The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, August 12, 2005

Jim Crow at Harvard

I've spreadsheeted the roll call votes on the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (August 9), but have yet to draw any conclusions.

Meanwhile - I'm looking for the state-by-state breakdown of the 1848 presidential popular vote (can't find it) and, as luck would have it, stumble on a source of goodness on peripherally related matters: the Massachusetts Historical Review.

The Bay State was a leading centre of both abolitionism and anti-slavery (very much not the same thing, of course) - and that's my excuse to browse.

There's, for example, an article The Boston NAACP and the Decline of the Abolitionist Impulse on race in the city in the 1920s.

For instance, it points out (new to me, at least) that Boston's Negro population in 1920 was a mere 20,000, compared to 120,000 in upstart Detroit.

The reason, essentially, was that any but the most menial jobs in Boston were reserved for whites:
As Harvard graduate student Percy Julian noted: "Here in Boston you open to [the Negro] the door to a grand Opera House, but in nine cases out of ten you shut upon him the door to a factory which would afford him the means of a ticket."

The labor unions were lily-white, too (surprise, surprise!).

The city administration was Democratic, of course, with James Curley taking turns with others for Mayor. But Curley's bog-trotting constituents were, of course, those who insisted on Jim Crow in employment.

(The spine of the Democratic Party was the common loathing of Northern Irish Catholics and Southern Scots-Irish Protestants for the Negro and all his works!)

However, snobbery on the subject would be misplaced. Even that seat of high learning, Harvard University, was not immune from the impulse to segregate.

In fact, it seems that
the rising tide of immigration and in particular at the takeover of Boston politics by raucous Irishmen such as James Michael Curley
was behind the move, whereby Harvard President Lawrence
Lowell proposed a 15 percent ceiling for Jewish admissions to Harvard and surreptitiously banned blacks from the freshman dormitories. The latter decision resulted from a new mandate requiring freshmen—that is, all white freshmen—to live in the dorms. The ban eliminated the possibility that white southerners would end up rooming with black students, which would later be Lowell's excuse for the action.

Note that, in previous years (going back how long?), Negroes had been admitted to the dormitories:

A Whig theory of the history of race relations - ever improving - is, by this as by many other incidents, proved false.

Presumably, in previous semesters, Southerners had preserved their dignity by residing elsewhere; Northerners had to stifle their prejudices, I presume. (Has this inter-racial rooming been researched, I wonder?)

In any case,
Unfortunately for Lowell, the next black student excluded from Harvard dormitories was Roscoe Conkling Bruce, Jr., son of Harvard's 1902 class orator and grandson of Mississippi senator Blanche K. Bruce.

A Negro class orator in 1902, but his son kicked out the dorm in 1922!

Common sense eventually prevailed and Lowell's order was countermanded by the 'Board of Overseers':
students would select their own roommates rather than have them assigned, thereby avoiding the possibility of pairing a racist with a black student.

The article also gives further particulars about the Dyer antilynching bill (February 8).

The Dyer bill, it seems, was
Based on an earlier draft of an anti-lynching bill by Boston NAACP founding member Albert E. Pillsbury...

Key figures were NAACP national president Moorfield Storey [1], a white man, and secretary James Weldon Johnson, a Negro.

The bill passed the House, but was doomed to failure in the Senate. Johnson 'chose' to ask Henry Cabot Lodge to manage the bill - partly, it seems, because Lodge had led the charge on the 'Force Bill' in 1890 (June 26).

The story - as told at considerable length - is something of a soap-opera: William Borah chaired the subcommittee dealing with the bill, and he hated Lodge; Dyer managed to upset Lodge, etc, etc.

Given the personnel on the Southern delegation - and the tenor of their constituents - the bill was clearly DOA in the Senate.

But, following the inevitable filibuster,
Lodge told reporters that the bill should have passed and that the Republicans only reluctantly gave in to take up the shipping, appropriation, and farm bills.

Even Brahmin politicians lie fluently [2].

A local problem was that, during the 1920s,
while the Boston branch remained mostly white in leadership the rest of the NAACP had become predominantly black...

The operation faded out with an accounting snafu!

But not before a spat over
a "Colored Baby" contest, in which supporters offered contributions to the association on behalf of their favorite baby photo.

The Bostonians objected to the NAACP holding a Jim Crowed competition!
  1. Who had initially had states rights concerns about the bill!

  2. Quite to what extent ordinary members of the NAACP - let alone the Negro population at large - realised that the Dyer bill was for show, not for blow, I'm not clear.

    The fuss over the civil rights plank at the 1948 Democratic convention may be similarly faulted as giving false hope to the ill-informed.

    Such is politics.


From the same journal, a piece The Selling of Joseph:
Bostonians, Antislavery, and the Protestant International, 1689–1733
gives a sort of back-marker for anti-slavery in America.

The Selling of Joseph was the first antislavery pamphlet published in North America, it seems - as early as 1700.

My understanding is that there were Quaker slave-traders as late as 1750. Go figure.


I find a 2002 article from the Law and History Review happily online providing background on the early activity of the NAACP: Race, Class, and Legal Ethics in the Early NAACP (1910–1920) by Susan Carle. (Also a comment.)

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