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Old Blues in black and white (Summer 1993)

Over the past 25 years, relations among the races at Yale have come a long way. But as two black members of the Class of 1968 who returned for their reunion see it, much remains to be done.

The 14 black students who entered Yale College in the fall of 1964 could not have anticipated the degree to which matters of race and racialism would shape their collegiate experiences. We came to Yale from a diversity of backgrounds: the urban East, the deep South, the suburban Midwest, the upper South, and the far West. Some of us came from black communities in eastern and western Africa and others from islands in the Caribbean. Most of us came to New Haven directly from the public schools. But diversity reigned here as well. Scattered among us were products of private education: prep schools, parochial schools, and military academies. And at least three of us entered Yale as freshmen after previous postsecondary-school experience, both here and abroad. Add to these forms of diversity a broad spectrum of social class backgrounds among blacks entering in 1964, and it is easy to imagine a proud admissions officer declaring to prospects that fall, that while Yale had enrolled a record number of “Negro” freshmen, the dark-hued new Elis seemed to be virtually indistinguishable from our Anglo classmates, whether in terms of our class rank, test scores, or our extracurricular activities. On the surface, at least, the Yale plan for integration—bring more black students in while Yale remained pretty much the same—seemed to be working extremely well in the fall of 1964.

One suspects that four years later, this imaginary admissions officer would have felt compelled to tell a very different story. For by the fall of 1968, matters of race at Yale had undergone a sea change. The Brewster administration had embarked upon a series of reforms in matters of race, reforms which refashioned Mother Yale’s position on racial issues. Improving relations with New Haven’s black community became a high priority, as did the inauguration of an affirmative-action program for Yale’s employees. The class of 1972 differed radically from that of 1968, with more than 50 black freshmen. As a result of Yale’s more aggressive recruitment of black students, the numbers of black undergraduates had increased by 1968 to more than 100.

These dramatically increased numbers reflected the systemic changes that took place during our time at Yale. By 1968 Yale had opened a Summer High School to identify and upgrade the skills of talented black high school students, hoping thereby to interest some of these now hotly sought-after prospects in returning to New Haven. By the fall of 1968 Yale had also committed itself to opening an Afro-American Cultural Center in recognition of its heightened cultural diversity. Yale had hosted the pioneering national academic conference on incorporating matters of race into the curriculum; as a result, Yale gained the distinction of having created the nation’s first degree-granting black studies program. A person unaware of the revolutionary transformation at work just outside the ivied walls might well have congratulated Yale’s administration on its foresight in getting in front of the issue of race polarization.

Yet there was a world outside of Yale, and the rush of transforming events in matters of race in that larger world provided much of the impetus for the changes. Writing this essay brought back the tumultuous 1960s with a rush of immediacy so vivid that at times it has seemed that we were seated in the Morse College dining hall, experiencing a breathtaking series of events: the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, the assassinations of Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the failure of civil rights crusades in the urban North, James Meredith’s ill-fated March Against Fear, the Black Power movement, urban racial violence, Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the reports, so much a part of the fabric of the times, that racial bias in the military meant that black ground troops drew a disproportionate share of the deadliest-duty tours during the war in Vietnam.

Whether we like it or not, the Black Revolution of the 1960’s, with its mixture of political radicalism, student activism, and cultural transformation, imposed itself on our daily lives and on our imaginations so pervasively that this media-declared revolution became the defining moment of our Yale experience. Rare indeed was the black Yalie whose friends and roommates did not, at some moment during the sixties, turn to him with the plaintive, if often unspoken, plea that somehow he might help them understand what was going on. So pervasively did racial issues press in upon us that it seems safe to say that no black studying at Yale during these radical and event-filled years could find complete escape from issues of race, racism, and race polarization.

One did not, however, have to look beyond Yale’s boundaries for clues that race polarization would occupy central portions of our collegiate experience. Yale’s heritage as a national institution means that the University has had a lengthy and varied history of coping (dare we say blundering) with matters of race. The John C. Calhoun for whom Calhoun College is named had owned slaves while a student at Yale; subsequently, he emerged as a principal architect of the theory of secession that helped precipitate the American Civil War. Few of us would deny that a former vice president, secretary of state, and longtime influential senator deserved to have a residential college named in his honor. But even today, we still gag at the memory of our shock, anger, and then outrage, when summoned in 1965 to the Calhoun College lounge, at discovering Confederate battle flags, proudly mounted above the fireplace, and accompanied by two very large bull whips—crossing each other, we assumed, in honor of their many uses. To some this may seem a harmless reminder of Calhoun’s era. But to the descendants of former slaves, these flags and whips resembled instruments employed in the 1960s by the KKK to terrorize and intimidate blacks demanding equality. Symbols send many messages. And for those of us committed to movements for social justice, the display in Calhoun College formed a brutal symbolic reminder of a time at Yale when people like ourselves were unwelcome as anything other than servants.

A year later, we experienced a similarly chastening sense of déjà vu. A black student stumbled upon the Collection of American Sporting Art while trying to find an office in the basement of Payne Whitney Gymnasium. Hanging at eye level along the walls of the gym basement were several-score etchings depicting scenes in American sporting life. Scattered among depictions of hunting parties and intercollegiate sports such as football and basketball were perhaps a dozen grotesque 19th-century caricatures of blacks, most of whom resembled the infamous bubble-lipped jockeys who once adorned so many suburban driveways. By some stroke of luck, the most grotesque caricatures were in the basement, although demeaning pictures hung as well on the main floors. Coming as it did just after the new Black Power movement had proclaimed as its slogan “Black is Beautiful,” this incident was a galling reprise of the still unreconstructed elements of Yale’s past practices in matters of race.

