The Snail-Like Progress of Racial Desegregation at the University of Illinois

Dublin Core

Title

The Snail-Like Progress of Racial Desegregation at the University of Illinois

Subject

Discrimination, Black Experience on Campus

Description

Abstract: African-American students at Illinois experienced discrimination on and off campus. Perhaps emboldened by legal victories in the South and the more aggressive mood of black liberation efforts, some black students involved themselves in protest. In 1946 the university's board of trustees reaffirmed its policy to "favor and strengthen those attitudes and social philosophies which are necessary to create a community atmosphere in which race prejudice can not thrive." But discrimination continued. On campus, housing became a flash point. In the first half of the twentieth century only two women's dormitories existed. Not until 1945 did African-American women receive space in the dormitories and only after a very public campaign by concerned African Americans in Chicago, home for most African-American students. Charles J. Jenkins, an African-American state representative, mounted a personal campaign to open the residence halls to African-American women by petitioning the university, meeting with the university president Arthur Cutts Willard, and soliciting possible candidates for application to the dormitories. The Illinois Association of Colored Women's Clubs also became very active in the desegregation campaign. In the tradition of the black press, the Daily Defender, the African-American Chicago newspaper, held university administrators' feet to the fire by publicizing the dormitory situation and chastising the university. The newspaper deliberately used buzzwords for racism and discrimination in an article entitled "Just Like Dixie: No U of I Dorms for Negroes," pointing out that "Jim Crow has crowded Negro girl students completely off the University of Illinois campus." President Willard, mildly receptive to the pressure, promised Representative Jenkins and the Colored Women's Clubs he would ask the director of the Division of Student Housing "to hold space for two girls for the time being, because I want the group which is interested in the situation to feel that the University is being absolutely fair." In August 1945 the acting director of housing alerted the president that two African-American women, Quintella King and Ruthe Cashe, had accepted their dormitory contracts for the 1945-46 academic year. Other African-American women would follow, but all were assigned rooms together -- the university desegregated the dormitories by allowing African-American women to reside there, but African-American and white women were not allowed to room together. The Housing Division averted accidents by soliciting race and national origin information on the dormitory applications.

Regardless, African-American students made themselves a part of the campus and took advantage of university life to the best of their ability. A few participated in established university organizations, including Glee Club, literary societies, and the student newspaper, the Daily Illini. Others created organizations parallel to those established by the university or white student groups. Reflective of the black cultural renaissance sweeping the nation in the early twentieth century, several African American-sponsored organizations used the African-American cultural heritage as a basis for their existence and mission. Like their contemporaries, W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, they brought increasing race sentiment to the college campus. African-American fraternities and sororities and local churches provided most of their social activities. In the early 1930s African-American students formed Cenacle, an honorary society for African-American students that sponsored plays with African-American student actors and a book exhibit in the university library featuring African-American authors. In 1938 black students published the Scribbler, "the official voice of the Negro students enrolled in the University of Illinois," and discussed segregation in Champaign, the debate over voluntary segregation, as well as lighter subjects. In the early 1950s students celebrated Negro History Week, founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1926, with invited speakers, movies, and plays. In this way, African-American students created social and extracurricular outlets for their artistic interests, social welfare, and racial consciousness. Like African Americans in general, African-American students at the University of Illinois demanded to be seen and heard.

Creator

Joy Ann Williamson

Source

New York:. , Iss. 42; pg. 116

Publisher

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education

Date

31 January 2004

Contribution Form

Online Submission

No

Document Item Type Metadata

Text

CHAMPAIGN COUNTY, APPROXIMATELY one and a half hours south of Chicago and located in central Illinois, remained a predominantly rural area surrounded by smaller towns and dominated by independent farming until the mid-twentieth century. Though located above the Mason-Dixon line, the county resembled southern states in its attitude toward and treatment of African-American residents. As the black population in the county grew during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the white population became concerned. Emancipation, the new railroad, and the defense industry attracted African Americans to the area, with the largest increases occurring after the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Not all white residents opposed such migration, but racist sentiment was far from latent. For instance, large Ku Klux Klan meetings took place throughout the county and included a mass rally at a park in Urbana in 1924. County residents did not wholly endorse Klan sentiment and hostility, but the twin cities of Champaign and Urbana established firm patterns of educational and residential segregation early in the twentieth century. In the 1930s a combination of federal housing programs, restrictive covenants, and banks' lending policies led to the creation of all-black areas and a dual housing market in Champaign and Urbana. Residential segregation patterns created educational segregation patterns, and most black students in Champaign attended all-black or predominantly black elementary schools throughout much of the twentieth century. By the late 1960s blacks still had higher rates of deteriorated housing, unemployment, and infant mortality and had a median family income almost half that of whites.

