This article originally appeared on the website for “A Campus Divided,” a project that explores the University of Minnesota’s history of surveillance and segregation in the 1930s.
The number of African Americans in Minnesota nearly doubled between 1900 and 1920, with the majority of those 9,000 people settling in the Twin Cities. The states from which most African Americans hailed at the end of the 19th century were eastern and midwestern, not southern. It was not until the 1940s that there was a significant increase of the population, to 14,000 people—not even one percent of the state’s population.
African American employment in Minnesota in the 1920s reflected national trends. Clustered in domestic and personal services such as barbers, janitors, and servants, not even two percent of men and women worked in professions such as acting, law, clergy, and medicine. Poverty level wages for workers made home ownership nearly impossible, and the ability to create any savings or investments out of reach. Surveys of employers and unions in 1926 revealed that almost 80 percent would not hire an African American employee and unions would not accept them for fear of white workers leaving.1
Founded as a land grant college in 1851, the University of Minnesota’s mission was to serve the people of the State of Minnesota. However, it did not serve all Minnesotans equally.
The University experienced significant growth in the student body at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th as the state population expanded. President Lotus D. Coffman (1875–1938) served as president from 1920–1938. He anticipated that growth and wanted the University to be prepared to meet it in a way that would be good for the state. He appointed a Committee of Seven in 1924 to investigate issues related to that growth that would be of mutual interest to the University and the state’s secondary school system. It was headed by C. W. Boardman.
In the scientific mode of the era they spent three years assembling vital statistics on the state’s population, which included demographic information about parents’ occupations, place of birth, income, and where they lived, among other matters. Their final report in 1927, among other things, called for extending opportunities to students who might not live in the cities, or who were children of immigrants, or were from lower social classes. It appeared to champion a vision for equality of opportunity for the children of the State of Minnesota.
However, they manipulated the 1920 census data available to them as they analyzed who was likely to attend the University. The chart of the data included in their report, on which they based their planning, excluded all citizens of color from the State of Minnesota. In particular, they excluded nearly 9,000 African Americans, which was twice the number of those categorized as “other,” and larger than a number of immigrant groups who were counted as citizens. Their vision for the 20th century University of Minnesota excluded African Americans and other minorities. That exclusion had a profound effect on one of the central features of university life—where and with whom students lived and their social lives and interests.2
Open Doors–Closed Doors: A Tradition of Segregated Housing at the University of Minnesota
In contrast to some private colleges, the University of Minnesota accepted Jewish and African American students without quotas in many of its colleges. Applications to the University, however, requested information about race and religion, and African American and Jewish students were categorized as different from white and Christian students. Based on this information, the University created a racial hierarchy of its students, keeping African American students, in particular, at the bottom of the ladder. Documents and charts as simple as counts of incoming students’ physical exams and information about out-of-state student populations reveal how University administrators focused on Jewish and African American students as “problems.” President Lotus D. Coffman led the effort to maintain this hierarchy. He was committed to the expansion of the University and the value of a liberal arts education, but he was also the architect of taxpayer funded segregated housing both on and off the campus.
The names stand in for the images that do not exist.
African American Students Experienced Exclusion from Student Housing Throughout the 1930s
Student activism at the University of Minnesota in the 1930s began with the mobilization to integrate student housing and against racism on campus. African American and other students worked together to change these policies. Activists in the African American community mobilized Minnesotans to protest racial segregation as well. They ultimately succeeded, but some segregation in housing persisted into the 1950s.
As the number of students who attended the University of Minnesota increased, many more required housing because they did not live in Minneapolis or Saint Paul. Sanford Hall, the first dormitory, was built for young women in 1910. It was named for Maria Sanford, a popular professor of rhetoric. She taught from 1880 to 1909. The first men’s dormitory, Pioneer Hall, opened in 1931. Students who did not live in dormitories sought rooms in University-approved boarding houses, which dotted neighborhoods around the campus.
In 1932, the Board of Regents of the University required all students to live in approved housing. They could live at home, in a dormitory, in a cooperative housing unit, or in privately owned boarding houses, all vetted by administrators. The University, therefore, played an increasingly important role in controlling students’ lives by deciding what was acceptable housing.
