More than 45 years ago Sweet Briar College gained the right to admit African-American students. It is time to recapitulate the legacy of the struggle for more social justice and to ask how diverse Sweet Briar College is now
by Marina Piatkov
Discrimination should not be an issue at Sweet Briar College, at least according to the student handbook and the college website, where Sweet Briar presents itself as a place “embracing diversity and instilling civility“. Despite the college‘s stated goals and policies, Sweet Briar has recently been struggling to fully meet its high ideals.
According to registrar Deborah Powell, this fall semester the college has accepted 1,3 percent more African American, 1,0 percent more Hispanic and 0,8 percent more American Indian students for admission than last year. In total, 15,1 percent of the Sweet Briar students belong to races other than white. The tactic of the college is to increase diversity on campus in order to attract more students to study at Sweet Briar. However, not all of the old students appreciate this new development of the college towards more multiculturalism and open-mindedness. Although, all students have to pledge the Honor Code in their freshman year and also agree to the “Anti-Discrimination and Equal Opportunity Policy“, which states that “discrimination in educational programs or in employment on the basis of race, religion, nationality, sex […] will not be tolerated“, Sweet Briar experienced a series of non-academic violations towards African-American in the last spring semester.
According to a report presented to President Dr. Jo Allen Parker, on Thursday, February 17th “a trash can was thrown through a window screen in Meta Glass. Voices were heard shouting ‘blame it on the [racial epithet]“, Parker wrote. Parker wrote a campus-wide email to inform the students about the incidents and call for more civility and tolerance towards students of different backgrounds. However, during the first week of March, less than one month after the first act of discrimination, Ms. Shannon Parrish, an African American house keeper, discovered human feces in the custodian closet of the third floor of Meta Glass. The individuals responsible for the vandalism have not been identified until today. These incidents prove that racial issues do not exclusively belong to the past.
From 1964 until 1967, Sweet Briar had been fighting with judicial officials until it could open its doors for African-American students in July 1967. Sweet Briar‘s counsel had filed a bill of complaint in the Amherst County Circuit Court on August 17, 1964, after the board had decided on November 2, 1963 to “take whatever legal action may be necessary […] to secure a judical determination as to whether we may […] admit qualified persons to Sweet Briar Collage, regardless of race“. Against the background of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the college sought to take legal action in order to reinterpret the will of its founder.
That is to say, in her will from 1889 Indiana Fletcher Williams, owner of the Sweet Briar plantation, directed the foundation of the “Sweet Briar Institute“ under the conditions that students and staff honor the memory of her late daughter, Daisy Williams, and that the school serves the “education of white girls and young women“. However, the board argued that this restrictive regulation “perpetuates particular local conditions of time and place which have so changed that the major emphasis in the foundation of the College can no longer be realized by adhering to that condition“.
In the opinion of Judge Quesenbery of Amherst County Circuit Court and Amherst County Commonwealth‘s Attorney William H. McCleny, to accept African-American students at Sweet Briar meant to break the will of the founder. In June 1965, Quesenbery disagreed with the college‘s petition from August 1964. He explained his decision by stating that “the will of Mrs. Williams is not ambiguous and therefore needs no further interpretation“. To change the charter of the college by erasing the word ‘white‘ was not proper, for it would “destroy the entire purpose of the will“.
In the bill of complaint, Sweet Briar had argued that if the restrictions imposed by the will of Indiana Fletcher Williams were not being removed from the charter, the college would not be able to achieve the primary goal of its founder, which is to “impart to its students such education in sound learning […] as shall in the judgement of the directors best fit them to be useful members of society“. According to then President Anne Gary Pannell, it was important to reinterpret the founder‘s will in the light of changing social conditions, meaning the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to maintain Sweet Briar as a leading women‘s college.
Retired Vice President and Treasurer Peter V. Daniel, who was actively involved in the desegregation process, recalls how tough that time was for the college: “It was terribly difficult. There was a lot of criticism from outside. We were pigeonholed by people asking us ‘How can you do something like destroying the will of the founder?‘ An editorial in the Lynchburg paper titled “A Matter of Honor“ called for the resignation of all the college‘s senior officers and board trustees“.
