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.

Student Health Services provided physical examinations for all incoming students. At Registrar R. M. West’s request, Dr. Ruth Boynton, who was head of Health Services, was asked to provide information on the numbers of freshmen Jews and African Americans over three years. This information went directly to President Coffman, who constantly monitored the number of Jewish and African American students and their housing needs. The monitoring contributed to the creation of a campus racial hierarchy. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.
President Coffman requested the University Senate to track data about students in the mid-1930s. He wanted specifically to track “Negro and Jewish out-of-state students.” New York Jews were a subset who were tracked because Coffman believed they were the source of radicalism on campus. This appears in the Chase files because it was sent to him by someone from the University of Minnesota, most likely Dean Edward Nicholson, who had access to the University Senate minutes. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives. 
In 1929, the University of Minnesota YMCA and YWCA conducted a study on racial discrimination on campus. Though the committee undertaking the study refused to draw conclusions, the data and stories they collected draw a damning picture of life on campus for African Americans, who were often held to higher standards in classes, discriminated against in nearby restaurants, and afforded poor and segregated accommodations in housing. The report is one of the earliest statements of racial discrimination. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.
There are few photographs in this section on housing of the African American students who led the struggle to change the University of Minnesota and challenge its racial hierarchy. African American fraternities and a sorority had existed since the 1920s at the University, but were never included in the Gopher yearbook. Only a few African American students’ pictures appeared. They were rarely part of campus organizations, which were highly segregated. Their story is told, then, in part, through the names and activities of every African American student activist who appeared in the Minnesota Daily, or the African American press, as well as those names found in the papers of deans and presidents of the University in folders marked “Negro.”

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.

Householders who ran boarding houses were allowed to submit to the University of Minnesota preference cards indicating students who they would not accept. Jews and “Negroes” were the first two categories. By the 1940s, they also included foreigners and Asians. This document summarizes the boarding house preference cards by neighborhood and groups excluded. The University Senate collected this information and finally called on the University to reject the practice in 1954, in part due to the activism of the Student NAACP on campus. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.
President Coffman’s commitment to absolute segregated housing for white and African American students was part of his vision for the United States. In his view, education and progress were crucial to the nation, but real social change was not. In his letters to University administrators, the NAACP, and other organizations defending the rights of minorities, and to the parents of students asked to leave housing because they were African American, he had one point to make: students of different races should not live together or socialize with one another. In Coffman’s view, a fundamental hierarchy in society should be maintained, built on unique privileges to white students and a complete separation of students of different races in any part of social life.
Lotus Coffman (1875–1938) served as the fifth president of the University from 1920 until his death in 1938. The University of Minnesota grew during his tenure to become the third largest university in the United States. He expanded both the physical plant, and oversaw the growth of the student body and faculty. Though committed to the liberal arts, Coffman was an ardent supporter of social segregation among the students. African American and Jewish students were admitted in growing numbers during the 1930s, and he used housing as a medium to support a racial hierarchy on campus. He was the architect of segregated, publicly financed student housing. As he expanded opportunities for white students, he carefully monitored the increase in minority students. He envisioned segregated housing for African American male students, which the University created after Coffman’s death. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.

This brochure advertised Pioneer Hall, which was to open in 1931 as the first dormitory for male students. Housing segregation was formalized when John Pinkett, Jr., an African American student, was refused a room the first day of his freshman year. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives. See supporting documents:
John Pinkett, Sr., a successful Washington, D.C. businessman, wrote to President Coffman in 1931 to express his outrage after learning that his son was asked to leave Pioneer Hall. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.
President Coffman replied to the letter he received from the head of the Minneapolis NAACP, L.O. (Lena Olive) Smith, condemning his decision to remove a John Pinkett, Jr., an African American student, from Pioneer Hall, the first men’s dormitory. This letter is Coffman’s first defense of segregated housing, and his distorted insistence that this was what African Americans wanted. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.

