Dr. Margaret Lawrence ’36 returned to Cornell for the third time since her graduation as a guest speaker for this week’s Diversity Dialogues.
Speaking to a packed hall in Goldwin Smith Hall yesterday, Lawrence recounted her experience as one of two black students in the College of Arts and Sciences during her undergraduate education.
Diversity Dialogues, a program sponsored by the office of the vice provost of undergraduate education and the office of the vice provost for diversity, was created to stimulate campus discourse on issues of racial, ethnic and sexual diversity.
Lawrence, the featured speaker during the week-and-a-half of diversity lectures and the author of Young Innercity Families, recalled her pursuit of higher education during a time in which all American institutions, including universities, were systematically racist. Arriving at Cornell in 1932 and seeking a pre-medical education, Lawrence was the only African-American in the Arts school. Because she is black, she was denied residence on campus and worked as a domestic servant for three out of her four years as an undergraduate.
“I became the maid of all work,” Lawrence said referring to her domestic duties which included serving dinner to a family with whom she lived as a freshman and taking care of their children while she, herself, ate in the kitchen.
Lawrence was also denied admission to Cornell Medical School on the basis of race.
Recalling her dismay upon this rejection, Lawrence said, “I did not know who I was … life had no purpose.”
However, Lawrence attributed her perseverance in the midst of hardships to “the gifts” of past morally challenging experiences that contributed to her sense of self. One such experience involved the severance of a childhood friendship due to their racial differences.
“[A friend of mine said she] couldn’t play with me because I was a ‘nigger'” she said.
Despite the racism that Lawrence faced at Cornell, she expressed her fondness towards the University and opened her address saying, “I love Cornell.”
In fact, much of her lecture was devoted to humorous and pleasant memories of her friends, professors and activities as an undergraduate, while she underscored her delight at returning to Ithaca.
Referring to the landmark suspension bridge that used to be called the “swinging bridge,” Lawrence said, “[Y]ou call it the suspension bridge? That’s strange.”
Lawrence’s lecture was fervently anticipated by Cornell administrators, faculty and students.
“[Lawrence’s] experience here in the 1930s is an important part of Cornell’s history,” said Isaac Kramnick, vice provost of undergraduate education in his introduction to the lecture. “Whatever mix of tragedies and triumphs those four years here may have provided, she went on to a glittering career,” he said in reference to her scientific advances in the field of child psychology.
Kramnick also underscored the paradox of Lawrence’s racist treatment at such an esteemed institution of higher education as Cornell.
“I think it’s a historic moment in the history of the University to honor someone whose distinguished life and career began in her bittersweet experience as an undergraduate here in the 1930s,” he said. “The bitter, was her demeaning treatment in housing as an African-American. The sweet, was the scientific education she acquired here which became the foundation of her illustrious years as a child psychiatrist and advocate for African-American children.”
Students attending the lecture reacted with acclaim and appreciation to her words.
“She’s an astonishing lady. She’s really admirable,” said Kandis Gibson ’04, co-chair of Black Students United. “She still has the love for the University and [its remarkable that] she’s able to draw the positive from it.”
Lawrence’s lecture was met with equally fond reactions from administrators.
“It was a marvelous event and she’s an amazing woman,” said Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin. “What she’s done for children was, itself, incredible.”
Emphasizing the strength of one’s life experiences (or “gifts”) in confronting challenges, Lawrence said in closing, “You, all of you, bring your gifts … to Cornell. [T]hey equip you to help others to discover their gifts.”
Concluding his introduction of Lawrence, Kramnick said, “What a beautiful person. What an indomitable spirit.”
Archived article by Ellen Miller