According a Washington Post article from December 30, 1965, attorney McClenny suggested on a motion to dismiss the suit as “frivolous“, since the college “did not come into court with clean hands or good faith“. McClenny objected that Sweet Briar was rather interested in securing federal financial assistance than in the struggle for civil justice. That is to say, in order to receive grands from the state, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that all educational institutions assure to comply to the anti-discrimination policy: “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance“.
“The financial part was certainly an important aspect of the decision of the board to integrate the college“, says Dr. Jo Allen Parker, current president of Sweet Briar College. “However, it was not the only reason. The decision was also made because it was morally right“. Asked about how the Board dealt with the accusation of breaking the will of the founder, Parker replies: “The college has never intended to break with the past and dishonor Sweet Briar‘s heritage. Therefore, the college did not speak of breaking the will of Indiana Fletcher Williams, but of ‘reinterpreting‘ it. The faculty felt that the intention of the founder and the spirit of the college would be damaged, if it could not adapt its charter to the contemporary shift of values. Society is dynamic and institutions need to evolve with it. The integration of Sweet Briar was overdue“.
In the bill of complaint, Sweet Briar argued that the racial restriction in the will had been required by old-fashioned Virginia statutes from the 19th century that permitted the establishment of an educational institution only for white or black students. Racially integrated schools were not an option. Thus, the college‘s attorneys claimed that the founder had no other choice but to pick one race, so that her educational trust was to be valid in Virginia: “The lawyer drawing up Mrs. Williams‘ will created the trust for Sweet Briar had a clear choice of specifying a trust for whites or a trust for non-whites. At the time, it was not possible to establish an educational trust for both“, explained J. Wilson Newman in an interview with the Sweet Briar centennial Alumnae Magazine. Sweet Briar‘s counsel objected that the racial segregation was unconstitutionally enforced by the state. It violated the equal protection clause of the Fourtheenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Section 202 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which states that “all persons shall be entitled to be free, at any establishment or place, from discrimination or segregation of any kind on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin, if such discrimination or segregation is or purports to be required by any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, rule, or order of a State or any agency or political subdivision thereof“.
In April 25, 1966, almost two years after Sweet Briar had taken its case to the Circuit Court of Amherst County, the college filed its complaint in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia and obtained a temporary restraining order from Judge Thomas J. Michie on the same day. His order prevented any further racial restrictions from Attorney General of Virginia and the Commonwealth‘s Attorney for Amherst County towards Sweet Briar College. Under this injunction, the board was able to create an anti-discrimination policy of “admissions for Sweet Briar College, unrestricted as to race, creed or color“. In August 31, 1966 the college admitted its first African-American student: Marshalyn Yeargin. Less than one year later, a three-judge United States Court, sitting in Charlottesville, permanently enjoined the enforcement of the racial restriction on Sweet Briar, after being forced to render an opinion by the Supreme Court of the United States.
Yeargin was 18 when she arrived at Sweet Briar. She had already completed two years at the black women‘s Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, when she decided to transfer. She was looking for a school where she could get a better science background in order to later become a doctor. Strong academic achievements were ruling in her family: Her great uncle, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, received his undergraduate degree from Bates, a prestigious liberal arts college in Lewiston, Maine, in 1920 and his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1935. Her parents, Grady and Willie Mae Yeargin, also enjoyed a college education and worked as school administrators and teachers.
It was her uncle, then president of Morehouse College, who recommended Yeargin to Sweet Briar. Having visited the college before, he made the acquaintance of President Pannell and advised Yeargin to compose a polite letter to Sweet Briar admissions to ask for the possibility to transfer. He told her to let the college know who was her uncle, implying that she was black. At that time, Sweet Briar just had been granted a temporary restraining order that prevented the state from enforcing the race restriction in its charter and was looking for a girl like Marshalyn Yeargin to put the newly gained admission freedom to the test. For the first time in the 65 years of Sweet Briar College history, the board enrolled an African-American student.