Four University of Minnesota presidents responded to the issue of housing, race, and religion over more than two decades. President Guy Stanton Ford (1873–1962) ended segregation in student housing in 1937 as acting president. Ford’s policies were reversed, however, by Walter Coffey (1876–1956), who served as president from 1941 to 1945, and can be documented supporting segregation until 1942. James Lewis Morrill (1891-1979) served as president from 1945 until he retired in 1960 and demanded an end to racial and religious segregation in University approved boarding-houses. These four men, three of whom were born within a few years of one another, all white, and all midwestern, took different stands on racial integration in student housing, and reveal that the fight for and against racism took place within the same era at the University of Minnesota.
Slamming the Dormitory Doors on African American Students: John Pinkett, Jr. and Norman Lyght, and the Beginning of the Coffman Policy on Segregated Housing
In October of 1931, at the start of his freshman year, John Pinkett, Jr., of Washington D.C., moved into Pioneer Hall, the newly built men’s dormitory. Only a few hours later, President Coffman was notified that an African American student was living there. Pinkett was promptly asked to leave, having spent one night.
In 1934, Norman Lyght, another African American student, from Lutsen, Minnesota, arrived on campus with a federal aid grant requiring him to live in a campus dormitory. He was not allowed to spend a single night in the dormitory.
Undergraduate Warren Grissom, Chairman of the Interracial Committee of the Negro Student Council, presented a report about the state of segregated housing to Local 444 of the American Federation of Teachers at the invitation of Political Science Professor Benjamin Lippincott in 1937. In the report he recounted what happened to Norman Lyght.
President Coffman Insisted on Racially Segregated Housing
Lotus Coffman formalized the commitment to segregated housing, on behalf of the Board of Regents, in a 1935 letter that responded to the report of the All-University Council Committee on Negro Discrimination. The report called for a change in housing policy. Coffman’s letter became the subsequent rationale for denying all African American students the right to live in University housing.
President Coffman asserted that segregated housing was essential to the University of Minnesota and did not constitute discrimination. Coffman not only claimed that racially segregated housing served both white and African American students best—he insisted that only white students were entitled to live in campus housing paid for by Minnesota taxpayers.
President Coffman used the same rationales for enforcing segregation for the remainder of his tenure. In 1936, he received a letter from Roy Wilkins (1901–1981), an alumnus of the University, who would ultimately head the NAACP. Wilkins was shocked to learn that African American students were not being allowed to move into the dormitories.
Excluding African American Women From University Housing: Ahwna Fiti, Audrey Beatrize, and Elizabeth Murphy Were Asked to Leave their Student Housing
Ahwna Fiti, the third African American woman admitted to the School of Nursing, enrolled in the fall of 1933. She moved into the newly built Nurses Hall (later Powell Hall), where all students were required to live. The key enforcers of segregated housing mobilized immediately, demanding that Ms. Fiti find other housing. President Coffman received competing opinions about the matter.4
Elias P. Lyon (1867–1937), Dean of the Medical School, took exception to removing Ms. Fiti, despite initially opposing the integration of the School of Nursing. During the previous year, nursing students lived together in a cottage that was racially integrated. Now, at the insistence of Dean of Women Anne Blitz, the housing of nurses had to be segregated.
Sending Women Students Away from their New “Homes”
In 1936, incoming students Audrey L. Beatrize of Cyrana Lodge, Turtle River, Minnesota, and Elizabeth Murphy of Baltimore, Maryland, looked forward to their first homes at the University in the Cooperative Cottages, located on Beacon Street on the East Bank of the campus. They planned to join other women students in sharing meals, possibly cooking responsibilities, and common spaces.
When the head of housing, Mrs. Catherine McBeath, learned that these young women, accompanied by their mothers, were African Americans, she informed them that they had to find other housing because of “University policy.” She had the full support of Dean of Women Anne Blitz, who vigorously supported segregated student housing. Once again, Gertrude Brown was contacted at Phyllis Wheatley House to find these students housing away from campus with African American families.
