moran Former in 1889. Both studied at the School of Law.

This extreme time gap of over a decade indicates the University’s position on race in the 19th century—though Black students could be admitted, such an event was exceedingly rare. During this time, Black students were also admitted with slightly greater frequency to the college preparatory and trade school divisions of Wash. U., Smith Academy and the Manual Training School. Admittance to these programs was equivalent to a private high school, however, and did not guarantee admission to the University.

Parker and Former may have been firsts at the University, but they were not far from being the last — at least for many decades. Plessy v. Ferguson established the “separate but equal” doctrine in 1896, but the University had already decided to close its gates to non-white students in 1892. By 1906, as cited in “Invisible on Campus,” the University was denying any prior admission of Black students. Once the Smith Academy and the Manual Training School closed in 1917, no division of Washington University would accept Black students for 30 years.

Though the University officially desegregated all divisions in 1952, a decision made almost exactly two years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, this decision marked not a progressive move on the part of the administration, but a reactive one. The Student Committee for the Admission of Negroes (SCAN) began as a subgroup of Campus Y in 1947, though the two organizations parted ways in the fall of 1949, with the groups stating in Student Life that the separation was due to administrative and tactical differences. Also in the fall of 1949, SCAN released a survey from which results were published in Student Life that revealed that 78% of current students favored the admission of Black students to Wash. U. The University of Missouri was brought into legal battles over their segregation as early as 1936 and was ordered by a circuit court to admit Black students in June 1950.

Prior to the official desegregation, Black graduate students attended the University: A small number of Black graduate students were admitted from 1947 through the graduate programs’ desegregation in 1950. The attendance of these few students, however, did not change the University’s policies. Even after the admission of the first Black undergraduates to attend Wash. U. in 1952, most of the campus remained segregated.

The students of the summer 1952 session, and newly admitted class of 1956, found that classrooms were one of the only non-segregated areas of the University. In May 1952, whether Black students would be admitted to Greek life was, as reported in Student Life, a “hypothetical.” Athletics would not be desegregated until the fall of 1953, and residence halls, extracurriculars and more would remain segregated until 1954.

Fourteen years later, the campus was still an almost exclusively white institution. An April 1968 editorial in Student Life stated that over 2,100 Wash. U. students signed a civil rights petition to be sent to the President Lyndon B. Johnson in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and that the campus engaged in a dialogue about civil rights reform. That same editorial acknowledges that the campus at the time was “less than one percent non-caucasian.” By fall of 1968, only 1.8% of the total campus population was Black.

In the fall of 1968, the Black community came together. A leader had been lost with Dr. King’s assassination in April. The campus community was overwhelmingly white. Aggressions, both overt and subtle, abounded. In December, 1968, the Association of Black Students published the Black Manifesto and demanded change from the University.

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