It’s a quarter past midnight on a wintry Wednesday morning in April 1924. Four cars pull up to the University gate on Amsterdam Avenue. College Walk was just another part of 116th Street back then. There were no Public Safety guards at the gate to check drivers’ identities, so no one knows who the 20 men who got out of those cars were that night.
“Since they did not attract any undue attention on the street,” recalled the Spectator reporter who wrote about the incident a couple days later, “it would appear that the group did not wear Klan regalia.”
Quietly, the men shouldered their burden at the school that night: a six-foot cross all wrapped ‘round with cotton and soaked with kerosene. In the middle of South Field, they erected their emblem, lit it aflame, and vanished back into the city.
For 15 minutes, the cross burned. Students in Livingston (now known as Wallach), Hartley, Furnald, the fraternity brownstones on 114th Street (whose view of the field would not be blocked by Butler Library until the 1930s), all looked on with awe as the burning crucifix illuminated hatred in the dark until “a small group of Columbia men headed by Marland Gale,” a Columbia law student, “kicked the cross to the ground where it smoldered for a time on the snow.”
This was a protest. The flaming cross was as explicit as the words scrawled across any of the activist signs held up on the steps of Low Library today, 93 years later. These men, whoever they were, were making a statement about racial identity on a slowly diversifying campus with the light of their cotton-wrapped cross. “Columbia is white,” the flames said. “And white it should remain.”
The embers have subsided. The snow from that 1920s night has melted, and the only symbols visible on South Lawn are the red and green flags that signal its availability for use. However, the salience of the tensions surrounding Columbia’s racial identity were not extinguished with the fire that Gale and his friends stomped out. As President Trump enters into his 25th day as the head of a wall-building administration that takes pleasure in using race to decide who does and does not count as an American, it is important for Columbians to also consider the ways in which our own idea of community, often informed by race, may erect barriers between us and the local community of color. The burning cross incident raised a question that Columbians have struggled with and continue to struggle with to this day: Is Columbia a white school?
Last month, the University released a preliminary report on its new website, “Columbia University and Slavery,” which details the school’s implication in the slave trade. It summarizes research by Dewitt Clinton Professor of American History Eric Foner, history professor Thai Jones, and 16 Columbia undergraduate students who have undertaken the task of uncovering our roots to Roots, so to speak.
“From the outset,” the report says, “Slavery was intertwined with the life of the college.”
Columbians owned slaves. When George Washington’s stepson John Parke Custis was a student at King’s College, an enslaved person named Joe prepared his breakfast every morning.
Moreover, according to the report, Columbians at the time expressed only “mild hostility to slavery, coupled with opposition to general emancipation.”
The project interprets early Columbia as having a “whites-only character,” at a time when “geographic diversity meant an undergraduate from Long Island or New Jersey.”
While it’s been at least 150 years since any Columbians have owned slaves—the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865—the University’s “whites-only character” did not gather dust in the annals of ancient history. Fifty-nine years later, black Law School student Frederick W. Wells, Class of 1924, barricaded the door of 528 Furnald to keep the Furnald Hall Committee from forcibly removing him from his room on account of his race, an incident that a few days later sparked the Ku Klux Klan cross burning on South Field. From 1925 to 1928, Zora Neale Hurston was made to live off-campus while studying at Barnard due to indecision about whether to allow a black student—Hurston was the very first one at Barnard—into University housing. In 1949, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People accused the University of discriminating against black students.
This is, admittedly, a one-sided view of our history. Left out of this narrative have been stories like that of the over 150 Columbia students who signed a petition in 1924 in support of Wells and his fight to stay in his Furnald dorm. It also omits stories like that of Columbia University fencing coach Joe Velarde, who withdrew the Columbia team from the Amateur Fencing League of America in 1949 after the AFLA refused to allow black fencers to compete.
Since then, students of color have come here in ever greater numbers. Hurston would probably be surprised to know that there were about 280 black Barnard students at the school last year, or that42 percent of students at the University (not including those at Barnard) last semester—about 13,153 students—did not identify as white.Compare this to 1966, when the total number of black students at Columbia College was only 35—Columbia’s perceived racial character appears to have changed on some level.
The University now has, for example, at least five different offices dedicated to diversity, each established independently between 1968 and 2014. There is a student Multicultural Recruitment Committee that puts on a version of the Days on Campus program that’s specifically for students of color. There were talks last spring of including diversity representatives in the Engineering Student Council, including one whose focus would be race and ethnicity. The Mission Statement page on the University website now includes within its 119 words the sentence “[the University] seeks to attract a diverse and international faculty and student body.” Diversity, Columbia tells us, is part of who we are.
But recent incidences of discrimination suggest that, although those donning the Columbia blue are becoming blacker and browner, Columbia’s “whites-only character” has persisted even throughout its apparent progress. In the last few months of 2007 alone, two years after the University updated its mission statement to include diversity, “America is for White Europeans” was graffitied onto the International Affairs Building and a noose was hung onto the door of black Teacher’s College professor of psychology and education Madonna Constantine.
It wasn’t until 2013 that the University tried to change the 93-year-old stipulation of the Lydia C. Roberts Graduate Fellowship that reserved it for Caucasian students. In 2014, Eye journalist Zack Etheart wrote an article in which black students describe being profiled and harassed by University Public Safety officers.
These incidents are some, but not all, of the instances of bias that seem to explicitly define Columbia’s racial character as white, at least in the eyes of some Columbians.