Dean Anne Blitz as an Enforcer of Segregated Housing
Dean Blitz’s zeal for segregation was striking. Shortly after Elizabeth Murphy and her mother were notified that there was no “home” for Elizabeth at the University of Minnesota, Blitz received a letter from the Dean of Women at Howard University, Lucy Diggs Slowe. Howard University is a historically Black college and was segregated when she wrote to Dean Blitz to ask her to be certain to look after Elizabeth, the daughter of a very close friend.
This correspondence between Dean Anne Blitz of the University of Minnesota and Dean Lucy Slowe of Howard University was one more occasion for Dean Blitz to reiterate the University of Minnesota’s commitment to segregated housing. Further, Dean Blitz insisted that housing segregation was an economic necessity, which revealed the administration’s fear that white students would not live in a dormitory that was racially integrated.
When Dean Blitz genially wondered if Dean Slowe would attend their next gathering of Deans of Women in New Orleans, Dean Slowe had to point out to her that she would not be allowed on an elevator in the hotel where they were gathering because she was an African American. Slowe declined to attend.
These three letters reveal the very different assumptions held by these two Deans of Women. African American Lucy Slowe is shocked that the University of Minnesota, a northern university, would create segregated housing. Dean Blitz assumes, without embarrassment, that the races should be segregated in the United States, whether it is in a dormitory or a hotel.
Charlotte Crump, an African American Voice about Student Housing
Charlotte Crump was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota in the mid to late 1930s. She was active in campus politics, a founder of the Negro Student Council, and studied to be a journalist. Ms. Crump wrote a semi-fictionalized account of the experiences African American students had finding on-campus housing. It appeared in the campus literary supplement of the Minnesota Daily. Crump also explained in her fictional letters home how marginalized she felt as an African American student “at a big Northern University.” She concluded her story with the actual formation of the Negro Student Council. She explained that though the American Student Union, the largest national movement of progressive students, had approached many of them to work together, the African American students wanted to act through their own organization.
The publication of “This Free North” prompted Dean Blitz to write to Charlotte Crump to request a meeting with her. Blitz chastised Crump for failing to contact the Dean in order to avoid “misstatements” in her story. There is no record of whether or not they met. Crump’s story was remarkably accurate about housing, according to all other sources.
The Fight to Open the Doors from 1930–1938
Student activists condemned campus racism. The Biracial Committee of the YMCA and YWCA sought to transform the treatment of African Americans on campus, beginning in the 1920s. African American journalist Homer Smith was a student activist in the 1920s, and in 1928 he was involved in protesting the exclusion of an African American woman from admission to the School of Nursing.
These activists drew on well-established traditions in the Twin Cities where African Americans were anything but passive in the face of racism. They organized social, religious, and defense organizations and churches. Settlement houses in Minneapolis and St. Paul played important roles in offering social, economic, and political connections. Similarly, NAACP chapters were established in St. Paul in 1913 and in Minneapolis in 1914 to combat discrimination. The Urban League, founded in the 1920s, focused very effectively on creating job opportunities for African Americans.
African Americans had endured intense racism in Minnesota. The white supremacist Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s (100,000 members in the state in 1928) and the Silver Shirts in the 1930s fomented violence and racism against African Americans. A lynching of African American circus workers in Duluth in 1920 happened in this milieu. Racism pervaded the Twin Cities in every aspect of daily life: housing, employment, access to restaurants and entertainment, schools, and social interactions.
As segregated housing grew with the expansion of both on-campus dormitories and near-campus cottages, and the number of African American students grew to more than fifty, the issue gained prominence.
In 1936, students founded the Negro Student Council and cemented their ongoing leadership of the struggle against racism on campus.
The Student Campaign to End On-Campus Segregation
The students who fought for integrated housing found allies in student government, among the faculty, in the student movement, and with the African American press and leadership. Through petitions, fact-finding reports, testimony, and articles and editorials in the Minnesota Daily, they challenged President Coffman and those on his staff in charge of housing who worked to enforce segregation.
Taking on President Coffman
The All-University Council, the name of student government in the 1930s, appointed a committee of African American and white students to assess discrimination against African Americans in 1935. The student members presented a detailed argument opposing segregated housing, and requested that one African American male student be admitted to Pioneer Hall.
