Episode 83: Black women trailblazers at UMN

In this episode, we learn about historical Black women and their contributions, which helped pave the way for the future at the University of Minnesota.

by Megan Germundson and Jasmine Snow

INTRO MUSIC

MEGAN GERMUNDSON: Hi everyone, I’m Megan Germundson and you’re listening to “In the Know,” a podcast by the Minnesota Daily. 

NAT SOUND: SUMMER 2020 STUDENT PROTESTS 

GERMUNDSON: Over the past year, the University has seen a wave of student activism, like protests against construction on the Line 3 pipeline and the protests against police brutality. But bold student and community action aren’t new to this campus, and in today’s episode, we’re looking back at the lives of some trailblazing Black women who pushed for a more equitable and just campus at the University of Minnesota. 

GERMUNDSON: Minnesota Daily senior staff reporter Jasmine Snow spent time researching Black women activists at the University after writing about University suffragettes and the fight for women’s right to vote on campus. Here’s Jasmine. 

JASMINE SNOW: I am a second-year here at the University. I’ve been working at the daily for about a year, year and a half. I’m a senior staff reporter. I am president of SPJ. I am now the EIC of Access U Black on Campus. So it was last year, end of last year, I was the national headlines reporter.

I really wanted to explore the nuance of what this election meant, or this past election meant, through the lens of it being the Centennial of the 19th amendment and you know, what that meant to different groups. So, what it was initially supposed to be was, I would do an initial focus of here is the history of women’s voting efforts of the University suffragettes, kind of prominent women. And it would mainly focus on white women first since that’s who the amendment included in its initial language, and then focus on different identities afterward. So, there was going to be a story about Black women prominent at the University — suffragettes, if I could find them, which I didn’t really end up — trans women, you know just other women with kind of unique identities who wouldn’t have been covered by the amendment at the time.

GERMUNDSON: When Jasmine began researching and looking through University archives with the help of historians, she said a lot of the information she sought just wasn’t available. 

SNOW: Yeah, it was awful. [LAUGHTER] It was one of the hardest endeavors women, white women, anyway, which most like history is fine to tout, even that was difficult to kind of track down. Something that was pointed out to me by other archivists and historians is that what women were called changed as time went on. So, women would get married and they would go by their husband’s name. They would be, “Mrs. [their husband’s name].” So, it was hard to track names that way. But then you go into more minoritized identities, and that was even harder to find. Really a lot of those where I had the best luck were with like Black publications at the time. So, like the Minneapolis Spokesman, which is now I think the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, and other Black publications, and A Campus Divided is where I had more of the luck there. But it was hard. 

GERMUNDSON: So, with the help of archived material from the Black press, the University project, “A Campus Divided,” retired University professor John S. Wright and the TPT documentary, “This Free North,”Jasmine and I were able to understand more about the lives of these Black women activists and leaders who paved the way for the future. 

The letter titled This Free North” was written by former University student, Charlotte Crump from TPT’s documentary of the same name. The letter, which was published in a University literary magazine in 1937, detailed racist incidents faced by Black University students, including their exclusion from University on-campus housing. 

SNOW: Charlotte Crump was an activist at the University in the [1930s]. She was involved in different activist groups and, I believe student government, she was on the Negro Student Council. She came here and wanted to live at the University, which had practiced segregated housing up until 1954. And she ended up writing this very famous, it’s in the format of a letter to her, I believe it’s to her sister, Marsh called “This Free North.”

GERMUNDSON: This Free North was a semi-fictionalized account of a Black student’s experience with segregation on the University campus. It was published in the form of fictional letters to her sister, Marsh. In it, admits that her sister was right – that life would not necessarily be easier just because she was at a “big Northern university.” She describes how white students look at her and other Black students as “other-world creatures.” 

At one point she asks her sister Marsh, “Why did I think that white college students would be different from other white people? Why did I naively believe they would be more tolerant here?” The letters take up three pages and end with the creation of the “Negro Student Council,” of which Crump says, “it’s going to give us a basis on which to work, a foundation on which to build. Now we can stand on equal footing with all the other groups.” In 1936 the “Negro Student Council” was established and so was their commitment to fight against racism at the University. 