The University of Illinois was established and evolved in this context. Chartered in 1867 and made possible by the Morrill Acts, Illinois Industrial University, as it was then called, began developing a curriculum emphasizing agricultural training, mechanical arts, and military tactics. The student body included 50 white males who were taught by a faculty of three. Three years later the university's board of trustees voted to admit women. The draft bill for the university in 1863 explicitly provided for the enrollment of any white Illinois resident, though the final charter did not include such language because it would have been inconsistent with the recent Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment. However, an African-American student did not enroll in the university until 20 years later. In 1887 the institution, now calling itself the University of Illinois, admitted its first African-American student, Jonathan Rogan. He remained only one year, and it was not until 1894 that another African-American student, another man, enrolled. The first African-American man would not graduate from the university until 1900; the first African-American woman graduated in 1906. African-American undergraduate enrollment slowly climbed throughout the first part of the twentieth century. Their numbers rose from 2 in 1900, to 68 in 1925, 138 in 1929, and 148 in 1944. Though their numbers multiplied, never did they amount to more than 1 percent of the student population.

African-American students at Illinois experienced discrimination on and off campus. Perhaps emboldened by legal victories in the South and the more aggressive mood of black liberation efforts, some black students involved themselves in protest. In 1946 the university's board of trustees reaffirmed its policy to "favor and strengthen those attitudes and social philosophies which are necessary to create a community atmosphere in which race prejudice can not thrive." But discrimination continued. On campus, housing became a flash point. In the first half of the twentieth century only two women's dormitories existed. Not until 1945 did African-American women receive space in the dormitories and only after a very public campaign by concerned African Americans in Chicago, home for most African-American students. Charles J. Jenkins, an African-American state representative, mounted a personal campaign to open the residence halls to African-American women by petitioning the university, meeting with the university president Arthur Cutts Willard, and soliciting possible candidates for application to the dormitories. The Illinois Association of Colored Women's Clubs also became very active in the desegregation campaign. In the tradition of the black press, the Daily Defender, the African-American Chicago newspaper, held university administrators' feet to the fire by publicizing the dormitory situation and chastising the university. The newspaper deliberately used buzzwords for racism and discrimination in an article entitled "Just Like Dixie: No U of I Dorms for Negroes," pointing out that "Jim Crow has crowded Negro girl students completely off the University of Illinois campus." President Willard, mildly receptive to the pressure, promised Representative Jenkins and the Colored Women's Clubs he would ask the director of the Division of Student Housing "to hold space for two girls for the time being, because I want the group which is interested in the situation to feel that the University is being absolutely fair." In August 1945 the acting director of housing alerted the president that two African-American women, Quintella King and Ruthe Cashe, had accepted their dormitory contracts for the 1945-46 academic year. Other African-American women would follow, but all were assigned rooms together -- the university desegregated the dormitories by allowing African-American women to reside there, but African-American and white women were not allowed to room together. The Housing Division averted accidents by soliciting race and national origin information on the dormitory applications.

Discriminatory practices by local landlords and restrictive covenants in real estate further limited housing options. Many African-American students lived in African-American fraternity or sorority houses; of the five African-American Greek organizations on campus in the 1940s three maintained houses and one maintained a suite of rooms. Other African-American students lived with local African-American families. This took a toll on students. African-American community residents lived in a segregated part of Champaign, called the North End, quite a distance from campus. Traveling to and from campus by foot meant lost time for study and recreation, while white students could take advantage of both. The university itself recognized the housing problems African-American students faced. In a 1935 report, the university lamented the fact that African-American students not living in fraternity or sorority houses had to walk a long distance to attend classes and participate in campus life. However, the report was quick to explain that living conditions had improved since the early part of the century -- a claim disputed by African-American students and Champaign residents.