Student activists continued to press their case through the efforts of a faculty ally. Benjamin Lippincott (1912–1988) joined the University’s Department of Political Science in 1932 and retired in 1971. No member of the faculty was more supportive of student rights and freedom, and more opposed to segregation. In 1937, Professor Lippincott invited undergraduate Warren Grissom to assess the state of housing for African American students for the American Federation of Teachers, which functioned as a union-like structure for faculty. He presented the report at their meeting on campus on January 21, 1938. The signers of the report included members of the recently created Negro Student Council and their white allies who worked on the Interracial Committee.
The University’s racist student housing policies were carefully monitored and responded to by the African American press and community leaders. Journalists from the Minneapolis Spokesman (continuously in print since 1935) read the Minnesota Daily regularly and summarized articles about housing in their pages. Community leaders’ contributions were essential to changing the policies.
These two articles appeared in the Spokesman during the period of student activism. They were highly critical of President Coffman and praised student activists.
Guy Stanton Ford Ended Segregated Campus Housing From 1937–1941
President Ford assumed leadership of the University due to President Coffman’s illness in 1937, and subsequent death on September 22, 1938. In the fall semester, another effort was made to integrate the Cooperative Cottages when Audrey Beatriz, an African American undergraduate, sought to move into an open room. Mrs. McBeath, who managed housing, demanded that the residents vote on whether the student could move in, which had no precedent. The young women voted 60–44 against admitting her. The majority of those who voted would not have even shared living space with Ms. Beatriz.
Acting President Ford then took a firm stand to stop segregated housing. In a letter to Comptroller Middlebrook, he directed the immediate opening of campus housing to any student who was a resident of the State of Minnesota, regardless of race.
Acting President Ford sent a copy of this letter to the Minnesota Daily upon the request of the editor. In it, he laid out his rationale for the new policy, and his outrage at segregation in particular. He wrote:
“I could not conceive of the responsible officer of this state University supported by all classes taking discriminatory action based on creed, or color, or political faith. Our classrooms are freely open to any qualified student who conforms to the purposes and procedures of an institution of higher learning. The same policy applies to our other facilities.”
The Minneapolis Spokesman reported the long-awaited end of segregated housing on campus:
“The successful culmination of the long fight against the University’s discrimination policy in regard to housing Negro students in its various housing units was seen as a result of the statement made by the “Minnesota Daily” on Tuesday of this week by Dean Guy Stanton Ford, acting president in the absence of President Coffman. In a drastic reversal of what had formerly been an “unwritten policy,” Dean Ford gave the “Minnesota Daily” a copy of a letter dated December 20th, 1937 and addressed to William T. Middlebrook, comptroller.
Organizations and individuals alike who never gave up the fight in the face of little or no advantage gained are to be commended. Especially noteworthy was the unprecedented action of Warren Grissom and Beatrice Schuck, respectively representing the Negro Student Council and the Hallie Q. Brown Forum, in carrying the issue to the Minnesota Branch of the American Federation of Teachers and eventually to Governor Benson.
Among those individuals who helped bring the matter to a climax were Charlotte Crump, whose “Free North” did much to set the campus thinking on the race issue and intolerance in general. Arnold Walker who single handed carried the fight two years ago: Helene Hilyer, John F. Thomas, and numerous white students.
Outstanding among organizations who have put their shoulder to the wheel in the interest of tolerance and fair play are the National Students’ Union, the Farmer-Labor Party, and the Negro Student Council.”
President Walter Coffey Created a Jim Crow House for African American Male Students During WWII. The Largest Mobilization Against Campus Racism Followed.
Walter Coffey became President of the University of Minnesota in 1941, on the eve of WWII, and quickly challenged President Ford’s policy of integrated student housing. His staff, including Comptroller William Middlebrook, created an “International House” in 1941 on Washington Avenue SE, in a building owned by the University.
International in name only, it was NOT for international students, but for African American men. President Coffman had formulated this idea in the early 1930s. Part of the impetus for creating this cooperative house was likely the fact that the Wheatley Settlement House no longer provided housing for African American students.