After “This Free North” was published, Anne Blitz, the University’s “Dean of Women” asked to see Crump. Blitz, who was a supporter and enforcer of segregated housing at the University, was seemingly annoyed about what she called “misstatements” and “unverified facts” in her letter. As A Campus Divided stated, according to all other sources, Crump’s story was highly accurate.

NAT SOUND: FADE IN — TRANSITION — FADE OUT

SNOW: And she was friends actually with the aunt of John Wright, which I’m sure you’ve heard, who would later go on to participate in the Morrill Hall takeover. So, it’s kind of all connected in that way.

NAT SOUND: FADE IN — TRANSITION — FADE OUT

NAT SOUND: FADE IN — [Board of Regents Clip] “The single best source of information on the African American life on this campus, on the policies of the University administration, of positions of the regents and so forth, is not in the University archives. It’s in the archives of the Black press, the eight to 10 different African American newspapers and magazines from the late 19th century onward, who devoted great energy to dealing with these issues, in part because higher education was a central concern for African American communities. It was one of the major tools to battle the forces of white supremacy at large, institutional racism and so forth.” — FADE OUT

GERMUNDSON: That was retired University professor. John Wright, speaking to the Board of Regents during the special session where they voted against renaming four campus buildings named after University administrators. These four administrators created racist and discriminatory policies during their time as leaders. Dr. Wright’s ties to the University go all the way back to 1901, to his grandfather, who graduated from the University Law school in 1908.

JOHN WRIGHT: Professor Emeritus of African American and African studies and English. I retired two years ago, after 35 years on the faculty of the University in those departments and working with several others along the way. I was a student here on campus from 1963 to 1973. So, all told, I probably got close to 60 years on this campus in one way or the other.

GERMUNDSON: Back in the fall of 1934, Dr. Wright’s father and aunt started at the University. 

WRIGHT: My aunt was an extraordinary woman on multiple levels. First of all, she was a brilliant scholar and had been throughout her life.

GERMUNDSON: Martha A. Wright, Dr. Wright’s aunt, was born in 1918 on their family’s farm homestead in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. 

WRIGHT: So she graduated at age 15 from North High and was where she was the class valedictorian. And this was long before North High became identified as a “Black school.” There were only a handful of Black students at North High. When my father and aunt graduated in 1934, when she became the class valedictorian. Both she and my father again started the university in the fall of 1934, my father in the school of mortuary science and my aunt in what was then called the School of Technology. 

But she did so at a time when there were only literally a handful of women in the School of Technology. And she was the only Black student in the school of technology there.

The white folks at North High, when she graduated valedictorian, could not deal with that kind of Black excellence. And the idea of having a Black woman as the valedictorian. So, they arranged to have a second valedictorian that year — a white male, who, unlike my aunt, did not have straight A’s. 

GERMUNDSON: As Martha Wright entered into her freshman year at the University, acts like that and even more blatant racism were a part of the backdrop. Lotus Coffman, who was president of the University during Martha’s time there, perpetuated discrimination and segregation at the University. 

WRIGHT: Also, I mean, Lotus Coffman was again responsible directly or indirectly some years earlier, back in 1923 for what we still, don’t have any rational explanation for, for the appearance, at the 1923 Gopher homecoming parade of the Ku Klux Klan float. 

Again, a homecoming Ku Klux Klan float with a robed, shotgun carrying, hood-wearing riders. But during those years, there was Ku Klux Klan activity on the campus of the University.

GERMUNDSON: As Coffman continued to prevent Black students from living in the same dorms as white students, Martha Wright became president of the newly established Council of Negro Students, with other members including Charlotte Crump and Dr. Wright’s father.

WRIGHT: They say she was the president of the council of Negro Students and, they organized precisely to combat those policies. One of the documents in The Campus Divided exhibit was a letter with my aunt there as a signatory, both as president of the Council of Negro Students and as Basileus of the AKAs, the letter of protest that was delivered to Lotus Coffman and his administration about those policies and practices.