However, when Yeargin applied for admission, she was not aware of the fact that she was going to be a “test case“. In an interview with the Washington Post from September 3, 1966, she said that she “didn‘t figure there was going to be any big fuss“ about her admission and that she applied “without knowing I would be the first Negro accepted“. Quickly, she gained popularity and reporter bombarded her with interview requests. “I must say, I feel a little more excited about going there now“, Yeargin confessed to the Washington Post.
On the train to Lynchburg that Yeargin had boarded alone, she fantasized about people welcoming her by throwing eggs, bottles, and bricks at her. This is what had happened to Autherine Lucy, the first black student admitted to the University of Alabama, just ten years earlier. “I was a little concerned“, Yeargin remembered in an interview made for the Sweet Briar centennial Alumnae Magazine. “But I consoled myself, thinking: Well, the people at Sweet Briar are well-bred. And well-bred people will not throw things at me. We‘re all past that stage. My father and my uncle would not let me go to a dangerous place“.
Before coming to Sweet Briar, Yeargin never had to deal with discrimination. Together with her younger brother and her parents, she grew up in a black neighborhood in Greenville, South Carolina, sheltered from segregation and contact with white people: “My parents tried to avoid situations where I could be confronted with segregation. I was sheltered, so I didn‘t have any negative experiences“. She would never have to sit in the back of a bus, since her family had three cars. As she was not allowed to use books from the public library due to segregation policies, her parents stocked their own library with the newest encyclopedias. She was brought up with the idea that she could do everything in her life: “I came from an all-black world, from a community that told me I was wonderful and convinced me I could do anything – reach for the stars“, she says in the Alumnae Magazine interview.
However, her fear of open attacks did not come true. Students and staff treated her with respect and offered her a lot of help to achieve her high academic goals. “Teachers did never give me the feeling that I was different. They treated me like all the other students“. This means that they also did not go easy on her in terms of work load and expectations. Yeargin had to catch up with the higher academic standards of Sweet Briar and struggled with her biology exams: “I remember looking at my first biology exam thinking, This is from another planet!“, she tells the Alumnae Magazine. “I was used to rote, reading the material and spitting it back, multiple choice and short answer. At Sweet Briar, I was being asked to take learning to the next level, to think analytically about the material“. Thanks to her fighting spirit and the support and encouragement of her biology professors Jane Belcher and Elizabeth Sprague, she was soon able to work on the same level as her classmates.
As to her social acclimatization, Yeargin also had to go through a tough time. Although all girls behaved kindly and respectfully towards her, it was hard to build up real friendships: “The first days and weeks on campus were very awkward, since I was the only black girl. The students and staff were very helpful and friendly. However, sometimes it seemed a little too much, too artificial“, she states. “However, I never encountered any ugly behavior towards me“. Even if there were racist issues, she was not aware of them. It was not until one of her classmates who eventually became a close friend of hers, told her that she used to clean off her phone after Yeargin had used it, that she learned about the stereotypes some girls had about African-Americans. They grew up believing that black people were dirty and inferior to whites. However, to the most part, girls reacted positively to her: “Many students have never had contact to African-Americans before, so they were curious about me. One day, I took my roommate home and introduced her to my neighborhood and to my church. She saw where I came from and it was fine“.
Shirley Reid, who has been working at the Sweet Briar College library for 57 years, remembers Yeargin‘s arrival: “When I saw her for the first time at the library, she came in with other students. They treated her the same way, since they had to get used to her. She was a dignified girl living under girls who were taught to behave like ladies. Of course, these relationships were rather superficial“. Even if Yeargin socially did not have the “time of her life“, she pragmatically looks back at that period of her life and is thankful for the opportunities that the college offered her: “I haven‘t chosen Sweet Briar for social purposes. All I wanted was to get a degree in biology and take pre-med classes to later become a doctor, I reached this goal. Therefore, I appreciate the support I received very much“.
