Black History Month comes to an end today. As such, we bring you a story about an early 20th century interracial club at the University of Michigan. 89.1 WEMU’s Jorge Avellan tells us why it was founded and about some of the obstacles its members faced.
It was the fall of 1925, and a racist act at a restaurant in Ann Arbor motivated two students to help launch the Negro-Caucasian Club at the University of Michigan that same year.
Brian Williams is an archivist for the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.
"An African-American student, Lenoir Smith, was refused service. It was reported that she went in with another white woman, they waited and a bus boy in a dirty apron came and set a stack of dirty plates on the table. And from that, it was clear that they weren’t going to get service. It was really shocking to Edith Kaplan, who was the white student with her. But Lenoir Smith, being African-American knew what was going to happen, got up, and left. She knew she wasn’t going to get served," said Williams.
I met Williams on the South State Street entrance of the Nickels Arcade. We met there because the restaurant where the incident took place was located near that area, but it’s uncertain exactly where. As students of all races, with backpacks and books walk by us, Williams explains the challenges the founders of the club faced from the beginning.
"They petitioned to get organized, or recognized by the campus and they had to file a formal petition with the dean of students, to get recognized. They pushed back, the dean of students wasn’t completely on board with the idea and he actually told them that he wasn’t keen on it. He finally agreed to it. They could use the name Negro-Caucasian Club, as long as they didn’t associate the word University of Michigan with it," said Williams.
When the club was founded in 1925, it had 25 members. At that time, out of the nearly 10,000 students enrolled at the university, about 60 of them were black. The club’s goal was to promote racial relations and fight against issues of segregation. And while membership grew to 60 during its five years of existence, Williams explains why it ceased.
"The faculty advisors, that advised the club, they were socialist in their leanings, more progressive or further left and it really cost them their politics. It prevented them from getting promoted, getting permanent tenure track positions. And so the faculty advisors had to move on to other institutions, they couldn’t stay here because they couldn’t get tenure," added Williams.
Williams says that during the time the club was founded, locally, the KKK was making a strong resurgence, there was an anti-immigration movement and that African-Americans were also being targeted. Despite the club closing its doors in 1930, Williams believes their fight help pave the way for students during its existence, as well as after.
"We see a lot of things coming after that, their push for the first, Marjorie Franklin is a nursing student. An African-American student, the first African-American nursing student. And she is supposed to be housed with all the student nurses and is refused because of her race. So she fought it and brought in a lawyer, Oscar Baker, from Bay City. He’s a University of Michigan Law graduate, but he helped her fight this case against the university’s bureaucracy, the matter went before the Board of Regents. They were reluctant to take a position but with this lawyer, Marjorie Franklin’s mother and the NAACP, it brought a lot pressure to bare on the university and they allowed her to live at Couzens Hall, finally," said Williams.
Fast forward 93 years to 2018. University of Michigan student and Black Student Union member Jenise Williams reflects on what Lenoir Smith started by helping launch the Negro-Caucasian Club.
"It does make me appreciative for her and for other students, she didn’t leave, she didn’t let that deter her. And so many other people fought for me to be able to sit in a classroom and here and not have that experience. Granted there is still a long way to go by leaps and bounds but I’m doing the work, she did the work, a lot of people have done the work, and that’s what it’s all about, continuing that," said Williams.
The psychology major student says the race issue became personal for her last year. That’s when some of her friends discovered racist messages written on their dorm room doors. And even though, the university denied a request to have white supremacist Richard Spencer speak on campus, she believes it should’ve never been considered in the first place.
"It goes to show that we have a lot of healing to do and we need to talk. If it remains an us vs. them conversation and dialogues, that are only had internally, and we’re not looking to understand difference, I don’t think much can be accomplished," added Williams.
Elizabeth James is a Program Associate for the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. She also serves as a mentor to students like Williams, who continue to fight for equality on campus.
"I think with each movement you get a little stronger and I think with each movement the next generation feels like, wait a minute, look, they did this for us and you have a real sense of continuity and a sense of belonging," said James.
In 1932, Lenoir Smith earned a master’s degree from the University of Michigan that led to a successful career as a microbiologist and consultant on health services. She retired in 1970.
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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him firstname.lastname@example.org