Revising History: College Hall Post-Charlottesville

in Bryn Mawr by

By Theresa Diffendal, Editor in Chief
Photo blabeled for reuse

White nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12 in a “Unite the Right” protest of the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park. Carrying torches, armed with guns, and chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans, by Saturday night one counter-protester was dead after a car was purposefully driven into a crowd. In response, President Trump told the nation there was “blame on both sides.”

That same evening at 8:09 p.m., Bryn Mawr’s SGA 2017-2018 E-Board, headed by SGA President Alisha Clark BMC ’18, sent a school-wide email. It acknowledged the events, praised the counter-protesters as “inspiration to stand for equality,” and called upon the student body to “continue to fight for justice.”

It also mentioned an event “in response to the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville and the ensuing violence” scheduled for August 19 in Philadelphia. Participants would line every block of Broad St. to “Stand Against Racism.” The email concluded with the E-Board offering to listen to any student who needed someone to talk to.

Three days later, the student body received another email, this time from President Kim Cassidy, Undergraduate Dean Jennifer Walters, and Graduate Dean Sharon Burgmayer. The email began:

Amidst the excitement and anticipation of our community coming together for a new academic year, we feel moved to speak against the demonstrations of violence, racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry in Charlottesville and around the country this weekend.

It went on to note the FBI’s warning about increased aggression from “white nationalists and racist extremists,” especially near college campuses: “The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that extremists are seeking to exploit [college’s openness and commitment to knowledge] by staging their demonstrations on or near college campuses as happened this weekend.”

It similarly called upon the student body “to affirm our commitment to inclusion, equity, and social justice,” while acknowledging that “Bryn Mawr is not immune to prejudice, racism, and bigotry.”

However, some in the Bryn Mawr community felt this response did not go far enough. In Clark’s opinion, “a lot of people I think overlooked [the first email] because it really did not say anything worthy of what actually happened.”

A week after the original email from administration, on September 22, Cassidy sent the second email and posted her message on the BMC official site, this one more personal and condemning than the last. She categorized Charlottesville as “deeply disturbing” and called the “neo-Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacist and xenophobic” protesters as “antithetical to the values we strive to embrace at Bryn Mawr.”

The second email seemed to hit the right note. “It got a lot of people’s’ attention,” Clark said.

***

Although these events happened this past summer, Clark has felt the weight of Bryn Mawr’s inability to adequately confront its own racism before.

“My first year of Bryn Mawr, I did not have such a nice time,” she said. “In only the second week of being here we had an incident with the confederate flag.”

In early September 2014, two students hung a confederate flag outside their dorm rooms in Radnor and created a line out of tape meant to represent the Mason-Dixon line. Both items were removed after peers in leadership positions confronted the students.

However, the flag was moved from the hallway to a prominent position in a window, visible to anyone on the grounds, in what one student at a later Q&A session called a “blatant show of disrespect.”

In an essay titled “Flying the flag” published on January 2015 in the “English House Gazette,” Kelli Breeden ’15 wrote that “these students said they intended to make a statement of hometown pride, both having been born and raised in the Deep South.” The students reported in a later Q&A meeting that the flag had “a stronger connection to home than the other messages.”

However, the flag is a symbol of more than just southern-pride. Since its inception during the Civil War as the flag of the Confederate States of America, the flag’s use has been imbued with cultural and racial prejudices. In this tradition, the Ku Klux Klan used the flag in the 1950s and 60s to protest the desegregation of schools. It has had widespread use among other white nationalist groups—including the protestors at Charlottesville.

Eight days after the flag was first displayed, the Bryn Mawr-Haverford-Swarthmore chapter of the NAACP arranged a meeting and planned a demonstration “in protest of the indifference [of] the administration of Bryn Mawr to this issue.” It prompted one of the first emails from the administration about the incident.

The email, signed by Dean Judy Balthazar, acknowledged the “emotional reactions among many community members” but took “pride in the fact that two institutions that lie at the core of our community—self-governance and the honor code—empowered our students to confront this issue.”

Cassidy’s response was “not the best, in my view, because it was so delayed,” Clark recalled. “The tension was deep. No one wanted to speak to each other.”

