U of M exhibit opens window on school's history of discrimination

American studies professor Riv-Ellen Prell curated the exhibit.
American studies professor Riv-Ellen Prell curated the exhibit "A Campus Divided" that showcases a history of discrimination against African American and Jewish students at the Elmer Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

An exhibit at the University of Minnesota has uncovered an uncomfortable past.

"A Campus Divided" is a collection of documents that reveal how university administrators discriminated against African-American and Jewish students.

They tell of the 1930s and '40s, when university presidents like Lotus Coffman and deans like Edward Nicholson spied on students' political activity. Those names, Coffman and Nicholson, are still displayed on campus buildings today, including the student union that houses the offices of multicultural student groups.

"There are many, many documents, and I've encountered people who've come multiple times," said Professor Riv-Ellen Prell, who teaches American Studies. She was inspired to dig deeper into the time period, when she read about the history of political anti-Semitism in Minnesota in the 1930s.

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"That brought into the story not just political surveillance but segregated housing on the campus in the 1930s," she said.

The exhibit runs until Nov. 30. A digital version is available online.

"A Campus Divided" describes university administrators' efforts to hinder integration on campus, but it also tells an inspiring story of how activists rose up to fight discrimination.

"What you see ... is what's the dynamic of racism and anti-Semitism," Prell said. "'It's not our fault that other people discriminate. These aren't our attitudes. Our view of the races is entirely wholesome. We're doing this for your own good. You wouldn't be comfortable living with white people. You're not going to get a job.' There is a way in which it's always turned back on the Jewish student or the African-American student."

Researchers were able to dig up letters, newspaper clippings and university records to showcase the environment African-American and Jewish students lived in. They relied heavily on the student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, and the African-American publication, the Spokesman Recorder, for additional information on student activists.

One of the students who played an important role in the fight was Martha Wright. She graduated from high school at age 15. She was a math major at the university, the only African-American and only one of three women. And she was president of the Negro Student Council.

Prof. John Wright’s aunt, Martha Wright, is featured in the exhibit.
African American history professor John Wright is in his office in the social sciences building on campus on Sept. 27, 2017.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

"My aunt came from a family context, people who had been struggling for what was once called, 'race elevation, raising my race,'" said John Wright, Martha's nephew and a professor. He grew up learning the history of campus discrimination.

"Hearing these stories, of course, gives one some pause about attending the U," he said. "A lot of black families would not send their students to the university precisely because they did not want to expose their children, their young people, to this kind of experience."

The exhibit comes as a surprise to people who never thought such things could happen at the University of Minnesota.

Wright said efforts to segregate students have been kept out of view for a long time — and the exhibit has been a revelation for many who were shocked by what they saw.

Shortly after the exhibit opened, University President Eric Kaler appointed a committee of historians, faculty, students and alumni to examine the U's troubling history and come up with appropriate responses. There have been calls for the university to remove names from some campus buildings.

The committee will discuss that idea, said chair John Coleman, dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

"As we learn more and become aware of and confront our own history as an institution, under what conditions would it be perhaps appropriate to consider naming changes?" he asked. "And what kinds of considerations might we want to take into account on the front end, when we are naming buildings and monuments and so on?"

It's not clear yet whether the names of Coffman Union or Nicholson Hall will be changed, or whether students like Martha Wright will be honored. The committee's first report is due in February.

But for now, the exhibit at Elmer Andersen Library ends with a wall of hand-written notes from visitors responding to what they see. The most common response: Rename the buildings.