Friday, March 14, 2014

#MoHonest: A History of Racism and Student Protest at Mount Holyoke

If you are a part of the Mount Holyoke community, you have likely seen the #MoHonest posts around campus and online (if not, here's a statement from the students involved). This campaign was sparked by a specific incident of a Mount Holyoke student being arrested and subsequently calling out the administration and Campus Police for racism and mistreatment during her arrest (in this blog post).

As a student worker in the Archives, I have been doing research on accomplished women of color for an exhibit on Hortense Parker Day, which will be displayed in Gamble Auditorium on Tuesday, March 25.  Even before this recent incident led to widespread discussions of racism on campus, I felt it would be a glaring omission to simply laud these alumnae for their accomplishments.  I believe it is equally necessary to acknowledge the institutional racism which has actively worked against students of color, and prevented many others from attending or graduating from Mount Holyoke.

This post is in no way a complete record of racism at Mount Holyoke, but hopefully this history can give a some background on major events in the college's history.  I think it is notable that the reason we have cultural houses and ethnic studies on this campus is due to student activism and protest against the administration.  For those who might question their value, I hope that understanding how hard many struggled to bring them into existence will change your perspective.

While Hortense Parker, the first known woman of color to attend Mount Holyoke, arrived to campus in 1879, Mount Holyoke remained a predominately white institution until the 1950s.  Students of color who attended the college in earlier years were generally very light-skinned, or very wealthy, both factors which served to mitigate their racial 'otherness.' Although our college today is eager to celebrate diversity, it wasn't until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling of 1954 that Mount Holyoke and other colleges began to racially integrate on a significant level. Because racial integration started at elite private colleges due to a federal mandate, instead of an internal decision by the college administration, many of the students of color during the 1950s and 60s felt that the college was unprepared for them.

Starting in the 1960s, students of color began to organize and demand change from their college.  The earliest group of students to organize was black students, both because they were the predominant racial minority on campus, and because of the national context of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. The first black student organization, the Afro-American Society, was formed in 1967, and on December 12, 1968, the organization held its first sit-in.  This sit-in, which was noted to be quiet and peaceful, was held on the steps of Mary Lyon Hall to demand a separate space for black students to meet. The next day, the Ad Hoc Committee on Multi-Racial Community met to discuss the request, and after a special meeting in New York City between several black students and the Board of Trustees, the request for a black student center was approved. The first building, an abandoned dorm called Woodbridge, burned down just a month later in January 1969. While arson was suspected by many, the origin of the fire seemed to be a forgotten lit cigarette, although the causes were never fully determined. After using an old carpenter shop and trailer as a temporary space, the students were given the current space of 2 Dunlap Place, later renovated and expanded in 1972.

In December 1969, the Afro-American Society submitted a list of demands to President David B. Truman, concerning financial aid, admissions, and other policies.  After many meetings and a lack of substantive action, the group withdrew their support from the summer A Better Chance (ABC) program, due to a lack of student and POC involvement with the program's leadership.  Black students at the Five Colleges, in response to widespread racism and lack of administrative response to their needs, formed the Five College Black Community.  This led to a Five College takeover by about 250 students of four buildings at Amherst College from 1-3:30am on February 18, 1970.   The students used tactics of hiding in buildings until they were locked or simply walking in and asking everyone to leave, on the advice of some professors from UMass.  They demanded Black Studies programs, an increase in faculty of color, and higher recruitment of students of color, among other requests relating to respect and self-determination for black students.

On February 24, President Truman met with student representatives, but decided that their requests did not have enough priority and would not be considered until April.  All of the other college presidents had begun negotiations with the students, so another sit-in was planned specifically for Mount Holyoke.  At 4am on February 27, a statement of Five College black solidarity ending with "All Power to All People, Black Power to Black People" was read on the Five College radio station.  At 12:30pm, about 200 Five College students took over seven Mount Holyoke buildings: Skinner, Mary Lyon, Kendade, Clapp, Carr, and the library.  This time, the sit-in was not as peaceful, with small items stolen from offices and damage done to doors and windows.  Professors held classes in their homes and in dorms when students barred the doors to classroom buildings.