During the demonstration, students and faculty wore black, linked arms, and displayed signs such as “Administrators’ silence speak volumes” and “Ignorance is not an excuse.” The incident was picked up by news sites, including “Inside Higher Ed” and Swarthmore College’s independent campus newspaper, “The Phoenix.”

Representatives of the Radnor community and others throughout the Bryn Mawr community wanted the two students to be “examples for a stronger presence of a zero tolerance policy for racial bias and insensitivity.” As such, the students were removed from the campus residential community and one was removed from an on-campus leadership position.

***

The confederate flag incident ruined Clark’s initial impression of Bryn Mawr. “It wasn’t what I was sold on when I first entered Bryn Mawr,” she said. “I was sold on community, loving one another, respecting each other, embracing identities and feelings. But what I saw in the first two weeks was that it was…flawed. I felt like I was sold on a lie.”

She continued, “Later down the road, that was the first time I heard a student [Noor Jaber] talk about renaming Thomas. But I don’t think it was really picked up.”

As opposed to then, however, this time Clark was in a position to confront the issue head-on.

“What sparked it for me was after Charlottesville, when Kim Cassidy sent an initial response to the campus,” Clark said. “I was like, ‘Clearly we need a petition going on, something needs to be changed.’”

But what should be changed? The answer, for many, was clear: the name of one of Bryn Mawr’s most iconic buildings, Thomas Hall.

Thomas Hall’s namesake, M. Carey Thomas, was the second president of Bryn Mawr College from 1894-1922, after James E. Rhoads. As president, she increased the standard of academic rigor by making entrance exams more difficult and adding a foreign language requirement. She was the first president of the National College Women’s Equal Suffrage League and when her partner Mary Elizabeth Garrett passed, she left the equivalent of $15,000,000 in 1994 to the college.

However, she was equally strong in her racist and anti-Semitic beliefs. In a speech to students at Bryn Mawr in 1916, CollegeWomen.org found, Thomas said, “if the supremacy of the white race is maintained, as I hope it will be…” and “[the white race] is the only race to educate women.” She also warned that if America did not limit immigration, it would experience “the lowering of the physical and mental inheritance…by intermixture of unprogressive millions of backwards peoples.”

According to biographer Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, author of “The Power and the Passion of M. Carey Thomas,” Thomas also blocked the hiring of Jewish teachers and tried to bar Sadie Szold, a Jewish student, from attending Bryn Mawr School, a separate institution in Baltimore, MD that has connections to Bryn Mawr College.

***

“Me being SGA President and me being a black student…I didn’t want to be so forefront about my beliefs [concerning M. Carey Thomas],” Clark confessed.

While Clark updated the Bryn Mawr SGA status on August 18, proclaiming her intent to “fight for renaming Thomas,” she asked for other students to collect testimonies and signatures. Two other students, Toby Makowski ’18 and Maeve White ’18, picked up the ball.

On August 19, a week after the events in Charlottesville, Makowski created a petition called “Rename Thomas Great Hall.” It was initially published on the Bryn Mawr SGA Facebook page. When the petition was shared to the BMC alum group “You know you went to Bryn Mawr when…,” it received more negative feedback than initially anticipated.

For example, Liora Sitelman ’08 who described her “slightly right of center” politics as the reason for her ostracization at Bryn Mawr, disagreed with the name change, saying “the whole school was founded on [Thomas’] principles so the institution itself should just be shut down. This is frankly getting ridiculous!”

“Without M. Carey Thomas this is no BMC,” she added.

In response, Cassie Paul ’18 said, “MCT made many incredible contributions to the progress of (white) women’s education and Bryn Mawr as a competitive institution. But I don’t believe that that means we should ignore her racist, anti-Semitic, or white supremacist values. We can honor her legacy of good while disavowing her legacy of evil.”

Paul went on to say, “And, on an equally important note, we should not ignore the many unnamed and erased people of color and Jewish faith who have made BMC the place we know and love and have struggled for survival on its campus.”

Several mentioned a similar incident at Yale University earlier in 2017. A Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming was created in August 2016 after it was announced by Yale President Peter Salovey that “John C. Calhoun’s legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately promoted slavery as a ‘positive good’ fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values.”

With that, Calhoun College, an undergraduate residential college named for seventh U.S. Vice-President John. C. Calhoun, an avid defender of slavery, was renamed Grace Murray Hopper after a former masters and Ph.D. student.