GERMUNDSON: The letter detailed the accounts of several Black University students who had been told that because of their race, they were not allowed to live in the dormitory. 

WRIGHT: But my aunt retained her recollections, of that whole episode well throughout her career. As well as the fact that she [LAUGHTER] as she would say, she said, in all her years, despite her being a Dean’s list student and all the rest so forth, she never received any single mailings from the University Alumni Association, all her years subsequently. That of course was the experience of a good many African-American alumni of the university being rendered invisible.

GERMUNDSON: Martha Wright’s commitment to activism didn’t stop with her graduation from the University. Throughout her life, she stressed the need to continue the fight for equality and justice. 

WRIGHT: She saw this all as an ongoing struggle. She was a part of — we have her communications to me, to her nephews and nieces and so forth about the continuing need to wrestle with these issues, I think, reflect an important part of the transgenerational outlook. My aunt would later again become involved, particularly through her church-related work with the divestment movement in terms of South Africa and confronting apartheid in South Africa. My aunt spent a good deal of time and energy working on that South African connection and This was at a time, again, one aspect of the earlier phases of the Civil Rights movement that we sometimes forget about was that it also had an international dimension, attention to the world of the African diaspora.

NAT SOUND: TRANSITION

GERMUNDSON: When the University turned away Black students from the dorms, they had to find somewhere else off-campus to live. That was the role of the Phyllis Wheatley House, established in 1924 by W. Gertrude Brown in North Minneapolis. It was a community hub that served the needs of its community from job placement programs to childcare and housing discrimination. So, when Black students were forced out of  University dormitories or denied on-campus housing altogether, W. Gertrude Brown was contacted to find housing for these students. As “A Campus Divided put it, “she was on the front line of responding to the University of Minnesota’s racism.” Here’s Jasmine again.

SNOW: So the first Black male student who actually kind of live in the dormitories on accident you could say was John Pickett Jr. in 1931. Ge was the first black male student to stay in Pioneer Hall. 

He stayed in the dormitory for one night before being kind of forced into the Phyllis Wheatley house in North Minneapolis, which was run by W. Gertrude Brown, another prominent Black woman in the University’s history.

GERMUNDSON: Not only did Gertrude Brown provide housing for Black students who were denied it due to the University’s segregationist policies, but she played a larger role in connecting students with the national movement toward what would become known as the Freedom Now Movement or the Civil Rights Movement.

WRIGHT: She was a force, both in the larger community and nationally, as well as a major connection to the University.

It was Gertrude Brown, who, one way or another worked out a relationship with the University’s convocation program that ultimately brought a long list of African American intellectual and cultural leaders to campus to give convocations. And they included Walter White, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Andrew Herndon, Richard Wright and so forth. And this was at a time again when the University was still segregating its housing resources. So, none of these distinguished visitors were allowed to stay on University housing. 

But these distinguished visitors stayed at the Phyllis Wheatley House. And there gave free recitals, readings, lectures, whatever for the community. And it was Gertrude Brown who was overseeing all these things.

GERMUNDSON: The University of Minnesota was one of the very last Big Ten schools to desegregate their housing. The University’s policy of segregation wasn’t changed until 1954. 

NAT SOUND: TRANSITION

GERMUNDSON: That’s such a long period of time, you know, to have that segregation. And it’s not that long ago. How does that make you feel, sort of you, yourself digging into this research?

SNOW: Yeah, I mean, I’ve always been interested and passionate about this history, being a Black woman, and growing up, I grew up in South Dakota.

It was always very interesting to read about that and to think about how close that time is and how privileged it kind of feel sometimes to have those rights. And then you’re like, ‘Oh, well they’re you know, they’re rights I should just have them.’ It was interesting last year, I actually lived in Middlebrook Hall, which is another — Middlebrook was another figure at the time, it’s kind of debated, but it was another figure at the time involved in segregationist policies. To think that I lived in a building and operate in a building, where about 50, 60 years ago, that would not be possible. It’s interesting. It’s something to contend with sometimes, living here, but I just, I feel glad that I can do it now, and tell the stories of people who work to allow me to be here.

