Post-1865: Students

African American students began to matriculate at Columbia in significant numbers by the 1920s, but they remain all but invisible in the university’s archival records. This erasure can be attributed to a pervasive climate of racism, punctuated by a cross burning that occurred on campus in 1924. Still, several early black students continued on to illustrious careers despite the discrimination they faced as students. We hope to uncover more of their stories through further research.

George Edmund Haynes

George Edmund Haynes

George Edmund Haynes was the first African American student to receive a doctoral degree at Columbia University, in 1912. He is best known as one of the founders of the National Urban League, a civil rights organization that continues to exist in the present day. Haynes was a pioneering sociologist who devoted his life’s work to studying the conditions of African Americans living in urban areas, particularly New York, in the early decades of the twentieth century. Through his academic work and activism, Haynes strove to combat racist discrimination. He published his dissertation, The Negro at Work in New York City, with Columbia University Press.

During his time at Columbia, Haynes also studied and taught at the New York School of Philanthropy, which later became Columbia’s School of Social Work. He used his research to train social workers, arguing that rigorous sociological research was needed to address structural inequalities in urban areas. Haynes, like his contemporary, W.E.B. Du Bois, demonstrated that urban black poverty was produced by socioeconomic inequality and aggravated by racism. He contested the dominant assumption of the time that African Americans were inherently biologically or morally inferior to white Americans.

Haynes was involved with several civil rights associations while he was a student, and he channeled these efforts into founding the organization that grew into the National Urban League in 1910. The work of Haynes and the League became especially important as millions of African Americans began to move from the rural South to the urban North during World War I, a development known as the Great Migration.

Frederick W. Wells

Frederick W. Wells

Frederick W. Wells grew up in Union City, Tennessee, and studied at Wilberforce University, Ohio State, and Yale before matriculating at Columbia Law School in 1924. Wells was the first black student to live in Columbia’s dormitories on campus during the academic year. Many of the white students in his dorm, Furnald Hall, at first mistook Wells for an employee. Soon, however, a group of white students mounted a campaign for Wells to be evicted from the dorm. The most outspoken advocate for Wells’s eviction was John B. Rucker, a white law student from North Carolina.

The Columbia administration refused to acquiesce to the demands of Rucker and the other white students, upholding Wells’s right to stay in his dorm. The controversy came to a head in the early hours of April 3, 1924, when a group of men burned a cross outside Furnald Hall in the style of the Ku Klux Klan. The action clearly targeted Wells, and news of the incident spread quickly through national media coverage. Wells stood his ground. He received messages of support from groups ranging from fellow students to the NAACP.

While Dean Herbert Hawkes, representing Columbia, defended Wells’s right to remain in his residence, the university aimed to downplay the event and took no significant steps towards resolving the broader problem of racism on campus. Rucker, the instigator of the event, faced no disciplinary action and graduated from Columbia Law School in good standing later the same year. Wells left Columbia to earn his law degree at Cornell. He became an advocate for the legal rights of African Americans in issues related to labor and real estate.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston Portrait

Zora Neale Hurston was the first black woman to attend Barnard College. She arrived at Barnard in 1925 after transferring from Howard University, and she graduated in 1928. Although Barnard was founded with the progressive goal of providing a space at Columbia for the education of women, and Barnard founder Annie Nathan Meyer offered Hurston a scholarship, Hurston found the college to be an unhospitable place.

Hurston faced many instances of discrimination during her time at Barnard. Though she remained close to Meyer, Hurston had few positive memories of the faculty or her fellow students. She lived off campus to avoid any controversy that might arise from her presence in the residence halls. Correspondence between the deans of Barnard and Bryn Mawr College shortly after Hurston’s graduation indicates that administrators were particularly concerned that the presence of black women in college dormitories would have the unwelcome effect of attracting black men.

While living in New York, Hurston became a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and she went on to publish numerous essays, stories, and novels. At Barnard, Hurston studied with the anthropologist Franz Boas. Her academic work inspired her to study and write about African American folklore. In contrast to her experiences as a student, Hurston is now celebrated as one of Barnard’s most famous alumnae.

The Glee Club

Glee Club Article

The Glee Club was a popular student organization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The group, which was composed solely of white male students, performed to great acclaim both on and off campus. The club used performances for groups of prominent New Yorkers to raise money to support itself financially.

The Glee Club’s repertoire included derogatory songs that ridiculed African Americans. These songs often included the use of racist dialect and lyrics that were meant to be humorous to all-white audiences. Contemporary reviews celebrated the Glee Club’s performance of such songs, recording deafening applause from audiences and requests for encores. The repeated performance of these songs and the enthusiastic responses to them indicate the prevalence of racism at Columbia and beyond. Columbia students did not think twice about listening to racist words, songs, or jokes, and they also regularly spoke the words themselves.

The Glee Club also occasionally performed “negro spirituals.” While these songs differed in that they did not include overtly racist language, the performers appropriated the music with little more than a surface acknowledgment of its meaning.

“Documents on Zora Neale Hurston from the Barnard College Archives,” The Scholar & Feminist Online, http://sfonline.barnard.edu/hurston/archives_01.htm

“George Edmund Haynes,” NASW Social Work Pioneers, http://www.naswfoundation.org/pioneers/h/haynes.htm

“Hurston’s Life,” Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive, https://chdr.cah.ucf.edu/hurstonarchive/?p=hurstons-life

“Ku Kluxes Fail to Rout Student,” Chicago Defender, 12 April 1924.

A. Nixon and Julia Clifford Lathrop, “Dr. George Edmund Haynes (1880 – January 8, 1960) – Social Worker, Reformer, Educator and Co-Founder of the National Urban League,” Social Welfare History Project, http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/social-work/haynes-george-edmund/

Emmett J. Scott, Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, (Chicago: Homewood Press, 1919), 417. https://archive.org/details/scottsofficialhi00scot