In addition to the discriminatory housing situation, African-American students faced overt and covert discrimination on campus. In the early part of the twentieth century white students sponsored a Hobo Parade during Homecoming, where students would dress as indigent people. Students made picture postcards of the hobos in blackface and imitated other minority groups, such as Jews and the Irish. In the mid-1930s rumors flew that certain professors refused to give African-American students a grade higher than C. The university kept African-American men off the basketball team out of courtesy to "a Big Ten understanding," while the football coaches and team created a hostile enough environment to deter African-American males. Similarly, the university refused African-American male enrollment in advanced military courses. Documents suggest white women's organizations -- except sororities -- were slightly more open to African-American female participation. For instance, the Women's League, a social and service club, invited African-American women to its teas. However, many white student groups excluded African-American men and women either through clauses in their constitutions or by more subtle tactics.

Regardless, African-American students made themselves a part of the campus and took advantage of university life to the best of their ability. A few participated in established university organizations, including Glee Club, literary societies, and the student newspaper, the Daily Illini. Others created organizations parallel to those established by the university or white student groups. Reflective of the black cultural renaissance sweeping the nation in the early twentieth century, several African American-sponsored organizations used the African-American cultural heritage as a basis for their existence and mission. Like their contemporaries, W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, they brought increasing race sentiment to the college campus. African-American fraternities and sororities and local churches provided most of their social activities. In the early 1930s African-American students formed Cenacle, an honorary society for African-American students that sponsored plays with African-American student actors and a book exhibit in the university library featuring African-American authors. In 1938 black students published the Scribbler, "the official voice of the Negro students enrolled in the University of Illinois," and discussed segregation in Champaign, the debate over voluntary segregation, as well as lighter subjects. In the early 1950s students celebrated Negro History Week, founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1926, with invited speakers, movies, and plays. In this way, African-American students created social and extracurricular outlets for their artistic interests, social welfare, and racial consciousness. Like African Americans in general, African-American students at the University of Illinois demanded to be seen and heard.

Off campus, African Americans encountered discriminatory treatment in barbershops, theaters, and restaurants. Since most local eating establishments practiced segregation, African-American students had to return to their host family's home or their fraternity or sorority houses for meals. Other arrangements -- though questionable in what they meant for relations between African-American students and white students -- existed. For instance, Lucy Gray, an African-American house manager at a white fraternity, Alpha Chi, hired an exclusively African-American male staff to alleviate their meal problems. They were allowed to eat the fraternity's leftovers as part of the payment for their services. Hence, they would not have to make the long walk to the North End for the evening meal and could remain on campus to study in the evening.

Local theaters asked African-American patrons to sit in a reserved section. Theaters went so far to keep the races separate that they asked white patrons sitting in the reserved section to relinquish their seats. One theater manager explained that it was not fair for whites to take seats reserved for colored people. If whites did, Negroes would have nowhere else to sit in the theater since most whites refused to be seated next to Negroes (hence the reserved section). White barbers in campus town refused to cut Negroes' hair, citing (wrongly) an Ohio law where those providing a personal service -- including haircuts -- could use discretion in offering their services. When found in noncompliance with Illinois law, barbers resorted to other tactics. Some reported they did not have the equipment necessary to cut Negroes' hair or that it was against union rules, others declared they would embarrass Negro customers to the point they would not wish to return, and a few even threatened physical harm. Evidencing the odd nature of discrimination and the relationship between African Americans and whites in America, barbershops proudly displayed pictures of J.C. Caroline, an African-American student and All-American football player, in their windows but refused him service.

Off-campus housing continued to be an issue in the early 1960s. In 1960 the university revised its Code of Fair Educational Practice to include a clause reaffirming the university's position on discrimination in housing: "The University will approve no new privately operated student rooming house unless the owner agrees to make its facilities available to all students without discrimination with respect to race or religion." By 1962, 51 percent of the rooming houses continued to operate on a discriminatory basis. Not until the mid-1960s were university efforts successful. Discrimination in seating African-American patrons in restaurants and theaters abated in the late 1950s, but discrimination in hiring African Americans in local establishments continued into the 1960s. The campus chapter of the NAACP made the Champaign hiring issue a priority and had the logistical aid of the national and Illinois NAACP branches and local community organizations. Urged on by national leadership and demonstrating sympathy for the civil rights movement in the South, the campus branch conducted a "freedom rally" in the early 1960s and picketed national chain stores discriminating in the South.