GERMUNDSON: I definitely talked with Professor Wright about, Gertrude Brown a little bit, and I guess, you know, learning about her as sort of this woman who — it wasn’t… set up between the university and at all. There were students, Black students who needed somewhere to live and she was there and provided that for them, um, which is just like stepping in where there’s you know, a gap that needs to be filled, and in a really important way.

SNOW: When it comes to, especially Black women, focusing on Black female activism — or really activism of any kind as a historical pattern at the University of filling in a gap —this activism or these things that are seen as you know so revolutionary now, weren’t made for that. It was, there is a need, or there is a lack of something being fulfilled by this institution, how can we get that done ourselves when it comes to students? 

 You think of Gertrude Brown, right? Like you just said, there was no deal made between her and the University. She provided this because there was a need to be filled. I think of the International House, that was supposed to house Black students and they ended up self-integrating. It was students saying, ‘You know what, screw this. We’re doing it ourselves.’ There’s a need, we’re going to fill it. I think of that in the activism that I see now also. My favorite groups I like to write about and see are the medical student groups who came out the summer and who saw there was a need for medics and they have the knowledge, so they were like, ‘Fine, we will fill this need ourselves.’ There’s racism in medicine and groups like White Coats for Black Lives and the Latino Medical Student Association, Student Med. Ed. Coalition – they see that and they’re like, ‘Fine, we will fix it ourselves.’

NAT SOUND — FADE UNDER JASMINE’S TRACK

SNOW: And many of those groups are led by, you know, young Black women. And a lot of this activism has been led by young Black women who see a need and they say fine, we will fill it ourselves and we will take care of this ourselves. And I think that is a more apt way to look at and describe activism at the University of Minnesota. There is revolutionary thought, and they do contend with intense public political discourse. But at the end, it is a need and a way to live life that is not being met by this institution, or has not been met and isn’t being met by this institution, and they have decided to take it into their own hands.

GERMUNDSON: How do you think Charlotte Crump filled that need?

SNOW: I would say that Charlotte Crump, took an experience and stood by an experience that she documented in her own words, rather than allowing an institution or a University to say, ‘No, this isn’t happening.’ In the letter that you see Anne Blitz, she literally says… “there are facts,” right? You should take the trouble to verify your facts. You would not want these things to be said in your letter and if you had gone to the trouble to verify your facts, and she wants Charlotte Crump to come into her office and talk about it. I’m sure. And that’s what she insinuates in the letter. 

But Charlotte stood by what she wrote because that was her experience. And that was you know what she put out there. She served as a voice, giving truth to what was going on at the time. So I think that that is one way that she did it, in a time that was very difficult to do it. You look at the Daily’s past coverage. The Daily’s past coverage of kind of suffragette efforts is very limited, it wasn’t happening a lot at the time. So it was a lot of these groups and these people try to come in particular, just taking it into their own hands and finding ways to get it done themselves.

GERMUNDSON: In honor of Charlotte Crump, the University now has “Charlotte’s Home for Black Women,” which provides housing and helps build community for first- and second-year students. The University has yet to honor W. Gertrude Brown or Martha A. Wright for their significant contributions.

Charlotte Crump, Martha A. Wright and W. Gertrude Brown are just a few of the many Black women who have stepped up to fill in the gaps left by the University. And in light of it being Women’s History Month, we honor their contributions to our school. 

Thanks to “A Campus Divided,” the archives of the Minneapolis Spokesman-Recorder and TPT for their work in compiling and collecting this important historical information. 

OUTRO MUSIC

MEGAN PALMER: In other U news: A referendum proposed by Minnesota Hillel to adopt a definition of antisemitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is facing backlash from pro-Palestinian students; College Republicans deleted a tweet that stated that President Trump’s response to racial justice protests was “not brutal enough;” and men’s basketball has hired Gopher alum Ben Johnson as their new head coach. We’ll see you next week.

PALMER: Music is today’s episode was provided by Shady Dave on freesound.org.