How student activists and the Mpls Spokesman fought back
The University of Minnesota’s main campus during the 1930s and early 1940s was a divided campus, a microcosm of politics and protests over such issues as racial equality, opposition to war and student rights. In many ways, top school administrators endorsed racism and anti-Semitism on campus, especially regarding student housing. Those not yet familiar with this local history now have a golden opportunity to become so.
An exhibit portraying this period of history, which has been largely overlooked and not often discussed, is currently on display on the second and third floors of the Elmer L. Andersen Library. Titled “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, and Anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1944,” the exhibit debuted August 14 and will run through November 30.
Student activists and coalitions between students and community members helped fight suppression by school officials. U of M Professor Emerita Riv-Ellen Prell noted, “The success of students in ending segregated housing was clearly because of cross-racial alliances, but also because of the activism of the African American community,” especially coverage by the Minneapolis Spokesman, led by founder Cecil Newman.
Newman continually wrote about it. “The Spokesman [was] calling on readers to demand that the governor take a stand,” she said. Prell and graduate student Sara Atwood are co-curators of the exhibit.
While attending an anti-Semitism lecture by a local historian several years ago, Prell had to ask herself how a land-grant public institution such as the University of Minnesota could be so embroiled in this. She was startled to find out, through research, that two main campus buildings, Coffman Memorial Union and Nicholson Hall, were named for two leading proponents of racism, segregation and anti-Semitism on campus.
Lotus D. Coffman was university president from 1922 until his death in 1938. It was noted in one panel that “He was committed to the expansion of the University, but he was also the architect of taxpayer funded, segregated housing both on and off campus.” He ordered the school registrar to regularly track Black and Jewish students and refused to meet with students and others who protested the suppressive acts.
Edward Nicholson, dean of students from 1919 to 1941, worked with Anoka-born Ray Chase, a former state gubernatorial candidate, to develop a Political Surveillance Campus he hoped would accuse students of being communists. Nicholson “exercised unprecedented control over the lives of students,” including monitoring students’ mail. Chase was fully dedicated to his anti-Communist views. He produced a “Keep America American” pamphlet in 1937; he paid students to spy on other students; and he kept a list of “radical leaders.”
Black students couldn’t live on campus. Prell said John Pinkett, Jr. of Washington, D.C. moved into the new Pioneer Hall in October 1931, but stayed only one night after being ordered to leave when President Coffman learned of it.
In 1933, Ahwna Fiti, the first Black female admitted to the nursing school, was denied campus housing. In 1936 Black students Audrey Beatrize and Elizabeth Murphy tried to live on campus but were also denied housing because of race.
University officials often called on Gertrude Brown, a Black social worker and the first director of the Phyllis Wheatley House, to help find housing for the university’s Black students. According to the exhibit, a school controller once suggested to Coffman that one option would be for the university to pay off-campus housing expenses for Fiti.
Brown’s efforts in securing housing for Blacks were very instrumental. John Wright, a longtime African American literature professor, told the MSR that Black U of M students stayed at the Phyllis Wheatley House.
Wright’s late aunt, Martha Wright (1919-2010), was one of the very few Blacks whose picture was in the school yearbook when she graduated in 1936. She was president of the Negro Student Council and a member of an integrated student committee that fought against segregated housing.
Wright recalled how he grew up hearing the stories. “I heard all…about Coffman and his administration. There is an [unsubstantiated] story that some [Black students] tried to go to [Coffman’s] office to protest, and that Coffman called them communists and university police removed them.”
After Coffman’s death, however, acting President Guy Stanton Ford ended segregated campus housing in 1937; it lasted until 1941, when the new president, Walter Coffey, reactivated Coffman’s anti-integration policies. But after Cecil Newman’s persistent writings and opposition from the local NAACP and others, Coffey finally ended segregated housing in 1942.
Jewish students were also ostracized on the university campus at the same time as Blacks in “a parallel world,” said Prell. Led by Nicholson, Chase and others, Jewish students were automatically considered “leftists,” especially if they originated from East Coast states like New York. Prell said “The university had a ranking system” that tracked where Jewish students came from.
“A Campus Divided” is free and open to the public. Wright noted that the exhibit shows just “how misleading our official institutional histories are. How much we must re-investigate our past to understand the present.”
The exhibit will also show visitors how the power of activism changed everything. “Activism can never stop because those wins are fragile,” said Prell.
“A Campus Divided” is on display on the second and third floors of the Elmer L. Andersen Library, Atrium Gallery, Monday, Tuesday and Friday, 8:30 am-4:30 pm; Wednesday and Thursday, 8:30 am-7 pm.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.