When Margaret Lawrence ’36 arrived in Ithaca in 1932, she was the only black student in her class. Denied on-campus housing due to her race, the future psychoanalyst and pediatrician once slept in an attic, working as a live-in maid to help pay for her Cornell degree.
Lawrence — whose name was Margaret Cornelia Morgan at the time — applied in her senior year to the medical school to continue her education at Cornell, but was denied, since “twenty-five years ago there was a Negro man admitted,” a dean explained, “and it didn’t work out.” That student had died from tuberculosis.
Columbia University did accept Lawrence, propelling the alumna to eventually direct the Therapeutic Developmental Nursery at Harlem Hospital and becoming chief of the Developmental Psychiatry Service for Infants and Children for 21 years.
When Lawrence — who would be known for her empathy for children patients, according to The New York Times — was in medical school, she continually faced the compounded difficulty of sexism and racism as one of 10 women, and the only black woman in her class.
At Cornell, Lawrence was a skilled archer, scoring in the top eight and snagging a spot on the archery team, according to archived editions of The Sun.
She would chronicle these challenges in a book titled “Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer,” written by her daughter, Prof. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, sociology, Harvard University. In one recollection, Lawrence described how when she turned 21 and went to register to vote, she was asked to take a literacy test.
Lawrence’s story resonated with former Cornell University President Frank H. T. Rhodes, who reportedly heard her struggles and penned a short apology letter for the discrimination in 2008.
“He wrote her a short letter of sincere and serious apology for the assaults of discrimination and racism she had suffered,” Lawrence-Lightfoot said.
According to The New York Times, Lawrence-Lightfood said that her mother appreciated the “respectful and heartfelt apology.”
Lawrence died on Wednesday in Boston at an assisted living center at the age of 105.