U of M panel examines campus racism in the 1930s

The history of Jim Crow is well known in the South from personal accounts and in history books. However, you have to dig a little deeper to find history of segregated times and events in the North. Some examples of northern racism are well documented right here on the University of Minnesota campus.

Prof. John S. Wright speaking to attendees (Chris Juhn/MSR News)
On Wednesday, September 13, the university hosted a panel discussion on the exhibit “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, Racism, and Anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942,” showing August 14 through November 30 at Elmer L. Andersen Library on the West Bank. The display shows how the discriminatory efforts of well-known university administrators were concealed.

Administrators denied housing for African American students and spied on Jewish students to quash student activism. Little was known about how U of M President Lotus D. Coffman and Edward Nicholson, the U’s first dean of student affairs, orchestrated segregation and discrimination in the 1930s and 1940s.

The panel discussion provided a closer examination of the exhibit. The panelists were co-curators Riv-Ellen Prell, professor emerita of American Studies; Sarah Atwood, doctoral candidate in American Studies; and John Wright, professor of African American & African Studies and English. The panelists shared insights about the 1930s at the University when racism and anti-Semitism were sanctioned and political surveillance was a part of campus life.

Riv-Ellen Prell described a deep tradition of racial and social tension that continues today. “We now have to see our implications in these histories,” she said, referring to activists that made their mark in Minnesota history on the U of M campus. “Its institutional history cannot be denied, nor should it be overlooked.”

She also acknowledged how the social events of today create an astounding process of reflection by the country as a whole. “The U.S. as a nation is at a heated period of reflection in its history. Since Charlottesville and the removal of the Confederate flag, these elements are similar in the namesake of the buildings [on this campus].”

The battles were among students, but more so between students and the administrators who routinely spied on students and faculty for their political beliefs and activities.

President Lotus D. Coffman appointed a commission of seven to plan future education in the secondary school system and Minnesota. In 1920, the U produced a report containing extensive demographic data that included university students. “However, it excluded the state’s entire African American population of almost 10,000 people,” said Riv-Ellen Prell.

She described how university politics were evident when President Coffman, and deans of students marked certain files “negro” and “Jew” to assess out-of-state housing needs. The U of M, as a public institution, accepted Jews and African Americans at the time,” said Prell, “but they were clearly identified as being different than the other students.”
The exhibit also features Langston Hughes’ visit to the University of Minnesota campus in 1937 and Cecil E. Newman, founder of the Minneapolis Spokesman and St. Paul Recorder.

Professor John Wright of the African American Studies department made it a point to compare and contrast the North and the South in terms of racism and discrimination. “Back in 1970, when Dick Gregory, activist and philosopher, was asked about Black life in the South versus the North, he said, ‘In the South they don’t care how close I get, as long as I don’t get too big. In the North, they don’t care how big I get, as long as I don’t get too close.’”

In what Wright calls “vernacular framing” by Gregory, Wright also reported how Gregory made the distinction between the types of racism. “The southern racism was dominating racism, with violent institutions, physical separation and mental distortion, the conditional history of slavery. The northern type of racism is more aversive, the building of walls and barriers through creating satisfaction of a temporary and psychological conditioning.”

“A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anticommunists, Racism and Anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota 1930-1942,” will be on exhibit in the Elmer L. Andersen Library, Atrium Gallery on the University of Minnesota, West Bank, 222 21st Ave. S., Minneapolis until November 30, 2017.

Ivan B. Phifer welcomes reader responses to ivan.b.phifer@gmail.com.