February 16, 2004

Celebrating C.U.'s Black Women

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Assistant Librarian Petrina Jackson, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, gave a talk entitled Early Black Women at Cornell: Part and Apart at the Tompkins County Museum last Thursday. The talk outlined the historical struggles of female African-American Cornellians by focusing on archived letters, photographs and documents that shed light on the events surrounding equal access to Cornell’s residence halls and campus life. A fraction of these pictures and letters are on display in Olin Library as part of an identically-titled exhibition that will remain open until June.

The talk began at 7 p.m. and was attended by approximately 30 people, including Cornell students, faculty and associates. Following a short introduction, the lights were dimmed and Jackson began her presentation. She opened by thanking several people who helped her prepare for the talk, including Prof. Carol K. Kammen, history, who came up with the presentation’s subtitle.

“I would like to tell you a little about that subtitle, ‘Part and Apart,'” Jackson said.

“I think it is a great way to describe early black women’s relationship with Cornell, because like other students they went to class, participated in activities and … some of their families had strong Cornell connections. But on the other hand, they could not divorce themselves from being black women at a time in American history that was quite volatile,” Jackson said.

Kammen agreed with Jackson, saying in an interview that the motivation for the title came from the fact that African-American women “were part of the University [yet] also separated from the University because of race.”

Jackson explained that early in its history, Cornell held a rather unique position in its refusal to discriminate based on race, ethnicity or gender. Between the years 1980 and 1920, very few African-American women attended Cornell. Jackson described an African-American family that provided room and board to students and introduced the audience to a few of Cornell’s early African-American females. Slides of senior pictures and room pictures were displayed throughout this portion of the talk.

The second part of the talk concerned itself with the years following 1920, which coincided with the Livingston Farrand administration. During this time, a young African-American female was denied housing at the Sage College women’s residence hall after a petition signed by over one hundred white females was submitted asking the administration to keep African-Americans out.

Following the Dean of Women’s backing of the decision to exclude African-American females from Sage, letters were written to President Farrand asking that the decision be reversed. Jackson read some of these letters to the audience, as well as the response letters by President Farrand claiming that he could not override the dean’s decision. It was noted that many University officials claimed that keeping African-American females out of the residence halls was important for their own safety.

Jackson also described the involvement of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority at Cornell and shared other photographs with the audience. One photograph pictured several white females at a dinner party dressed as southern belles, being served by two African-American females wearing slave’s clothing.

The talk culminated in a question-and-answer session in which many questions lead to extensive dialogue between Jackson and other members of the audience. Some attendees were concerned with the quality of life of many of the African-American females admitted into campus houses.

“Were they harassed?” asked one audience member.

“It wasn’t so much that they were harassed as they were completely ignored,” answered Robert L. Harris Jr., vice provost for diversity and faculty development and a member of the audience. Along the same lines, Kammen said that they were students but not part of student life.

Several other questions, including one regarding the possibility of many untold stories, were asked before the talk came to a conclusion. The audience applauded and several people approached Jackson for further interaction.

“I thought it was as an excellent presentation and very insightful,” said Harris. “It provided some information that I was not previously aware of, especially on the position of young African-American women at Cornell.” Harris also mentioned that some of the knowledge he gathered from the talk might aid him in a future presentation for a course that he is teaching.

Jackson was also pleased with the results of the talk. “I think that the audience was engaged and interested,” Jackson said. “And some good questions were asked afterwards, [though] I wish more students could have been there.” However, Jackson did say that she was happy that the talk was able to draw people from all over the Ithaca community.

In addition to giving the talk, Jackson was involved in curating the associated exhibition in Olin Library, in conjunction with Brenda Marston, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Composed mainly from research in the University archives, the exhibit consists of two cases featuring some of the pictures and letters revealed during the talk. The “exhibit is made to give you just kind of snapshot,” said Jackson.

Jackson was also co-curator of Abolitionism in America exhibit, which was on display this past summer.

Archived article by David Andrade