Warren Grissom, an undergraduate student, was invited by Professor Benjamin Lippincott in 1937 to present a report to the American Federation of Teachers, Local 44, which had an on-campus chapter on the history of segregated student housing. The report is signed by the members of the Interracial Committee of the Negro Student Council, which was formed in 1937. Images courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.
Gertrude Brown (1898–1949) was the Head Resident of the Phyllis Wheatley House, a settlement house that served African Americans on the north side of Minneapolis. She was a major figure of African American life locally and nationally. Each time an African American student attempted to move into student housing, Miss Brown was called and asked to find housing for the students. She was on the front line of responding to the University of Minnesota’s racism. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.
In both cases, the University contacted Gertrude Brown (1888–1939), Director of the Phyllis Wheatley House, an African American Settlement House on the north side of Minneapolis. University deans expected her to find housing for these and other students that the University rejected. The Wheatley House provided social services and meeting rooms for African American organizations, and housed college students and visiting luminaries who were barred through segregation from living on campus or staying in hotels.

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 Lotus Coffman sent this reply to the All University Council’s Committee on Negro Discrimination in response to its eight page report calling on the president to allow one African American male student to integrate Pioneer Hall. The document laid out the legal arguments for integration, and demonstrated that a growing number of colleges and universities in the north had integrated housing. Coffman rejected their suggestion on behalf of the Board of Regents, and acknowledged that there were issues around housing. Secretly, members of his administration were laying the groundwork to create segregated housing for African American males. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.


This 1937 letter to the Minnesota Daily may be the the first time discrimination against African American students in on-campus housing was published. Gordon Brooks wrote an “open letter” to President Coffman castigating him for refusing to answer a question from a “Negro student,” who asked why two African American women students were not allowed to live in student housing. Brooks criticized President Coffman for not only refusing to answer, but for claiming that the purpose of the forum was to discuss “social issues,” which did not include racial segregation. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

Throughout the 1930s, President Coffman sought a “solution” to the “problem” of housing African American students. This 1936 letter from Comptroller Middlebrook, who oversaw housing for the University, to Catherine McBeath, who managed housing, reveals Coffman’s preferred solution. In this letter, Middlebrook inquired about the availability of a University-owned property to house “Negro men.” He advocated “Jim Crow,” or segregated housing, a vision that was finally realized after his death in 1941, when the University created the “International House.” That segregated housing unit led to massive protests and the final end of campus segregation. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.

President Coffman’s letter to Roy Wilkins, already a prominent Civil Rights activist in the NAACP and an alum of the University of Minnesota, responded to Wilkins’ concern about African American students being asked to leave student housing. It contained a remarkable number of lies. Coffman repeated, without any proof, that John Pinkett, Jr. was sent by an organization to integrate the dorm. He claimed, without embarrassment, that a building would be used for African American student residences, which did not occur while he was president. He insisted that African Americans themselves sought to live separately. Coffman was so committed to segregation that he twisted facts to fit his purpose. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.


Letter from Dean Elias P. Lyon to President Lotus D. Coffman urging him not to force an African American nursing student from Nurses Hall, despite the insistence of the Dean of Women and other members of Coffman’s staff. Lyon rejected the segregation of the residence. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.
Letter from Comptroller William Middlebrook to President Coffman in opposition to integrated housing for the nursing program at the University of Minnesota. President Coffman sided with Middlebrook and against Medical School Dean Elias Lyon. Middlebrook proposed paying Ms. Fiti, the nursing student, to live elsewhere. Coffman did not agree. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota.
This 1936 Gopher yearbook page on the School of Nursing at the University of Minnesota reveals some of the reasons that the administration would not allow integration of the house. Half of the montage is devoted to focusing on nurses as feminized rather than as professionals. They were expected to learn to pour tea and to socialize by a fireplace and on a terrace. These expectations were clearly not thought of as the norm for African American women. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.

Dean Lucy Slowe Diggs of Howard University requested help from the University of Minnesota’s Dean of Women, Anne Blitz, to help her close friend’s daughter find housing. She was to learn that Dean Blitz would not help because the incoming freshman woman was African American. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.


