Bryn Mawr confronts racist views of former leader

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Stirred by the fallout from the deadly Charlottesville protest, Bryn Mawr College this week took steps to distance itself from M. Carey Thomas, a leading suffragist and perhaps the school’s most influential president, citing her racist and anti-Semitic views.

The college will no longer refer in printed materials or on its web site to its main gathering space as “Thomas Great Hall” or the building that houses it as Thomas Library, President Kim Cassidy said in a letter to the campus community.

“While Thomas had a profound impact on opportunities for women in higher education, on the academic development and identity of Bryn Mawr, and on the physical plan of the campus, she also openly and vigorously advanced racism and anti-Semitism as part of her vision of the college,” Cassidy said.

The issue has been brewing for a couple years and over the last few months, a campus committee of faculty, students, staff, trustees and alumni has been debating how to handle the legacy of Carey, who led the college from 1894 to 1922.

But Cassidy said given the violent uproar over white supremacy in Charlottesville earlier this month, mounting concerns about racism and “an especially raw moment for members of many different marginalized groups whose rights and dignities are being attacked so openly and so viciously,” she thought it was prudent to issue a moratorium on the use of Thomas’ name for 2017-18 while the committee completes its work.

“We will make a concerted effort to remove as many references to the name as is possible for this year,” she said.

When or if the block lettered name that hangs over the entry to the building will actually come off hasn’t been decided, Bryn Mawr spokesman Matt Gray said.

Camera icon Emily Cohen

The Thomas Building sits in the center of campus has classroom spaces, a library, and a great hall, also named after M. Carey Thomas. (Emily Cohen/for The Inquirer)

The Main Line women’s college is the latest school to deal with the complicated legacies of former leaders whose buildings bear their names. Princeton last year after much debate and controversy decided to keep former U.S. President and Princeton president Woodrow Wilson’s name on its public policy school.

The issue also comes as campuses across the country are bracing for more controversy in the wake of the violence that started with a white nationalist march through the University of Virginia campus last month and erupted the next day in Charlottesville at a rally, where a woman opposing white supremacy was killed.

Pennsylvania State University earlier this week banned white nationalist Richard Spencer – who had been scheduled to appear at the Charlottesville rally – from speaking on campus this fall.

Calling Spencer’s views “abhorrent,” Penn State president Eric Barron said: “There is no place for hatred, bigotry or racism in our society and on our campuses.”

Several other colleges, including Texas A&M University, the University of Florida and Michigan State University, also have banned appearances by Spencer.

Cassidy, too, referred to Charlottesville in her letter, calling the incident “profoundly disturbing.”

“The views and actions of neo-Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacist and xenophobic groups are antithetical to the values we strive to embrace at Bryn Mawr,” she said.

Bryn Mawr’s campus is diverse: About a third of its 1,381 of its undergraduate students are Hispanic, black and Asian, and that doesn’t include the college’s significant international population. Founded in 1885, the campus is largely liberal.

Conversation over Carey proved complicated. The former president figured prominently in helping women achieve equal rights. For a time, she led the National College Women’s Equal Suffrage League, and Bryn Mawr under her leadership served as a hub for the suffrage movement, according to a special collection in the college library. Thomas brought prominent women’s rights activists, including Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt, to campus to speak.

But like some other suffragists, she was focused on expanding rights for white, privileged women. She was reluctant to admit black students to Bryn Mawr and also rebuffed the hiring of Jewish faculty. Her views were illuminated in the 1994 biography of Thomas, The Power and the Passion, by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, an emerita professor of history and American studies at Smith College.

Debate about the legacy of Carey, who died in 1935, has been going on for more than a decade. A written summary of “a noon conversation” on campus in 2005 included correspondence from Carey that said “at Bryn Mawr we have students coming from the middle and southern states, perhaps [African American students] would not be comfortable.”

Camera icon Emily Cohen

A plaque bearing Thomas’ name in the building named after her. (Emily Cohen/for The Inquirer)

In her comments to the freshman class in 1916, she said: “If the present intellectual supremacy of the white races is maintained, as I hope that it will be for centuries to come, I believe that it will be because they are the only races that have seriously begun to educate their women.”

In several letters, Thomas makes anti-Semitic remarks including a comment on her desire to have a faculty made up of “our own good Anglo-Saxon stock.”

While Thomas claimed that African American students didn’t apply to Bryn Mawr during her tenure as president, she diverted Jessie Redmon Fauset, an African American student who received a scholarship to attend Bryn Mawr in 1901, to Cornell and helped pay a portion of Fauset’s tuition.

As the recent debate over her legacy ensued, a student petition called for her name to be removed.

Bryn Mawr alumni and others connected with the school, posted their views on social media sites, including a private Facebook page for alumni and Twitter hashtag #bmcbanter.

“The Power & Passion of M. Carey Thomas is on the @Wellesley College library free books shelf & I think I have to rescue it,” tweeted former Bryn Mawr College scholar Monica L. Mercado.

“Great hall!!!” tweeted another.

“I am in literal shock,” said a third.

Michelle Lee, a 2015 Bryn Mawr graduate, applauded Cassidy’s decision.

“I’m pretty proud that Bryn Mawr is taking steps to remove and kind of reconcile with the actual racist past,” said Lee, who works as a brand strategist at a media company in New York City.

Cassidy has asked that the committee reviewing Thomas’ legacy come back with recommendations in the spring.

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