Another Light on the Hill Black Students at Tufts


The nearly fifteen-year campaign waged by both black and white students against those living groups that did not accept non-white students as members made countless Tufts students aware of the nature of racial prejudice on campus and throughout the United States. From the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, black and white students became involved in other campaigns to end discriminatory practices in Medford, in the Greater-Boston area and throughout the United States. Several black students wrote of their negative reactions to segregation and discrimination in the United States, while others involved themselves in letter-writing protests and campaigns against the efforts of local realtors who refused to rent to black undergraduate and graduate students. Others involved themselves in local and national civil rights efforts. In March of 1960 black and white students took part in the picketing of the Woolworth's in Medford Square as an expression of their support for those black college students involved in sit-in campaigns against segregated facilities in the South. Other students, by late 1962, sought to form a more permanent campus organization that would provide support to civil rights campaigns in the Boston area and that would provide assistance to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in its effort to help black residents in the Deep South to register to vote. Such growing "civil rights consciousness" in the mid-1960s would be the spur for black and white students to ask why were so few black students enrolled at Tufts. To rectify the imbalance, particularly in Jackson, students did try to encourage friends and neighbors to apply. As an institution, Tufts was one of the first colleges and universities to implement policies and programs to spur the recruitment of black students. In the fall of 1964, the Committee on Negro Education was established. Chaired by Professor Bernard Harleston of the Psychology Department (who in 1956 became the first black faculty member to be hired at Tufts), the Committee was encharged with finding ways to increase educational opportunities, particularly post-secondary educational opportunities, for black students.

By the fall of 1967, based in part upon the beginning efforts of the Committee and in part by the beginnings of outreach efforts by the Admissions Office, the black student population, while still quite small, began to increase incrementally. Whereas in the fall of 1963, there were fewer than twenty black undergraduate and graduate students on campus, by the fall of 1967 there were approximately fifty. With the presence of a "critical mass" on campus, black students formed the Afro-American Society in 1967. Under the leadership of Charles Jordan A'69, the Society initially sought to work with the admissions office to recruit more black students and to serve as tutors for Freedom School in Roxbury.

The nature of black student life and activities at Tufts over the last thirty years has largely mirrored that experienced by black students at other predominantly white, prestigious colleges and universities across the country. In less than a decade, the black student population increased by 600% (from 50 in the fall of 1967 to estimates of 300 plus in the fall of 1975). From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s black enrollment stabilized around 270, before declining throughout the 1980s.

The rather rapid rise from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s was attributable in part to efforts initiated by black and white students alike. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968 affected the Tufts campus greatly. In the wake of the civil rights leader's death, black and white students formed the campus organization Students Concerned About Racism (SCAR) which intended to increase the number of black students admitted to the incoming freshman class. Through its active recruiting efforts and through its raising of scholarship monies from student cause dinners and from faculty contributions, SCAR was instrumental in the recruiting of an additional forty black students for the Class of 1972.

The admission of more black students to Tufts was a beginning step. However, according to Glenn Smith, the president of the Afro-American Society in the spring of 1968, black students were now seeking "to challenge the present values of the university." Black students, upset at the paucity of black faculty members (1) and upset at the near-total exclusion of course offerings on the life, history and culture of persons of African descent, demanded the hiring of more black faculty members and the introduction of courses examining the experiences of African and African-American peoples. Beginning in the late 1960s-early 1970s, courses pertaining to African and African-American literature, history, politics and art began to be offered. Several of these courses were taught by black undergraduate and graduate students through the Experimental College. Within a few years, most had become institutionalized through the traditional academic departments. And, Tufts began more concentrated efforts to hire black faculty members, particularly when Bernard Harleston assumed the position of Dean of the Faculty.

Unlike its neighbors Brandeis and Harvard, Tufts was spared from any direct confrontation over the hiring of black faculty members, the establishing of a core component of African and African-American Studies courses, and the setting up of the Afro-American Cultural Center. During the fall of 1969, however, members of the Afro-American Society complained to the university administration that the Volpe Construction Company, the contractor building what later became Lewis Hall, employed only two or three black and other workers of color. In conjunction with the New Urban League and the United Community Construction Workers, members of the Afro-American Society proposed that at least twenty percent of the project's work force be made up of black and other people of color, that members of the Society be involved in and apprised of the monitoring of workers hired, and that they be allowed to observe university negotiations with the contractors. When the Volpe Company failed to hire the percentage of minority workers stipulated by the Afro-American Society, black students and supportive white students and faculty members occupied the construction site in November of 1969. Campus officials obtained a restraining order preventing students from occupying the site and called in police officers from Medford and Somerville to prevent any confrontation between students and workers. Tensions remained high between black students and administrators throughout the winter of 1970; however, feelings of ill-will began to abate when President Burton Hallowell ordered the injunction removed and university lawyers filed suit against the construction company for its failure to hire a sufficient number of workers of color.

– Gill, "Another Light on the Hill"