Dean of Women Anne Blitz replied to Dean Lucy Slowe’s inquiry about her friend’s daughter who would be attending the University of Minnesota in 1936. Dean Blitz explained that there was no campus housing for Negro students. Blitz suggests it is for economic reasons since white students would not stay in dormitories. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.
Dean Slowe’s letter responds to a double injury of racism. First, she expresses her disappointment and amazement that a large public northern University would discriminate against African American students by excluding them from on-campus housing. Despite various administrators’ insistence that there was no “policy” excluding African American students from housing, Dean Blitz insisted there was. The second indignity that Dean Slowe mentioned was that for her to attend a national gathering of deans of women in New Orleans she would be forced to use a freight elevator and would not be able to dine in the dining room. Dean Blitz seemed oblivious to students’ and the dean’s experience of racism. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.
Lucy Diggs Slowe (1885–1937) was the Dean of Women at Howard University, the first African American woman to hold that title. She wrote to the University of Minnesota Dean of Women, Anne Blitz, in order to ask her to find housing for the daughter of a close friend, who was African American. Her correspondence with Dean Blitz is an important statement of how racial segregation worked at the University of Minnesota. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.
Dean Anne Blitz was Dean of Women at the University of Minnesota from 1923–1949. She was strongly committed to racially segregated student housing because she feared informal social interaction between white students and students of color. Her position did not change until 1938 when President Guy Stanton Ford outlawed excluding African American students from on-campus housing. Dean Blitz also worked closely with Dean Edward Nicholson to limit student freedom in political participation on campus. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.


In this fictionalized account of real events, Crump reflects on her disillusionment with university life in a northern city, in particular the intolerance of white college students she encountered, who she associates with the frigid cold of the Minnesota winter. Written as a series of letters to her sister, “Marsh,” Crump recalls the struggle to organize African American students on campus and to address issues of discrimination on campus, namely the problem of segregated housing. She concludes with the formation of the Negro Student Council. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.
Charlotte Crump (1918–1990) was an important activist at the University of Minnesota. She entered the University in 1935 and appeared on the cover ofOpportunity Magazine, a publication of the Urban League, as a freshman. She was a founder of the Negro Student Council in 1937, where she worked for the integration of dormitories and cooperative cottages on campus. Crump’s story “This Free North” appeared in the literary supplement of the Minnesota Daily, and it was singled out by the African American newspaper, the Minneapolis Spokesman, for its impact on the campus. She was the first African American to serve on the Minnesota Gopher yearbook and graduated in 1939. In 1942, she ran for the All University Council. She later became a journalist at the Pittsburgh Courier, worked at the national office of the NAACP in Washington, D.C., and moved to San Francisco where she founded the Jack and Jill Clubs. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.


In her letter to Charlotte Crump, Dean of Women Anne Blitz argues that her essay “This Free North,” which appeared in the 1937 Literary Supplement, contained “misstatements” and questions the veracity of Crump’s accounts of campus life. Crump described the experience of being an African American student on the campus. In fact, Crump’s description of housing and African American students is verified through other sources. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.

This remarkable eight-page report was produced by an integrated group of undergraduate and graduate students as members of the student government, the All-University Council’s Committee on Negro Discrimination. It was sent to President Coffman in 1935 with the request that one African American male student be admitted to the dormitory. The authors covered legal rights for integration. They queried colleges and universities throughout the United States about integrated student housing. They spoke to students on the campus. It represented an impressive amount of effort and commitment. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.


Warren Grissom, an undergraduate student, was invited by Professor Benjamin Lippincott in 1937 to present a report to the American Federation of Teachers, Local 44, which had an on-campus chapter on the history of segregated student housing. The report is signed by the members of the Interracial Committee of the Negro Student Council, which was formed in 1937. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.
This 1937 letter to the Minnesota Daily may be the the first time discrimination against African American students in on-campus housing was published. Gordon Brooks wrote an “open letter” to President Coffman castigating him for refusing to answer a question from a “Negro student,” who asked why two African American women students were not allowed to live in student housing. Brooks criticized President Coffman for not only refusing to answer, but for claiming that the purpose of the forum was to discuss “social issues,” which did not include racial segregation. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.


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.

In 1937, the Negro Student Council at the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Spokesman urged readers to telegram Governor Benson in support of fighting racial segregation and discrimination on campus. Led by Arnold Walker, the initiative hoped to dispel President Coffman’s theory that Twin Cities residents and students were “perfectly satisfied” with current conditions. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

The Minneapolis Spokesman article, “Students Give Lessons,” appeared on October 25, 1935 to criticize President Coffman’s support for segregated housing on campus. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.