Student activists rejected segregated housing and integrated the International House with white and African American student residents, as well as Japanese American students awaiting admission to the University during the period of Japanese American citizens’ internment. The Japanese American students were ultimately rejected by President Coffey.
The house was immediately shut down by the head of Pioneer Hall as soon as he learned it housed both African American and white student residents. The University sacrificed a $6,000 investment to refurbish the cooperative house in order to avoid integrated housing.
A student uprising followed. If the fight to integrate housing in 1935 involved a few dozen students, the fight in 1942 involved over a thousand students. With the United States at war to fight for democracy in Europe, this blatant racism was noted by the activists on and off campus.
The “FACTS” of the Segregated International House
The Minnesota Daily reported in detail over many weeks on the events related to the University closing the International House because it was integrated, and Garland Kyle became one of the leaders of the protest.
Within a short time, African American students on campus acted together to protest the University’s insistence that the International House remain segregated.
The Civil Rights Committee, an integrated group of student activists chaired by Leonard Lecht, campaigned to expose and defeat segregated housing on campus. Along with many other organizations on campus they pressured President Coffey to make a public statement on whether or not the University of Minnesota supported segregated housing. They would not back down from demanding the statement, and no member of the Coffey administration responded to the demand.
These activists built alliances with multiple student groups on campus, collected 1,200 signatures on a petition opposing segregation, organized rallies, and demanded that all student political parties with candidates running for election to the All-University Council take a stand on housing. The majority of the All-University Council voted to clarify the housing policy, but rejected supporting integration.
A “Committee of Six” emerged that included the NAACP chapters in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Minnesota Branch, and the American Federation of Teachers Local 444.
The Civil Rights Committee organized an April protest at Coffman Union where over 100 people rallied and heard from Garland Kyle and Cecil Newman, editor of the African American newspapers the Spokesman and St. Paul Recorder.
The Minneapolis Spokesman offered the fullest account of the event.
Campus segregated housing evoked letters and petitions from the Twin Cities and nationally. The letter writing campaign revealed that activists on and off campus were effectively mobilizing a variety of allies. These letters were addressed to President Coffey and took a variety of approaches to the problem of segregated housing.
They came from the Chicago Negro History Study Club, the University of Minnesota Hillel, the Central States Cooperative Movement, the Youth Committee for Democracy, based in New York City, the Minnesota State Federation of Teachers, the Jewish Anti-Defamation Council, Minnesota Representative Mabeth Paige, who served in the Minnesota House from 1923-1945, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Some letters and petitions compared on-campus segregation to Nazi policies, and others wrote about the importance of “tolerance” and ending prejudice for the future. They all described segregation on-campus as an intolerable and unacceptable position.
The segregated “International House” prompted letters to the Minnesota Daily and Minneapolis newspapers, as well as national news coverage. Harold Field, an alumnus of the University of Minnesota, wrote with outrage to the Daily about the International House as he faced being drafted to fight in WWII.
President W. C. Coffey Refused to Meet With or Reply to Students or Faculty About the Jim Crow House. Organized Resistance Finally Succeeded!
President Coffey remained silent throughout the weeks and months of protests, and forbade his staff to speak to others as well. He was invited by the on-campus Civil Rights Committee to meet with its members at the Phyllis Wheatley House, the Settlement House serving African Americans in Minneapolis, on April 24, 1942. The integrated group of student activists had strong ties in the African American community. Seven student groups, including the All-University Council, the Fabian Club, the Student Civil Rights League, the Student Social Workers Association, the Hillel Foundation, the Progressive Party, and the Northrop Club issued another invitation to President Coffey to speak at a meeting on May 6, 1942 at Coffman Memorial Union. He refused to attend either meeting.
It was not until the summer of 1942, and only after continued pressure from the NAACP and its allies, that President Coffey relented, met with two representatives of their Committee, and assured them that the University of Minnesota would end segregated housing. These two Minnesota Daily articles chart the President’s refusal to meet with students about University segregated student housing.
