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A host for all: Brandeis’ unique racial history

Shades of Gray: A comprehensive examination of race at Brandeis

Published: April 1, 2011
Section: News, Top Stories

This article is the first part in a series exploring how issues of race affect Brandeis University on multiple levels. Each week The Hoot will publish an article detailing one aspect of how race influences the university, including but not limited to admissions, academics and social life. The product of two months of interviews, archival research and statistical analysis, this series can never speak to the breadth of social inequities that are present at Brandeis and the world at large; however, it is an attempt to hold up a mirror to our institution and tell the story of one important factor that intimately affects our everyday lives.

In February 1952, Ebony magazine wrote a feature article urging black students to apply to Brandeis. It was two years before the Supreme Court would vote to desegregate public schools, three years before Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery Ala., eight years before the first sit-in to desegregate Woolworth’s lunch counters and 12 years before President Lyndon B. Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act. But at Brandeis, black men were dancing with white women at formals, according to the Ebony article, “Brandeis University: New Jewish-founded school in Massachusetts preaches and practices full democracy.”

The history of race at Brandeis has been a long and complicated one, filled with debates over student union representation, racist slurs printed in publications and occupations of campus buildings. During the next three weeks, The Brandeis Hoot’s series on racial diversity will discuss how race comes into play at all levels of the university.

In order to understand where the community currently stands, however, it is important to comprehend where we have come from as an institution with a unique racial history.

‘A host at last’

Prior to 1948, most colleges and universities had quotas restricting the number of minorities allowed through their gates, turning away qualified applicants based solely on their race, gender or religion.

The university was founded when discrimination against Jewish students at existing universities “became a galling outrage,” Brandeis’ first university president, Abram Sachar, wrote in his book “Brandeis University: A Host at Last.”

The Jewish founders of this institution sought to create a university that reflected Jewish traditions of scholarship, community service and commitment to social justice, while acting as a host to all students—not just Jews—who were turned away from existing institutions of higher learning.

In 1948 the founders of the university vowed “there would never be discrimination on the basis of creed or ethnic origin” and the school would offer “a broadened opportunity to those to whom other doors were closed,” Sachar wrote, adding that Brandeis did not want to exclude other minorities as its Jewish founders had been excluded from other universities.

Brandeis’ lack of quotas was a key element in the 1952 Ebony Magazine article, which read “there are … no racial barriers at Brandeis University.”

“The founding of Brandeis is inseparable from the notion of discrimination,” explained Professor Stephen Whitfield (AMST), who is currently writing a book on the history of social activism at Brandeis.

“Brandeis was intended to defy and to defeat the forces of discrimination and bigotry that were present in higher education at the time of its foundation.”

The university’s beginnings set the tone for its early years of activism and the roles students, both black and white, played in the Civil Rights movement.

In 1960, after the first sit-in to integrate Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., the Justice printed a list of segregated store chains that students should boycott. Sachar also wrote an op-ed in the Justice in March of that year stating he was pleased by students’ involvement in desegregation.

“I find it gratifying that students should give time and energy, and expose themselves to possible abuse, in the interest of an important social issue,” Sachar wrote. “When I consider the monumental trivia that excite all too many young people, I am rather proud that large groups among our own student body take seriously the inner meaning of the university seal.”

In 1964, Brandeis started an “Upward Bound” pilot program as part of then-United States President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty. The program, which eventually was used nation-wide, brought underprivileged students to campus during the summer and ensured that they had the skills needed to pursue secondary education after high school.

“The criterion was not race, but poverty. As it happened, a whole bunch of African Americans were poor at the time, so the majority of the students were black,” said Professor Jerry Cohen (AMST) who helped organize the program.

“The fact that white and black poor people were together in a program was revolutionary, because the biggest antagonism to blacks at the time didn’t come from middle class America—those were the liberals. It came from the white poor people who were in the program too.”

The Transitional Year Program (TYP), still in place at Brandeis today, was created as an expansion of the Upward Bound program in 1968 to act as a year-long academic program to prepare students for college who have shown determination and academic focus despite obstacles like personal conflicts or under-resourced high schools.

Cohen, who was the first director of TYP, said he had been advocating for the program’s creation for three years before it came into being.

“After the assassination of Martin Luther King [Jr.], the world changed,” he said. “It was so shocking to the country and to universities that in the immediate aftermath of the assassination there was all sorts of experimentation of how we could right [what] was seen as society’s wrongs.”

“It changed everything.”

Malcolm X University

In the spring of 1968, the 58 black students at Brandeis issued a list of 10 demands of outgoing university President Abram Sachar, among which were that special scholarships be given to black students and the creation of what was then called a Black Studies department to promote understanding of the black experience.

