U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What might your students be thinking during your class? (and further musings on "interracialism")

For your consideration, Pauli Murray, 1932:

“My one bad experience with race at Hunter College was a year-long American history course. I was the only Negro in the class, and as far as my professor was concerned I did not exist. She was not openly insulting, but she never once suggested that colored people played any role in the nation’s development other than as abject objections of the national controversy over slavery. Her treatment of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction made me shrivel in my seat in the back row, feeling shame and resentment. I knew from my own family history that her presentation was one-sided but was too unsure of myself to challenge her in class. Unable to mount an effective protest against her bias, I performed so indifferently in the course that I got only passing grades in a subject in which I had always excelled. That ordeal, however, spurred me to become a passionate student of Negro history after leaving college.

“The experience also led me to take my first tentative steps toward activism.” More after the jump.

“Distressed over the general invisibility of Negro students at Hunter and the scant attention given to Negro life in our courses, I began to discuss the problem with another student, Elizabeth McDougald, whom I admired greatly and whose mother, Gertrude Ayers, became the first Negro principal in New York City’s public school system. Betty was strikingly tall and regal-looking, knowledgeable, self-assured, and she had great leadership ability. After informal talks with other Negro students, she drafted a plan for an organization intended to create greater self-awareness among the Negro students at Hunter through the study of Negro culture and achievements. The group would hold weekly discussions, and membership would be open to the entire student body. Our modest plan would seem tame indeed to a generation of militants in the late 1960s, who took over college buildings to dramatize their demands for Black Studies. We had neither the numerical strength nor the political climate to support a proposal that our legitimate concerns become part of the school’s curriculum, but in 1932 our groping efforts were a beginning, a radical step for those times.

“Our plan alarmed some of the leading white students, who feared that a separate organization would reflect adversely upon Hunter’s reputation as an inclusive institution. The largest and most active organization in public affairs, International Student, which was affiliated with the National Students League of America, came forward with a counterproposal, an interracial plan. Betty McDougald and I were selected to meet with their eladers in the spring of 1932 to discuss the alternative proposals. They recommended that instead of creating a new organization, the Negro students incorporate their program into that of International Student, which would undertake a special ‘study of the social and cultural as well as the political status of the Negro’ through ‘special readings, bibliographies, historical surveys, [and] the securing of the best Negro speakers, writers, economists, and social workers.’ The program would be launched in the fall semester, would take the form of weekly discussions, and would follow the syllabus outlined in Betty’s proposal. International Student’s executive board would be enlarged to include Negro students.

“Both plans were presented to the Negro students as well as to the executive board of International Student for consideration. Betty McDougald had strong misgivings about a joint venture because she was aware of the struggles for power within the International Student between members of the Young People’s Socialist League and the Young Communist League, and she feared that our program would become a political football between warring factions. I had no political experience and was inclined to go along with the interracial approach, which was ultimately accepted. I graduated just after the program got under way at the end of the fall term, but I learned later that Betty[‘s fears were justified and the Negro students eventually withdrew from International Student to set up their own program.”

In addition to the interesting insight into the life of an undergraduate history student, this passage also confirms my growing sense that one of the things which made the interwar era distinct in the trajectory of the African American freedom struggle was the emphasis upon interracialism among sympathetic whites and whites interested in preserving segregation. I’m working on building a definition and gathering a wide range of examples of how the emphasis on “interracial dialgoue” exhibited itself during the interwar era. Perhaps it will turn into its own article, although it has already informed the two articles I submitted this summer and the book I’m working on. I’m presenting the idea to honors students at the University of Kentucky this fall and am interested to find out whether they find it an entirely old-fashioned notion or whether parts of interracialism still inform the way that “we” (political culture of mainstream America, whatever that is) still think about race. It will also be interesting to see if that “we” has black or white inflections in discussing the idea.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It’s not just some of our students who feel may this sense of alienation and frustration and exclusion — it’s our colleagues too. And probably more than a few of our blog readers.

    Historiann linked to this blog post about graduate students of color. Like your post here, that post and the ensuing discussions taking place in various corners of the blogosphere are valuable for calling attention to a matter that deserves consideration.

  2. Lauren,

    Look into the content of a magazine called Interracial Review. Here’s a sentence from my diss. on it: “Founded in 1934 by Rev. William M. Markoe, S.J., in St. Louis, Missouri, Interracial Review was a monthly magazine of the Catholic Interracial Program.” My info about the mag came from inside its front cover. Aside: I had looked into the publication and its history because it ran a really positive review of Adler’s 1940 bestseller, How to Read a Book.

    – Tim

  3. Thanks Tim!

    LD–It’s not just students or colleagues of color that I thought about as I read Murray’s words. I think we forget sometimes the power we have over students, especially when faced with the “entitled” students of today. It is always good for us to consider how to create safe spaces for students to voice their thoughts and recognize that this is more challenging than we may think.

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