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A Book Excerpt

The New Negro on Campus: Black College Rebellions of the 1920s

Editor’s Note: Little is known or remembered about Black student protests in the 1920’s when these students wanted Black presidents to head their respective Black colleges and universities. Below is an excerpt recounting the rebellion at Fisk University in Nashville from “The New Negro on Campus: Black College Rebellions of the 1920s” by Raymond Wolters (1974, Princeton Press, Princeton, New Jersey).

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By Raymond Wolters

From “The New Negro on Campus: Black College Rebellions of the 1920s”

Thus, the faculty-student committee reached stalemate and the students became impatient. Twice during the first week of December 1924 impromptu after-curfew demonstrations were held, with students pounding on garbage cans and cheering for [W.E.B.] Du Bois. One undergraduate wrote to the president that student dissatisfaction was widespread since Fisk was, he pointed out, the only school that held strictly to the ideals of an earlier generation.

The controversy suddenly came to a head when the students rose in wrath on February 4, 1925. More than one hundred men of Livingstone Hall ignored the 10 p.m. curfew and instead sang, yelled, smashed windows, and told the faculty that it would not be safe for any authorities to come out and that they were “going to keep up this sort of thing until the President’s hair was white.” According to the dean of women, “The disorderly students overturned chapel seats, shouting ‘Du Bois! Du Bois! And ‘Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave.’” At midnight after President [Fayette] McKenzie called on the civil authorities to quell the disturbance, fifty Nashville policemen were dispatched to the campus. Fortunately there was little violence, probably because the demonstrators had disbanded before the police arrived.

 

…President McKenzie no doubt hoped that his firm action would silence critics and force the trustees to rally unequivocally to his support, but neither expectation was realized. Instead, the decision to call white police to a black campus infuriated most Negroes. Two graduates of the university, Charles W. Wesley and J. Alston Atkins, complained that calling the police “was as froth with danger as striking a match near a barrel of powder.” A.L. Jackson of the Chicago Urban League dismissed the resort to police power as a “stupid move.” No man, white or black, who knows anything about the South and southern attitudes could help but know that such a move would bring…trouble and lots of it,” Jackson observed. “Better to have a few broken window glasses than broken heads of the bullying police officials.” The Chicago Defender [an African American newspaper] condemned the president of Fisk in a sardonic editorial entitled, “McKenzie, You’re Through.” “You turned loose the Nashville police…You called the Black Mariah—the whistle blew and the clang of the bell was heard in the city streets!...”

 The black community of Nashville was particularly alarmed by the possibility of white violence. During the year 1924 a local black minister had been killed by a police officer, a black businessman was shot in his place of business by a white saloonkeeper who went unpunished, two black women were assaulted on streetcars by unchallenged white men, and a Negro youth was taken from the county hospital by a band of white men and lynched. Local blacks were understandably aroused by McKenzie’s resort to the police. On the day following the disturbance at Fisk more than 2,500 black citizens of Nashville gathered at St. John’s A.M.E. Church and condemned McKenzie’s inability “to cope with the situation and not resort to civil authority”; they formally declared that his “usefulness as president of Fisk is at an end’.”

…The opposition to McKenzie increased further when under cross examination at the trial of the arrested students, the president admitted that he “had no actual proof that they were in the disturbance,” but simply suspected “that they might be behind this or anything of its nature.” The seven students identified by McKenzie were the same seven who had met with the trustees in November, but two had been away from the campus on the night of the disturbance. McKenzie quickly realized his mistake and asked that the incitement charges be dismissed. The boys were still found guilty of disorderly conduct and given suspended $50 fines, but when the defense counsel moved for an appeal and threatened to sue McKenzie for malicious prosecution, a special notarized agreement was made whereby the court annulled the convictions for disorderly conduct and the university agreed to grant the students honorable dismissals and to raise no objections to their transferring to other colleges.

 

            The prosecution of a few student leaders aroused the Fisk student body. On the day after the disturbance, the students met in the chapel, protested against singling out a few leaders for punishment, declared that all students were in the controversy together, and voted to go on strike until all were given the same punishment. The boycott of classes remained in force for ten weeks and was remarkably effective. Many students left Nashville, and a large number of seniors applied en masse for transfer admission to Howard University.

            The support given by the members of the local black community undoubtedly contributed to the effectiveness of the student strike. In a significant display of solidarity across generational lines, the Negro Board of Trade, composed of Nashville’s leading black businessmen, established a conciliation committee that tried to persuade McKenzie to grant the students’ demands. When this effort failed several black businessmen rallied to the support of the rebellious students. Two former presidents of the Fisk Alumni Association, T. Clay Moore and Dr. J.T. Phillips, coordinated a program to house the striking students in black Nashville and provided small loans for those who were destitute. When McKenzie asked local merchants not to cash money orders sent by parents to cover the travel expenses of students who wished to leave Nashville, Meredith G. Ferguson, a bookkeeper at the black-owned Citizen Saving Bank and Trust Company, used his own savings and cashed the students’ checks. The Negro Board of Trade sponsored an open meeting which, after hearing statements from student leaders, local businessmen, and prominent alumni, condemned McKenzie for turning a deaf ear to the students’ “reasonable and practicable” requests.

            The students were no doubt encouraged by additional support from Fisk alumni and friends throughout the country. A delegation of representatives from the Chicago Fisk Club traveled to Nashville and complained that Fisk’s disciplinary policies indicated that the McKenzie administration was out of sympathy with the aspirations of the race and was trying to persuade Negroes “to adjust… to the times rather than to the principles of life.” The Louisville Fisk Club chastised President McKenzie for “stubbornly and persistently… refusing to counsel with alumni and friends of the institution,” and the New York Fisk Club formally called for McKenzie’s resignation. Other alumni groups such as the Hampton Alumni Club of New York, also endorsed the cause of the Fisk students who, it was claimed, had been “penalized for nothing less than trying to be men and women holding the same ideals and measured by civilization’s best standards.” The Student Council at Howard University sent a particularly gratifying message of sympathy to the brothers and sisters at Fisk.

            While the black community generally supported the students, the great majority of white Nashvillians rallied to the sport of President McKenzie. The chamber of commerce formally noted that “Dr. McKenzie has done much to cement the good feeling between the white and colored races in Nashville and the South. He has understood the needs of both…and at no time in the history of Nashville has a better feeling existed than during the presidency of Dr. McKenzie at Fisk.”

            Nashville’s major white newspapers endorsed the “swift and effective measures that [McKenzie] took to restore order, and warned blacks that “if such demonstrations are repeated and such agitators as Du Bois are encouraged then it may be safely predicted that the benefactors of the institution will question the wisdom of continuing that support which has made expansion possible.” Claiming that the student strike was a “mutiny and a disgrace,” the Nashville Banner praised McKenzie because “he is not radical in his teachings or… to the point of giving the youth under his direction false instructions as to their demanded equality of rights in all respects or to directing their steps along dangerous paths to a goal they can never attain.”

            …Although effective public relations was a big help, the protest movement succeeded primarily because the students themselves maintained extraordinary solidarity and dedication to the boycott of classes. Estimates of the number of striking students are not altogether reliable, since the administration exaggerated the number attending class while student leaders stressed the number who had walked out. Yet, even the administration acknowledged that half of three hundred students were still boycotting classes in mid-March, five weeks after the strike began.

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        Findings Education Quilt