Dr. Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp majored in biology and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Sweet Briar in 1968. She was also the first African-American woman to enroll in Emory University‘s School of Medicine, earning her M.D. in 1972. She has been working for 19 years at the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where she is Chief of the Developmental Disabilities Branch, Division of Birth Defects, Child Development, and Disability and Health. She is married and has two children who also pursue an academical education.
More than 45 years after the racial integration of the college, it is interesting to explore what is the legacy of the college‘s struggle for more social justice? How much more diverse is Sweet Briar? Has racism degraded to a minor topic that can only be found in history books or is it still an issue?
“I don‘t believe that racism is only an issue of the past“, says President Parker. “In fact, I have to deal with racially motivated incidents every semester“. Although, it is not clear that the two incidents that happened during the last spring semester relate to each other or are racially motivated, they have ignited discussions about racial tension on campus.
When asked if racial hate has increased on campus, Dean Cheryl Steele, the Dean of Co-Curricular Life replies: “This year, 22 percent of our students belong to underrepresented ethnic groups other than the white majority. We have intentionally increased this number over the past four years to make Sweet Briar look more like the rest of the world. The overall reaction to this development is positive. Unfortunately, there are always some ignorant people who don‘t subscribe to the Sweet Briar values of civility and open-mindedness. Indeed, there seems to be a slightly higher tension on campus this year“.
Tiffany Hunter ’12 was subject to discrimination herself: “In my freshman year, I went to an event organized by the tab club ‘Aints N Asses‘ together with two other black girls. I heard a student behind us say: ‘Where are all these black girls coming from? Sweet Briar is getting dark‘. I ignored her comment and didn‘t take it serious“. However, one of Hunter‘s fellow students spoke up for her and replied: “We don‘t judge like that in Sweet Briar“.
According to Dean Steele, the college has convened various workshops, lectures, and programs to raise moral courage and the student‘s sense of responsibility: “At the beginning of this semester we have instructed 130 student leaders in special trainings to develop ideas for programs on campus to raise awareness about diversity and strengthen the communal spirit. This is how the Docents program came to life. The student leaders serve as role models and encourage other students to speak out on every form of injustice they encounter“. In addition to providing trainings, diversity monologues, where students hold a speech about their roles and identities in society, and intercultural activities, such as international dinners, foreign film lectures, Asian and Black History Month, aim to invite students to think outside the pink bubble and inform themselves about other ethnics and cultures. There are also specific programs that deal with diversity and civility issues.
For instance, the so-called Ombudspersons are faculty members who volunteer students being subject to discrimination and other forms of hostility. They educate students about college policies and support them through campus processes. “We try to create change in a not visible sense, change that comes from underneath“, explains Dean Steele. “We want to make sure that everybody understands the values of Sweet Briar, so we can avoid bad behavior or deal with it“.
There was also a change executed by the administrative top of the college amending the anti-bullying policy as a direct reaction to the incidents from February and March, as the Sweet Briar Voice lately reported. In cooperation with the Co-Curricular office, the Sweet Briar‘s Student Association (SGA) has been working on the procedures linked to the investigation of a bullying case. The SGA has amended the procedure for dealing with such issues. For instance, the victim does not have to face the honor code violator any longer during investigation, which ensures that the victim feels safe.
Khristian Salters ’12, former president of the diversity club, appreciates the changes Sweet Briar goes through: “The college has done a great job in making the campus more diverse. Discrimination still exists, since some of the girls are used to the old ways. But, in general, the times have changed. There are more and more students coming on campus with different experiences and backgrounds“.
President Parker explains that Sweet Briar wants to get rid of the “image of a school for white, middle class girls“. She admits that the college is diverse in some aspects like religion, family and socio-economic situation of the students. However, she would like to see more students with an international and multi-ethnic background on campus.
Ebonnie Pearleta Ty Shreve ’14, endorses: “We have to go through hard times to train each other to be more open-minded. This is the price of diversity. To be Sweet Briar women, we have to think forwardly, be empowered and well-rounded“.
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