Black Students in the Ivy League

By Wayne Glasker

Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League by Stefan M. Bradley. New York: NYU Press, 2018.

Between the end of World War II and 1975, the Ivy League universities admitted a new generation of African American students. Stefan Bradley’s Upending the Ivory Tower offers a nuanced account of the impact of the civil rights and Black Power movements on the ideas that students brought with them to these hallowed enclaves of white privilege. Bradley shows that the story of the black freedom movement was not an exclusively southern phenomenon but included northern struggles as well. In penetrating a traditionally white domain, black students participated in the black campus movement and the “racial reconstitution” of higher education (to borrow a term coined by Ibram X. Kendi).

As Bradley persuasively argues, black students in Ivy League institutions have always been marginalized to some degree. Their race set them apart from their white peers, and their opportunity to enroll distinguished them from their racial peers. Bradley poignantly recounts the alienation of pioneering black students who silently endured their racial isolation in Ivy League universities and describes how, as the number of black students increased, they became more vocal about their experiences and demanded change. Black students did not necessarily want to assimilate and did not want their privileged status to distance them from the larger black community and what they perceived as authentic blackness. They wanted education on their terms. Black students did not ask to be racial pioneers or freedom fighters; they responded to their circumstances, and in so doing they inserted blackness into the culture of the Ivy League schools. Bradley also insists that it is a mistake to reduce Black Power ideology to “violence.” Students were able to borrow from the ideology of black consciousness and autonomy without often resorting to violence.

Upending the Ivory Tower is a well-researched, magisterial work that recounts in impressive detail the experiences of African Americans at each of the Ivy League universities. As Bradley notes, black students frequently felt excluded by the Eurocentric curriculum and almost universally demanded courses in black history and black studies programs or departments. Black students everywhere formed black student unions. At almost every Ivy League campus black students demanded increased admissions and the appointment of black admissions officers, administrators, and faculty members. Frequently, they also demanded services such as tutoring for the community.

The author describes the history of Princeton University as the “southernmost” of the Ivies, with a tradition of admitting white southerners and a long history of segregation and exclusion. Yet even at Princeton, once black students were admitted in more significant numbers, they challenged the university’s complicity with apartheid in South Africa and investments in companies doing business there. Elsewhere, he explores the relatively peaceful change that occurred at Brown University and the inception of its black studies program in 1969.

Further, he recounts the successful efforts of black students at Dartmouth to establish a center for black culture and a residential space. The book’s chapters on Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania, both located near black neighborhoods in major metropolitan centers, are impressive in their detail. The author’s account of the student sit-in at Columbia in 1968, with black students and members of the mostly white Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) occupying buildings, is mesmerizing. Students mobilized to oppose the construction of a gymnasium in Morningside Park, and the president of the university called in the police to remove the student demonstrators from the occupied buildings. Likewise, Bradley captures the complexity of the collision course at Penn, where the city government used eminent domain to displace more than 2,700 people from their homes in order to build a new high school and dormitories for Penn’s students. This led to a takeover of the administration building for six days. Here, as at Columbia, black students sided with the black community and entered into alliance with SDS and white students opposed to the university’s involvement with the military at the height of the Vietnam War. Fearing a repeat of the violence at Columbia, Penn negotiated a settlement and avoided calling in the police. Indeed, the students scrupulously abided by the university’s regulations on demonstrations and avoided blocking entrances or interfering with normal operations.

Bradley also recounts the black student successes at Yale, where an outstanding black studies program was created in 1968, and the impact of the Black Panthers in New Haven. He describes the struggles over black studies at Harvard, where after two days of protest the president called in four hundred police officers to arrest students. As he aptly puts it, black studies came to Harvard “the hard way.” The story of Cornell University is even more dramatic. In April 1969, after a cross was burned on the porch of a house for black women, black students occupied Straight Hall. Counterprotesters from a white fraternity tried to evict them, fisticuffs followed, and the black students armed themselves. A famous photograph shows black students emerging from Straight Hall with rifles. Cornell acceded to the demands of black students in order to avoid the kind of violence that had occurred at Columbia and Harvard.

Bradley delineates the role of the various college presidents and faculties in responding to student discontent and deciding whether to accommodate the students or resist their demands. He also notes toward the end of the book that “officials learned that their liberalism would not save them from the wrath of young black people who did not feel grateful

for their opportunities to be with rich white people. Those students learned that voicing their concerns rather than suffering led to accommodations.”

Upending the Ivory Tower is a definitive account of the experiences of black students at the Ivy League universities from 1945 to 1975. It is a brilliant book, complete with stunning photographs, that I consider essential reading.

Wayne Glasker is associate professor of history at Rutgers University (Camden). He is a specialist in African American and twentieth-century US history. His email address is [email protected]