The small size of the African American community made political effectiveness challenging. In the 1930s, however, a new generation of leadership emerged from the Labor movement that gave rise to a different and more effective type of political activism. Activists such as Nellie Stone Johnson, Cecil Newman, and Anthony Cassius built on their union work with the Pullman Porters and hospitality industry to create a strong political movement for African American rights grounded in their own independent organizations. Alliances with the Farmer-Labor and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Parties were important to realizing a broader national commitment to civil rights.
The University Betrayed its Commitment to the Principle of Integrated Student Housing
President Coffey promised R. A. Skinner and Rev. C. T. R. Nelson, leaders of the Citizens’ Committee, that the University would integrate the International House.
However, at the same time Skinner and Nelson received these assurances the president’s staff had been hard at work a few weeks earlier proposing ways to undermine the integration of all other student housing. They were particularly concerned with ways to avoid making any public statement that either supported integrated housing, or denied the University’s commitment to it. Coffey’s assistant Dean Malcolm Willey wrote an “office memorandum” about the future of student housing. He met with five other administrators to put the plan into action. Their goal was to maintain, as much as it was possible, Pioneer Hall as an exclusively white male residence hall.
Willey’s plan required newly appointed Dean of Student Affairs Edmund Williamson to meet individually with every African American student who applied to live in Pioneer Hall in the fall of 1942 in order to counsel him to move into the International House, which was now renamed the Washington Avenue Student House. If the student insisted on living in Pioneer Hall, then Dean Williams would advise him of the rules he would be required to live by. This condescending admonition suggested that African American students were less willing to follow rules than white students.
However, the memo reveals that Dean Willey also advised the president that African American students could no longer be “kept out” of a dormitory. This reluctant conclusion suggested both how deeply the administration clung to the importance of segregation, and the lack of legal or moral support for it in 1942. Administrators actively feared an endorsement of integrated housing, and memos reveal their ongoing anxiety about African American and white students socializing together in dormitories.
By 1942, the University of Minnesota was one of the last Big Ten schools to still have segregated housing. While campus housing was at last integrated (in principle), boarding houses approved by the University continued to discriminate against Jews and African Americans. In the war years, householders could also refuse foreign and Japanese American students. A University of Minnesota oral history project included an interview with Professor David Cooperman (1927–1998) of the Department of Sociology and a founding faculty member of Jewish Studies. Cooperman was a graduate student and teaching assistant in the 1950s, and a member of the on-campus Student NAACP. He recalled that in 1948 or 1949 student activists demanded that the University reject boarding house segregation. He recounted, “Black students discovered that Dean Williamson’s housing office was noting on cards any communication from a landlord, ‘No Negroes accepted in this house.’ We went to Dean Williamson and said, ‘This is discrimination.’” Cooperman recalled Dean Williamson’s response to the students in his office when he boomed, “You’re absolutely stupid! This isn’t discrimination, and so long as I’m Dean of Students, we’re going to make these notations.” Professor Cooperman explained that the Student NAACP appealed directly to President James Lewis Morrill (1891 –1979), President of the University of Minnesota from 1945–1960, who stopped the policy. Cooperman added that Dean Williamson became an advocate in favor of the rights of minority students in just the next few years.6
Yet, one other presidential directive to integrate student housing was foiled because the policy did not change until 1954, when exclusion of African Americans, Jews, and Asian Americans was finally stopped by the University Senate.
The history of the University of Minnesota’s policies on the exclusion of students from University housing by race and religion is a story of the persistence of racism and antisemitism, enforced by administrators, often ignoring directives of presidents of the institution. These hundreds of documents and newspaper reports still provide only an incomplete story, not only of the persistence of a racial hierarchy, but the indignities and pain suffered by generations of students. The fight to open the housing doors to all students came later than to most private and public universities in the north and remains a legacy of both racism and the courageous activism of students and their allies to fight it.
Riv-Ellen Prell, an anthropologist, is Professor Emerita of American Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is co-curator of “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anticommunists, Racism and Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota 1930-1941,” an exhibit at the University of Minnesota in 2017, and curator of acampusdivid.umn.edu, which has been viewed by 17,000 people throughout the world. She is the author of many books and articles on American Jewish culture.