Guy Stanton Ford (1873–1962) was the sixth president of the University of Minnesota from October of 1938–1941. He served as the first Dean of the Graduate School and chair of the Department of History. President Ford overturned racial segregation in publicly financed student housing immediately upon assuming the acting presidency because of President Coffman’s illness. He played a critical role in bringing the William Schaper case to the Board of Regents. Schaper had been fired by the Regents as insufficiently pro-war in 1917. Not only did the Regents overturn the decision, but they also adopted a code of Academic Freedom for faculty that President Ford initiated. He transformed the University of Minnesota. Ford was required to retire in 1941 and became Executive Secretary of the American Historical Association. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.”


William R. Simms writes in support of Dean Guy Stanton Ford’s decision to allow integrated student housing on the University of Minnesota campus in the Minneapolis Spokesman, which covered the struggle for integration from its founding in 1934. Simms quotes at length from the Minnesota Daily‘s coverage of the issue, whose editor, Jay Richter, published an editorial criticizing the administration for its policies of segregation. Simms also acknowledges the importance of other campus figures who contributed to the new policy, including noting the importance of Charlotte Crump’s “This Free North” story that appeared in the campus literary magazine. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.”

Helene Hilyer was the granddaughter of the first African American male graduate of the University of Minnesota. She attended the university as an undergrad from 1934 to 1938—this graduation picture is included among the graduates from the School of Education. Her activities included membership in the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha for African American women. The remainder of her activities focused on peace activism. The Minneapolis Spokesman lists her as an activist for the integration of student housing. Hilyer earned her master’s degree in 1941, but was unable to find a job teaching in Minnesota because no one would hire African Americans. She moved to New York and ultimately Hawaii where she held elected offices and was active in the Democratic Party. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.

President Walter C. Coffey (1876–1956) was president of the University of Minnesota from 1941–1945. He was introduced to students in the 1942 Gopher yearbook. President Coffey noted in the Gopher yearbook feature about him that the only drawback to his job was that he “met too many old people and too few students.” Coffey supported the creation of the International House in 1942, a misnamed residence that was to exclusively house African American men in order to keep dormitories segregated. Despite major campus upheaval, he refused to ever meet, or to allow his staff to meet, with students over the months of protest about his support for segregated housing. Although he agreed to integrate the house after meeting with representatives of the NAACP, he continued to work with his staff to ensure that African American men would not be allowed into Pioneer Hall. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

The “FACTS” of the Segregated International House

The University’s claim about why it closed its segregated International House was based on unconvincing “facts” contained in an unsigned “Report on the Facts” provided to the Dean of Student Affairs. The agreed-upon fact was that Garland Kyle, a graduate student in Mathematics who was African American, sought housing through the University in the Fall of 1941. A white student did as well. They were invited by Housing Services to move into a cooperative house at 624 Washington Avenue SE, refurbished by the University for over $6,000. Garland Kyle moved into the house in the winter quarter of 1942. He was joined by Harry Andre, a white student. Garland Kyle never agreed to the “fact” that this house would serve only African American men, nor did his roommate Benjamin Solomon.Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.

Newspaper article detailing the charge against the University administration for racial discrimination in student housing, particularly for closing a cooperative house, misleadingly named International House, that students had integrated on the grounds that it was “strictly for Negroes.” Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

Report in the Minnesota Daily on instances of racial discrimination in University of Minnesota student housing. Garland Kyle, an African American graduate student, recounts an instance when a white student was compelled to move out of International House to maintain policies of segregation. Representatives for the NAACP argue that the strongest influence on the administration’s decision to reverse these policies would be widespread student protest. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

Unprecedented Mobilization—Calling Out Segregation in Wartime

Within a short time, African American students on campus acted together to protest the University’s insistence that the International House remain segregated.

African American students published an “Open Letter to the Gentlemen in the Administration” in the Minnesota Daily, protesting the University administration’s policy of discrimination and the closing of the International House because students integrated it. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.

