It was April of 1941. Europe was at war, and most of the discussion in the Phoenix revolved around matters of international politics--when it wasn't about the proper role of fraternities on campus or whether male and female students should be permitted to sit at mixed table in the Dining Hall. And then Edwin R. Embree gave a lecture on "The Place of the American Negro in Democracy Today." Embree talked about the history of Blacks in America. "The Negro is denied equal rights and opportunities in a nation theoretically a democracy of equals," the Phoenix reported that he said. He talked about the treatment of opera singer Marian Anderson. And he pointed out that no Negro student had ever been admitted to Swarthmore.
It certainly wasn't true that no Black student had ever applied to Swarthmore. Walton's "Swarthmore College: An Informal History" tells the story of a successful applicant around the turn of the century whose acceptance was withdrawn after the college realized his race. Again, in 1932, an otherwise qualified Negro student applied to Swarthmore. Dean Hunt related, "The admission of colored students had never been approved by the Board of Managers, and so the Admissions Committee referred the application to the Board. After a long discussion it decided by a large majority that Negro students could not yet be admitted to a coeducational college like Swarthmore. Their admission would raise too many problems and create too many difficulties. There was general satisfaction at the happy solution presented by Dean Speight, just arrived from Dartmouth, when he got the boy accepted there with a large scholarship. A men's college seemed just the place for him..."
Yet when Mr. Embree spoke at Swarthmore, many students were receptive to what he had to say. "We are guilty of the frequent and deliberate error of not fitting what we do into the pattern of what we pretend to believe, of isolating hard actuality from charming theory," a Phoenix editorial read on April 29. "Most of us saw a meaningful relationship between the general ideal of racial equality in the United States and the situation here at Swarthmore, even before Mr. Embree mentioned it. If we care to deny that relationship now, to believe in equality in most cases, but not in this, to advocate tolerance in other places, but not here, we shall be denying, as a vital factor in the present, a theory upon which a great many of the laws by which we live are based and for which a great many people have died in the past."
Nonetheless, Phoenix coverage returned to stories about social events, speeches, America's role in the Second World War, and the fraternity question. Jenks caught polio and students were quarantined from the ville for two weeks. America entered the war, and the Phoenix covered the controversy over the role of a Quaker school in a country at war.
But a year later, in March of 1942, the Phoenix endorsed the program of the Swarthmore Committee on Race Relations, which had been quietly formed after Mr. Embree's speech. "The Committee states quite frankly that its ultimate objective is to secure the admittance of Negroes to Swarthmore, and its program is aimed at the creation of a natural place for them in order to spare them both the icy aloofness and the studied tolerance they have met elsewhere," a March 3 editorial read. "The general program of the SCRR contains the following four points:
1. Bringing the students to the recognition that there is a racial problem, and that its solution is of importance.
2. Sponsoring inter-racial activity and fellowship to foster a feeling of common humanity which will cut across present racial lines.
3. To create an interest in and appreciation of the actualities and potentialities of Negro culture.
4. Promoting an attitude not only of tolerance, but also of active sympathy and understanding.
The Committee has obtained official recognition from both the faculty committee and the Student Council, but it is up to the student body as a whole to support the work it is doing. Without our whole-hearted cooperation, the ideal of this group is likely never to be reached.
It is especially appropriate that such a campaign should be carried on now. We are at war to defend the four freedoms, not for white men alone, but for all men. President Roosevelt has asked the nation for an all-out effort. Yet the Negro, who represents one-tenth of our entire population, is being discriminated against, not only in defense industries, but also in the army and navy. In the South the feeling against him is especially strong; even here at Swarth more he is not admitted as an equal. What sort of national unity is this?
We cannot expect the position of the Negro to improve, if we who are aware of the problem do nothing about it. We owe it, not only to him and ourselves, but also to our belief in democracy, to take an active interest in the work of the Committee on Race Relations. By attending lectures which they sponsor, and taking part in any other activities in which they engage, we will come to realize that the Negro has a much greater contribution to make than simply singing spirituals or playing in a swing band for our amusement. He is a fellow-citizen. How can we be proud of our freedom and democracy while he is still little better than a slave?"
Over the next few years, the Phoenix carried many stories of SCRR sponsored lectures, art exhibits, and other events. In April of 1942, they arranged for Peasley debaters to face debaters from Lincoln University (a black college), in Bond, "on the question of forming an international military body to enforce peace at war's end." In September, they sponsored a picnic and softball game against a "group of Negro college students at present working in defense industries" in Chester. "The real victors were the mosquitos, which showed equal impartiality and lack of prejudice in their warm-up for the coming picnic...after having vanquished hunger and thirst, there was an informal singing under the leadership of Dean Hunt, ending with an enthusiastic 'God Bless America.'" A Phoenix editorial in September of 1943 noted that the last lecturer brought to campus by the SCRR taught a large number of students that many Negroes were, in fact, unsatisfied with the status quo!
By this time, Walton's "Swarthmore College: An Informal History" reports, Negro students were attending the college as members of the Naval V-12 unit stationed here. By 1945, an SCRR memorandum on the admission of Negro students had been approved by the Board of Managers; students were now to be admitted regardless of race color or creed.
Notes: Since I wrote this piece, I've come across a few more relevant facts. It seems that President Nason was instrumental in convincing the Board of Managers that admitting Negro students to Swarthmore was the right thing to do, and that this had been one of his aims at Swarthmore from the time that he arrived. Mary Ellen Chijioke, currator of Friends' Libary says that a group of student approached Nason in 1940, saying that they had found the "perfect Black candidate for admission to Swarthmore", and that Nason told the students that as the new president of the college, he could not yet convince the Board of Managers to allow the admission of a Black student to Swarthmore. However, he promised that he would secure the admission of Black students to Swarthmore as soon as he had a few more years' experience as the college president. Nason went to the Board of Managers during the war and argued that America could not fight a war against facism in Europe while tolerating racism at home, and that the college would eventually be forced by law to cease racial discrimination. Nason was sucessful in convinceing the Board of Managers of these things. However, this did not mean that Swarthmore was suddenly actively recruiting Black students: when several students traveled to high schools in New York City during this period in an attempt to interest qualified Black students in applying to Swarthmore, they were reprimanded by one of the Deans. Apparently, this Dean beleived that actively recruiting students was beneath the dignity of a prestigious institution!