The demands marked a departure from Brandeis’ initial interpretation of its own diversity.

“Before 1968, the idea was if you eliminate the barriers of discrimination, if you eliminate the impediments to opportunity, such as quotas, then [minorities] will succeed as well as everyone else,” Whitfield explained last month. “The underlying notion was that everyone is basically the same underneath it all.”

The demands of 1968 were a departure from that ideal.

“Now they were saying people are not the same culturally and that seeking out community members of different cultures can add to academic dialogue,” Whitfield said. “The challenge for an institution like Brandeis was: Will we accept the notion that we now judge people by the color of their skin? Will we give scholarships to students because they are black, not because they are the most qualified?”

In one of his last acts as president, Sachar created the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship to be rewarded to incoming black students the next year.

The fall of 1968 saw the number of black students in a student body of 2,600 double to 120, and the financial aid rewarded to black students triple from $125,000 to $349,000.

But the new president, Morris Abram balked at the second demand of black students—the creation of a Black Studies department—because he thought it defeated the purpose of a liberal arts education.

“I told [the students] that in my judgment, the entire humanities curriculum at Brandeis should be examined so that each discipline would reflect the role and contribution of all races in the society. That, I said, would serve both blacks and whites,” Abram wrote in his autobiography. “A black studies program would merely isolate their culture, kick it upstairs, as it were.”

The idea of an African-American Studies department remained a point of contention throughout the semester and came to a head at the beginning of 1969.

Inspired by a visiting professor from San Francisco State University who goaded the students to create a protest in solidarity with black student demonstrators at his Californian university, 65 black students occupied Ford Hall on Jan. 8, 1969, evicting professors from their offices and chaining shut the Hall’s exterior doors.

“The formerly peaceful Brandeis students were precipitated into a spontaneous uprising that they had been in Ford Hall for several hours before they hastily put together a list of ‘non-negotiable’ demands,” chief among them, the creation of a Black Studies department, Pauli Murray, one of two African-American professors at the university at the time, recalled in her memoir “Song in a Weary Throat.”

The students occupied the hall for 11 days, unraveling a tarp out of the windows of the building, renaming it “Malcolm X University,” waiting for their demands to be met.

The occupation of Ford Hall was not unique to Brandeis. At colleges across the nation, students were erupting in student protests—like the Willard Straight takeover at Cornell University and the multiple building occupations at Columbia.

During the Ford Hall takeover, Abram suspended all students involved and threatened to expel them. Members of the Waltham Police Department arrived on campus, offering to break up the takeover, but Abram refused when the police said they would have to enter the hall with their firearms.

“It would be a grave mistake to bring in the police,” he wrote in his autobiography, reflecting on the violence that ensued at Columbia the year before when police did become involved. “America’s preeminent Jewish university would not inflict official violence on blacks less than a year after the death of Martin Luther King [Jr.].”

Instead, Abram waited out the protesters, relocating classes usually held in the building and the school telephone switchboard that was housed in Ford Hall’s basement.

When the students finally emerged 11 days later, there were no academic repercussions.

“Every college campus in America had been waiting for the time when there would be a building takeover,” Cohen remembered last month. “And unlike many of these takeovers, Brandeis’ ended peacefully and without the history of recriminations and ill feeling, which was true at most universities.”

After the takeover, the Afro and African American Studies department was founded, but under a different model than the protestors had advocated. Later, when one of the takeover’s leaders, Roy DeBerry ’70, was called up in the Vietnam War draft of his home state Mississippi, Abram personally instructed the university lawyers to help DeBerry file a claim for academic exemption from the draft. DeBerry stayed out of Vietnam.


The years following the Ford Hall takeover were less acrimonious, but not without their racial struggles. Articles written in the Justice from the 1980‘s show streaks of tension between blacks and Jews on campus.

In one 1980 article titled “Brandeis as a hotbed of racial discrimination?” then-student Beth Ross ’83 thought the racial issues of the university were obvious, saying “of course a racial problem exists at Brandeis.” Another student quoted in the article, Marc Levy ’83 said, “the basic division that people see is black and white.”

In January 1986, the Brandeis Black Student Organization (BBSO) teamed up with Hillel to host an event on black-Jewish relations in order to create greater cultural understanding between the two groups. But by 1991, a Justice article titled “Dealing with race and multiculturalism” reported that programming between the two groups had dissipated due to what was then seen as a lack of need.

As recent as Oct. 21, 2003, the campus was again shaken with racial tension when a Justice sports writer made racist comments in an article about Dusty Baker, who was then the manager of the Chicago Cubs.