Yale often presented a paradoxical picture to us black Blues. The surface of things invariably seemed warmly welcoming. Yet the racist past too often lurked just beneath the surface of gentility. Some members of the campus police seemed to view with suspicion any younger black male walking unaccompanied by a white Yalie. As a result, the police had a number of potentially explosive brushes with black Yalies indignant at having IDs demanded from them while whites without any obvious connection to Yale were routinely allowed to pass by unchallenged. Similarly, there were numerous confrontations, some of which produced minor scuffles, between black Yalies trying to get into college and fraternity parties, and white students questioning our “right” to be on campus. Yale’s proximity to a deteriorating inner-city New Haven explains much of this friction. But no amount of rationalization could remove the shock of having one’s identity as a Yalie challenged, on the basis of one’s race, by those with whom we supposedly shared a common collegial bond.

Racial conflicts were not the norm. Had this been so, few of us would have expended so much energy trying to persuade other black students to matriculate at Yale. We still recall, with fond affection, the white student from “Down East” Maine who actually knew more about jazz and rhythm and blues than any of us. Even more common than “blue-eyed soul brothers” were the roommates and entry mates who went out of their way to familiarize us with Yale customs. “Buttery,” “flamer,” and “Whiffs” would have remained alienating terms for many of us had it not been for the easy generosity displayed by friends and classmates who helped to make us feel welcome. The Yalies who shared their knowledge of collegiate survival skills smoothed the adjustment to college for many blacks who lacked a peer network of Ivy League elders willing and able to show us the ropes, so to speak. Racial incidents stung so much, and are so vividly recallable, precisely because they stood in such stark contrast to the norms of Yale behavior.

The Brewster administration exerted a major effort to change Yale for the better during our years in New Haven. We would like to believe that our activity, on behalf of the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY) played no small role in facilitating the success of these efforts. Black students began pressing for incremental change almost as soon as we arrived. Our answer to the social isolation many of us felt emerged in the form of semiannual parties to which we invited black students from throughout the East. A further response to this sense of isolation came when we ventured into the New Haven black community and began volunteering for various service activities. On balance, however, the principal focus for action in matters of race remained the effort to persuade Yale’s administration that change was a necessity. To his credit, Brewster recognized both the seriousness and the intensity of our concerns. From an initially tension-filled meeting in 1965 would emerge a working relationship that matured, in time, into mutual respect. In the winter of 1967, Brewster organized a historic meeting between virtually the entire Yale administration and a BSAY delegation. Among the many high points of that gathering, none stands out in bolder relief than his pained expression of patrician disbelief at our description of the racial caricatures in the gym’s Sporting Art Collection. Within days, the prints came down. A symbolic act, to be sure. Yet it proved deeply revealing. A man who cherished Yale agreed to institute wholesale changes—in admissions, financial aid, curriculum, hiring, etc.—once he was persuaded that the enhancement of Yale’s greatness required breaking new ground.

Much has happened at Yale since we left New Haven. For not only did coeducation come—too late for our benefit—but the reforms to which Brewster committed himself have altered the contours of race relations. Whereas in 1964, our 14 black freshmen increased the total number of black undergraduates to 28, Yalies from minority groups now constitute nearly 25 percent of the student body. Yale’s black studies program proudly claimed, for more than two decades, preeminence in its field. And cultural centers focusing on minority cultural experiences remain important parts of the Yale landscape. Thanks to an extraordinary period of shared commitment by Yale’s administration and by BSAY, Yale made the transition to more egalitarian race relations.

And yet for all this progress, race polarization remains an issue of significance at Yale today. Minority students complain, with justification, that aspects of Yalie culture remain impervious to their presence. This is an issue to which the new administration must surely devote sustained attention. Then too, as the adverse consequences of the decay of New Haven’s infrastructure intrude ever nearer, urban entropy threatens to engulf Yale. Issues once assumed to be primarily racial are revealing themselves, more and more, to emanate from structural inequalities rooted in friction between social classes. Some of this friction pits blacks of various social classes against each other. Yale can and must be a beacon of responsible institutional citizenship. But enduring solutions to many of New Haven’s troubles must almost surely arise from other quarters. Yale does best when it deals with matters of race within the context of its institutional missions. Thus, for example, Yale awarded the first PhD from an American university to a black New Havener, Edward Alexander Bouchet, in 1876. Yale will continue to contribute to the ameliorization of a problem older than the American republic by responding to race polarization in a fashion appropriate to an institution dedicated, from its inception, to furthering world-class exchanges of ideas and ideals.

No one can predict the future. But we feel a sense of deep resignation that at our 50th reunion we will probably find the stubbornly persistent issue of race polarization manifesting itself in whatever new forms reflect the conditions, constraints, and realities of 2018.

Armstead L. Robinson ’68 is a professor of history at the University of Virginia. Donald H. Ogilvie ’68, ’78MPPM, is a director of Redding Consultants, Inc. in Wilton, Connecticut. The Yale Alumni Magazine is grateful to the Class of 1968 for permission to reprint this article from its 25th Reunion book.

Filed under 1960s, 1990s
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