***

Meanwhile, articles about the College Hall name change began appearing. One such article, published on August 29 on philly.com, a branch of the Philadelphia Media Network, and written by Johnathan Zimmerman, was titled “Bryn Mawr wrong to cleanse some references to former president.”

Zimmerman argued against removing Thomas’ name from Thomas Hall, saying “the drive to cleanse the residue of famous racists from public spaces actually distorts our understanding of racism.”

He said that Thomas’ views were not unique among women of her time and that to criminalize her would begin a massive witch-hunt that would only distract from the pressing issues of the current day.

Zimmerman concluded, “when we remove the physical traces of discredited historical figures, we give ourselves more credit than we deserve. We forget that we live in history, too, and that we will be judged by it as well.”

Regardless, in a poll created in the Bryn Mawr alumni Facebook group, over 99 individuals agreed that “M. Carey Thomas’ name should be removed from any building,” to 31 who agreed “The name should stay but M. Carey Thomas’ legacy should be put into context with informational signs and in other ways.” Three responded with “nothing should be done.”

President Cassidy’s second, more personal email about Charlottesville alluded to the discussion that had swept social media. However, she did not explicitly mention the students responsible.

She said that in response to suggestions about confronting the “objectionable beliefs of one of our founders, M. Carey Thomas,” beliefs Cassidy termed “racis[t] and anti-Semiti[c],” the college would follow through on Dean Walters’ announcement of a working group “to educate us and to lead reflection on our institutional histories of exclusion, as well as resistance.”

Furthermore, in acknowledgment of the “raw moment for members of many different marginalized groups whose rights and dignities are being attacked so openly and so viciously,” a moratorium was placed on the use of the names Thomas Great Hall and Thomas Library. For the 2017-18 academic year, the building and the large gathering space it contained would be referred to as College Hall and Great Hall. In the meantime, the working group composed of faculty, staff, and students would take up the “issue.”

Cassidy clarified that the moratorium “in no way preempts the important deliberation of the working group,” but should be seen as a first step in “fully acknowledging Thomas’ legacy of racism and anti-Semitism.”

As of right now, there has been no further discussion about the renaming aside from being mentioned at an SGA meeting. It was not even broached at Plenary. “[About the renaming], the email said for a year,” Clark said. “Yeah it’s nice to celebrate and be happy about such a great achievement, definitely since we were ready to fight for it. But a year could go by, I graduate, and what happens?”

When asked what the student body could do, she said, “please continue to sign the petition. That would be helpful.”

***

Despite taking down the signs labeled “Thomas Library” and referring to it as “College Hall” in school emails, there has not been any official word on ideas for the new name. A popular one is “Jessie Faucet” Hall, after Bryn Mawr’s first-admitted black student and a writer and intellectual of the Harlem Renaissance.

According to the CollegeWomen.org’s twitter, a collection from the Seven Sisters archives, Jessie Faucet won admission to Bryn Mawr, class of 1905, for being valedictorian of her high school. Until she showed up for classes, Bryn Mawr administration had no idea they had admitted a black woman.

“When [Faucet] popped up on campus, [Thomas] was like, ‘oh, no. You can’t come here,’” said Clark. And Faucet never officially attended; instead, within 30 days of her arrival, Thomas arranged and personally funded Faucet’s transfer to Cornell.

Other suggestions included mathematician Emmy Noether who fled the Nazis, died of ovarian cancer, and is buried at Bryn Mawr; Bryn Mawr alumna and president Mary Patterson McPherson; alumna and former head dean Karen Tidmarsh who died in 2013 from cancer; and simply Great Hall.

Em Prozinski ’20 concluded the Facebook thread with an important point: “Renaming tgh something as anonymous as “The Great Hall” when we have the opportunity to acknowledge people of color’s radical presence at Bryn Mawr (like Lee Boggs and Fauset) seems just as erasive and alienating as the original name.”

 

Correction: The print edition of the piece included a typo stating M. Carey Thomas’ partner as “Mark” when her name was “Mary.” Additionally, the word “reportedly” was removed in reference to the confederate flag incident to remove ambiguity about the reality of the incident. Information delineating Bryn Mawr School from Bryn Mawr College was added in reference to the student Sadie Szold.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*