“The only thing Baker has a Ph.D. in, is something that starts with an N and rhymes with Tigger, the cheerful scamp who stole all of our hearts in the Winnie the Pooh series,” the article concluded.

By the next day, the BBSO had sent a list of demands to the Justice, asking that the writer be fired and that the sports editor and editor-in-chief of the paper resign. In addition, the club asked that the newspaper delay the publication of its next issue by four days in order to allow the BBSO to write a response to the article. The BBSO also staged a protest in the Shapiro Campus Center in order to ensure that the demands were met.

In the next week’s issue of the Justice, published on Friday instead of the usual Tuesday, the BBSO submitted a letter titled “Unbreakable” outlining the club’s outrage with the newspaper.

“For those who have never been called [the N word] or have never experienced racism, you cannot begin to imagine the pain nor determine what is or what isn’t a ‘reasonable’ solution,” the letter read. “We are truly UNBREAKABLE. If this were to happen again at Brandeis, to any community, always remember the words that rang out [at the protests] … A people united will never be defeated.”

But five years later, in 2007, Gravity, the Brandeis humor magazine, published a satirical advertisement for a “Black Jerry”—a black servant to keep one’s calendar as opposed to a blackberry.

The university administration mandated that the author and editors resign, which they did, and Gravity suspended publication for a year following the incident.

Evolving diversity

Despite the events surrounding race in 2007, as recent as spring 2009 unresolved racial tension resurfaced when Gideon Klinonsky ’11 filed a suit in the Union Judiciary to abolish the positions of Racial Minority Senator (RMS) and Racial Minority Representative to the Finance Board.

Differences in individual interpretation of the senator position’s purpose became apparent as Klionsky discovered his ineligibility to run for the position. Klionsky said he viewed the position as inherently racist, since despite his identity as an Ashkenazi Jew, he was still barred from his campaign.

“During the trial, I could feel plenty of black kids … despising me as a white guy attacking ‘their’ seat. Now, the fact that I’m not white, but Ashkenazi seems to have made no difference to them,” Klionsky wrote in an e-mail message to The Hoot last month.

But JV Souffrant ’13, who was elected to the RMS position after the Judiciary voted to retain it, said last month that the position is important because “it represents voices on this campus who might not always be heard.”

“Students of color usually go to RMS when they want to fund a project or bring a new idea. Lots of students felt that their position was threatened,” Souffrant said. Last year, during the constitutional review process, a proposal was written that would have changed the title of the position to the “Senator for Historically Underrepresented Races,” one which Klionsky wrote would have simply been a “rechristening.” The proposal did not pass through a student body vote, something Souffrant found disappointing because “there was an idea afterwards that the word minority was derogatory and meant that people were less than equal.

“[Klionsky] wanted to give his opinion, which is correct, because at ’Deis we all have the opportunity to do so,” Souffrant said. “But it turned out that when he did, it created an uproar in racial tension that we are just now getting over. I respect his decision to stand up for his opinion, but it created tension and a lot of anger.”

Overall, the conflict was a learning experience for the university as it shed light on its need to reexamine how racial concepts have evolved within the student body and how these divergent understandings could be the foundation of consequent tension and anger felt within the community.

In a survey of the current undergraduate student body conducted by The Hoot, students provided more than 30 distinct interpretations to an open response question asking, “What does the word ‘race’ mean to you?” The most prevalent response was the fundamental belief that race is the color of one’s skin, while other answers ranged from a “genetic disposition” to a “socially constructed perception” to “I really, really don’t know.”

Brandeis university President Frederick Lawrence said in an interview last month that, “race is a piece of the bigger puzzle.

“In many ways if you want to describe the ways in which the analysis of the discussion has changed, it has gone from brittle discussion of race meaning black and white to a much broader discussion of diversity,” he said.

Following the inauguration of President Frederick Lawrence on Thursday, the university will be “celebrating the diversity of Brandeis” with an Inaugural Ball where, “Guests are encouraged to wear attire from their cultures” to the ball in order to “showcase the diversity of the Brandeis community talent as well as our heritages,” according to the event website. This event, similar to many that take place on the Brandeis campus, aims to celebrate the multiculturalism of the Brandeis campus, which is often seen as synonymous with racial diversity despite their vastly different roles in both Brandeis’ history and social evolution.

“If people don’t understand each other, they stay away from each other, so maybe we have to find more ways of bringing people together,” Lawrence said. “I’m intrigued with this idea that maybe if I’m talking about it more and then people are talking about it more. So maybe we need to talk about it more.”

Next week: The Gate Keepers—a look at the role of race in Brandeis admissions.