Betty Alexander writes in the Minneapolis Spokesman about a protest meeting at Coffman Union organized to protest the creation of an “International House,” whose purpose was to provide segregated housing for African American male students. This segregated house reversed the longstanding racial segregation policies at the University of Minnesota. Alexander references a speech made by Cecil Newman, editor of the Spokesman, who applauded Dean Guy Stanton Ford for a decision that was “based on the finest convictions of American democracy.” He compared Hitler’s theories to the promotion of segregation in the United States. He noted that rights for African Americans was the true test of American democracy for which a war was being fought. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.


These letters from throughout the United States were sent to President Coffey to protest the segregation of African American men in the International House. They come from a range of organizations that were committed to equality for African Americans and their struggle for civil rights, including teacher and social worker unions. One letter from the Jewish Community Relations Council is early evidence of support by the newly formed organization to combat antisemitism for an African American effort to integrate housing. Letters courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.

Alumnus Harold Field writes a letter to the editor, appearing in the Minnesota Daily on April 24, 1942. As a draftee, Field argues that by urging him to sacrifice for democracy, the University administration should also commit itself to the reversal of its policies of racial discrimination. He responded to campus protests against the creation of the “International House,” which was created in order to provide segregated housing for African American male students. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.

This article in the Minnesota Daily reports President Coffey’s refusal to address, or allow other administrators to address, representatives of campus organizations on the topic of discrimination and student housing. Despite the cancellation, the student committee on civil rights held a forum at the Student Union and seven campus groups agreed to pursue official action on the question. Students heard from graduate student Garland Kyle, who lived in the house and helped to lead the protest, and Cecil Newman, editor of the Minneapolis Spokesman. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.
The Minnesota Daily reports on a large student protest organized to pressure the University administration into making a declaration on student rights and housing. President Coffey refused to make a statement on the closing of the International House when white students moved into a segregated house exclusively for African American men, or “the Negro problem,” despite a petition with over 1,000 student signatures calling for his reversal of longstanding discrimination policies on campus. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.
ICecil Newman (1903–1976) was an American civic leader and founded the Minneapolis Spokesman and the St. Paul Recorder in 1934. Though a high school degree was his highest schooling, Newman was well-read—in 1965, Allen University in South Carolina awarded him an honorary law degree. He was a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters that successfully fought against segregation in the 1930s and the 1940s. He was a crucial leader in the civil rights struggle in Minneapolis, and president of the Minneapolis Urban League in 1948. His leadership of the local African American press was critical to the success of the decade-long struggle to end segregated housing at the University of Minnesota. Image courtesy of the university of Minnesota Archives.

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 Minneapolis Spokesman reported that President Coffey agreed to a new housing project which would be open “to any qualified student who wanted to room there.” His decision came after intense pressure from on-campus activists and off-campus organizations when the International House closed because it was integrated. The only record of his decision appeared in this July 31, 1934 issue of the Minneapolis Spokesman, which recounted a meeting between Coffey and the only two people whom he ever agreed to see: R.A. Skinner, President of the NAACP, and Reverend C.T.R. Nelson. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.

President Coffey appeared to relent to the demands of students and community activists who opposed segregated housing for African American men. After refusing to meet with any of those involved in the protests, he finally relented in the summer. He promised the co-chairs of the committee to change the policy that the International House would be integrated, but within weeks, his administration was working to devise a plan by which no African American student would live in Pioneer Hall and all of them would be directed to the former International House on Washington Avenue SE. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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.


In June, 1942, Dean Willey drafted a confidential statement on the International House and the growing controversy regarding the University of Minnesota’s policy of segregated student housing. Willey suggests the ejection of a white student from the house was misinterpreted by local community and rights organizations as an act of segregation, and he mounts a defense of President Coffey’s refusal to make a public statement on the issue. The document ends with a series of considerations and he proposes that the University reopen the International House as a calculated means of both diverting any public attention from the matter and discouraging African American students from applying for residency in Pioneer Hall. Willey’s goal was to avoid the University of Minnesota making a statement of support for integrated housing or taking a public stand against it. Willey intended that Coffey read the statement as a set of “running notes” in the July meeting with the Board of Regents, and adds that “no vote of any kind” is called for, as the President had been authorized to take his own decision on the matter. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives.

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, which has been viewed by 17,000 people throughout the world. She is the author of many books and articles on American Jewish culture.


This Free North premieres as part of Minnesota Experience on TPT2 on Monday, February 24 at 9 pm.