“This institution wasn’t built for me or people like me. The founders of Columbia definitely didn’t envision me attending this school,” says Amber Officer-Narvasa, a junior at Columbia College, a student of color, and a resident in the Intercultural Resource Center, where housing is typically reserved for students of color with an interest in activism.
“You said, ‘They put diversity in the mission statement. It must be important to the Columbia administration,’ and I disagree,” Officer-Narvasa says. “They want our presence here as a way to kind of bolster their own self-image.”
“It’s a white space,” Christien Tompkins, Columbia College class of 2008, tells me over the phone. Tompkins participated in the Stop Hate on Columbia’s Campus diversity protests in 2006 and a racially-drivenhunger strike at Columbia in 2007. He recently received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago specializing in the study of race.
“[Columbia is] still an institution … in which white students are able to feel more comfortable and fully themselves than other kinds of students,” he says.
But regardless of how we define ourselves, whether that’s through mission statements or acts of exclusion, the fact remains: Columbia is perhaps blacker and browner than it has ever been.
The color of our Columbia community, though more diverse than in days past, still lags behind the number of minorities in the neighborhood. Manhattan Community District 9, which extends north from 110th Street to 155th Street and east roughly from the Hudson River to Morningside Avenue, was comprised of 77 percent minority residents at the time of the last census in 2010. It was in 1906, around the time that African Americans started migrating up into Harlem, that the first black bachelor’s student graduated from Columbia College. History and a look around today at Columbia and its surrounding community show that, while introduced to African Americans at around the same time, the colorizing of Uptown has progressed far more rapidly than that of the University.
The ethnic imbalance between the school and its surroundings has been reflected in the rhetoric around Columbia. Even within the words of this very publication, Columbia’s whiteness has been affirmed as a source of distinction between our college community and the community of color around us.
In a 1976 Spec article entitled Morningside Park Avoided By Harlem and Heights, student journalist Felice Rosser writes that “the park separates Morningside Heights from black Harlem as a frontier divides nations,” one white and one black. The Columbia administration contributed to this racial othering in the park by planning to build a segregated gym in the park in the late 1960s, a building that only Columbia College students would have full access to; local residents, mostly black and Latino, would only be able to use a small portion of the building. The project was sometimes referred to as “gym crow,” summing up the state of Columbia-Harlem relations at the time.
But the use of Columbia’s perceived whiteness as a means for distinguishing the University from the local community still persists.
In 2014, Black students have also accused Public Safety of using race to decide who looks like a Columbian and who looks like a local community member, reinforcing the idea that Columbia is a white space.
“In terms of the interests of Columbia, there’s an interest in keeping people—the people of Harlem—out,” Imani Brown, CC ’14, told The Eye for its 2014 article Studying While Black. “So the fact that even the people of color who work for Public Safety cannot, or find it difficult to, imagine that black students and certain other students of color are actually Columbia students, in my opinion, points to a much, much larger understanding of who a Columbia student is, which is white and privileged.”
Local community members frequently compare the University’s present-day Manhattanville campus expansion into West Harlem, which is displacing a significant number of black and brown long-term community residents, with the 1968 gym expansion plan.
It was hardly over a week ago when Officer-Narvasa explained to me that “the crime alerts that are sent out [by Columbia Public Safety], often, feature really grainy photos of black and Latinx men.”
Even though Clery Crime Reports are mandated by law, the black and brown faces sent out in emails and posted on residential bulletin boards can remind students of the racial divide between Columbia and the surrounding community.
“Those crime alerts,” Officer-Narvasa continues, “work to reinforce this myth that the greatest threat to the Columbia students are the black people in Harlem.”
The question is though, now that there are more people of color attending Columbia, and now that “us” looks more like “them,” has this racial division diminished? Now that the people behind and beyond Columbia’s gates look more alike, have the walls built between us been weakened?
“The simple answer is ‘yes,’” Tompkins says. “Having a greater diversity of students, of faculty members … a greater diversity of people on campus does feel like a minimum for having a more just and inclusive campus environment and relationship to the broader community.”
Stefan Bradley, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at St. Louis University, wrote the book Harlem vs. Columbia: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s, and is now working on a second book about the Civil Rights Movement’s role in the emergence of black students into the Ivy League. He thinks that maybe the walls might be breaking down.
In the case of the 1968 gym, Bradley says that things may have turned out differently had there been more black students on campus at the time.
“If universities were left to themselves,” he explains to me over the phone, “There would be much less of a sense of urgency surrounding diversity.”
However, in the eyes of some students, the relatively new blackness and brownness of the people at this school does not, will not, and cannot change the Columbia community’s interpretation of its racial character. It is, rather, the “Columbianess” of these people which affects the way in which they are perceived as people of color.
“Just because you bring more students of color to campus, doesn’t mean the students who aren’t students of color want to get out and interact with the community or change their opinion on the community,” Karleta Peterson, CC ’16, tells me. An East Harlem native, Peterson kept in touch with other students of color and with the local community while a student at Columbia through her involvement with the Multicultural Recruitment Committee and Columbia Community Impact.
A black Columbian is a paradox, neither fully black nor fully Columbian. As a student of color myself, I can speak to the strangeness of being avoided by some white Columbians on the street at night while feeling unable to fully connect to the coloreds on the Harlem stoops because of my Ivy League association.
“Regardless of how many black students are on campus, it is still possible for white students, non-black students to play into this narrative of blackness as a threat,” Office-Narvasa explains. “What we see is this idea of exceptionalism that, if you’re a black person at an Ivy League university, maybe you’re not a threat, but the black man who’s walking in Harlem is a threat and deserves to be put on a crime alert just for existing in his body.”
Just for existing around Columbia.
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