A motion was quickly passed by the faculty for the Academic Planning Committee to immediately consider the Black Studies proposal.  President Truman held an all-college meeting to state his position, and he was given two standing ovations for disapproving of the students' methods of action.  The sit-in was covered by national newspapers, and many alumnae sent in letters to the president.  Most of the letters approved of the students' actions, but many were negative and withdrew funding from the college.

For several years after, particular racist events and a general racist atmosphere left many students of color unsatisfied with their college experience.  A group of black students, upon graduating in 1973, wrote a letter to the administration expressing their frustration with the lack of diversity in the college curriculum, and ended their letter by quoting the Langston Hughes poem "A Dream Deferred."  Two years later the Afro-American Society requested a better advising process for students of color, and a counselor specifically trained in minority issues, neither of which was addressed until the request was brought up again years later.

On April 16, 1979, a KKK-style cross was burned on the lawn in front of an all-black dorm at Amherst College. The event was later found to have been instigated by a group of African-American students protesting President John Ward's decision to incorporate the Black Students Orientation into the general college Orientation program. But this shocking event led to a coalition of student organizations asking that students, staff, and faculty spend all of April 26 discussing racism on campus and in the area.  This incident led to a large forum on racism held in October 1980, featuring forums, panels, dorm discussions, workshops, music, and theater events.

A riot at UMass following the World Series on October 20, 1986 left eleven students injured, seven of whom were students of color.  Following this event, there were widespread reports of women of color being sexually harassed on the UMass campus, leading to many women of color from Mount Holyoke being afraid to go to UMass for their Five College classes.  Mount Holyoke students were harassed from cars driving along Route 116.  Two days later, racial slurs were spray painted on the steps of a cultural center at Smith College.  That Halloween, reportedly one of the most popular Halloween costumes was a Klansman with a noose.  In response to safety concerns, security was increased along Route 116, and a second van was added to transport students at night around campus.  An all-college meeting on racism at Mount Holyoke was held in November and covered by local TV stations.  According to some who attended the meeting, the lack of moderation led to an increase rather than a decrease in racial tension.

In 1993, La Unidad, a group for Latina students, rallied against racial attacks on Latinas at Cornell, and began to request their own space for their meetings.  La Unidad was initially given a space on Morgan Street, but when the space proved to be too small, President Elizabeth Kennan gave the groups the option of staying in that space or sharing 2 Dunlap Place with Native Spirit (a group for Native American students).  At first, La Unidad rejected the proposal because they were not included enough in the decision, but they later accepted sharing the space as the Eliana Ortega and Zowie Banteah Houses.

Throughout the 1990s, queer and Asian students from the Lesbian-Bisexual Alliance and the Asian Student Association met with the administration to request cultural spaces.  A board called The Coalition was formed to actively work for change, and on March 13, 1997, over 100 students rallied against racism and homophobia.  For 30 hours on April 21 and 22, 1997, 23 students took over Mary Lyon Hall and protested along Route 116, which was covered by national news.  Along with demanding Asian and queer cultural spaces, the students requested maintaining the need-blind admissions policy, hiring at least one Asian professor, creating an Asian-American Studies program, and re-hiring the college chaplains.

The students involved in the take-over were initially going to be suspended from the college, but instead were put on social probation, meaning that if they took action which was perceived as violating the Honor Code again within a year, they would be suspended.  After many more discussions and meetings, the Asian Center for Empowerment (ACE) House and the Jeannette Marks House were opened in 1998 and 1999, respectively.

As a member of a former student group SOAR (Sisters of All Races) said in a 1986 Mount Holyoke news article, "We have to start with dialogue, but after dialogue has to be action, because talk is cheap."  Now that the #MoHonest discussion has gotten started, hopefully the Mount Holyoke community is prepared to actively work on addressing racism on our campus.


  1. You omitted the Bennett College exchange with Bennet College in North Carolina when a cohort of students from the south came to campus for a semester. This was as early as 1959. I can't remember the date. You also omitted that there was a separate Black Student Fund which was offered as an alternative to annual fund giving to the college either through the AA or the college. I gave for many years to this fund until it was discontinued. Thanks.

    1. I hadn't found this information in my research, thank you for bringing it to my attention! I will definitely look into the Bennett College exchange and the Black Student Fund.

  2. Well done Megan, thank you for the information.

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