Attacking on-campus issues proved just as complex as attacking national issues. The university maintained policies of nondiscrimination, but the policies were not always translated into practice. For instance, the white Greek system at the university remained impenetrable for African Americans seeking to join fraternities and sororities. As of October 1959, no new student organization restricting membership on the basis of race or religion received university recognition, but existing fraternities and sororities proved another matter. Several white fraternities and sororities had restrictive clauses in their national constitutions. The university encouraged voluntary complicity with university nondiscriminatory policies and urged the Greek organizations to sign nondiscriminatory statements. Some did. Others refused on the basis of free association. The issue remained so pressing in the early 1960s that Harry Tiebout, a white faculty member who was the adviser for the campus NAACP chapter, informed the national leadership in 1961, "Our major on-campus project will be cracking the segregation pattern in fraternities and sororities. We have made extensive plans and expect to wage a vigorous struggle." Some in the university, including the Urbana chapter of the American Association of University Professors, fully supported the NAACP's efforts. Others, including President David Dodds Henry, qualified their support, citing the thorny issues involved.

The university closely monitored and controlled NAACP protests regarding fraternity and sorority exclusionary policies and other issues while the protesters were on university property. In 1961, amidst growing numbers of civil rights protests, the university issued regulations to all student groups regarding proper conduct. Protesters could not impede pedestrian, bicycle, or motor traffic, block entrances to buildings, harass passers-by, disturb classes by noise or picketing, or picket at the same time and place that an opposing group was picketing. If university functions were the target, students had to submit written notification 24 hours in advance. When worried about noncompliance, the university reminded the NAACP of proper conduct and even denied its petitions to protest. The university's in loco parentis ethos and attempts to keep politics out of higher education would be shattered before the end of the decade.

Despite university efforts to control protests, its often lukewarm commitment to racial equality, and intransigent local proprietors, desegregation efforts eventually were successful. Like black student initiatives on other white campuses in the North during the first half of the twentieth century, protests began as sporadic, individual events. By the late 1950s and early 1960s students began forming organizations for the explicit purpose of dismantling segregation. Student demands and tactics mirrored those of other increasingly aggressive and empowered African Americans in the wake of World War II, the Brown decision, and the burgeoning civil rights movement nationwide. Champaign-Urbana restaurants, theaters, and barbershops desegregated their facilities. African-American women and men moved into campus dormitories. The university refused to advertise off-campus housing of those landlords known to practice discrimination or acknowledge any student organization know to discriminate. Campus life began to open for African Americans interested in participation. Accordingly, African-American students slowly increased their involvement with established student organizations, though they continued to participate in and initiate their own organizations.

It is important to note, however, that black student thought regarding protest activity in the 1940s and 1950s was far from monolithic. A few students chose to agitate for change during their time on campus, while others refused to participate in the protests. Many avoided situations where they would encounter discrimination, could not comprehend why African-American students would put themselves in a position to encounter it, or reported being oblivious to discrimination on campus. Many focused their energies on academics rather than social issues. Overall, they were successful in their academic pursuit, particularly considering the tangible and psychological effects of discrimination, humiliation, and segregation they suffered on and off campus. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century African-American students at the University of Illinois maintained grade point averages and graduation rates comparable to those of whites. Their low numbers and intense pressure to conform to white mores precluded much organized protest in the first half of the century. But as their numbers grew and pressures to assimilate abated or were ignored, many black students began to view academic success and protest activity as inextricably linked on the path to black liberation. The targets and strategies of protest changed, but the mission remained the same -- creating a campus environment in which they would thrive and feel comfortable while at the same time using their talents to change the world around them.

Files

Citation

Joy Ann Williamson, “The Snail-Like Progress of Racial Desegregation at the University of Illinois,” eBlack Champaign-Urbana, accessed October 13, 2019, http://eblackcu.net/portal/items/show/429.

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