Black Women at Columbia University before Brown v. Board

This post is part of our forum on Black Women and the Brown v. Board of Education decision

Teacher and students in a classroom at Whittier Primary School, Hampton, Virginia” [Between 1899 and 1900] (Courtesy of LOC)

***A later iteration of this essay will appear in Williams’s forthcoming book Laboratory of Democracy: Black Women at Columbia University before 1954.***

In as early as 1901, Black students began entering Teachers College, Columbia, coming from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the South, including Tuskegee, Saint Augustine’s, and Howard University. Many of the hundreds of Black students who entered Teachers College, Columbia first attended summer programs at Teachers College (TC), but several also matriculated and earned their undergraduate degrees at TC before the institution became a graduate and professional school. Some, such as May Edward Chinn went on to attend various graduate programs at Columbia, or other prominent institutions, after earning their degrees at Teachers College. These students were part of an intellectual corridor between HBCUs and Ivy League institutions that developed during the first four decades of the twentieth century before the historic Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas. This corridor was cultivated by Black educators in the South such as Booker T. Washington and white education reformers in northern institutions of higher education such as James E. Russell at TC.

By the turn of the century, into the 1930s, several reform minded intellectuals, including John Dewey, Franz Boaz, and Mabel Carney, brought their ideas about equity in education to Columbia. Dewey, who also lectured at TC, advanced his ideas about progressive education, while Boaz developed the theory of cultural relativism during his time at Columbia. Carney taught one of the first courses on “Negro” education at TC. This made some, but certainly not most, sectors of the university and distinguished faculty more accepting of Black students—and Black women students in particular. These Black women students included Marion Thompson Wright, Mamie Phipps Clark, and Constance Baker Motley. They helped to make the nation a laboratory of democracy by participating in the Brown decision on the side of the plaintiffs as part of the legal team led by Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP. Baker, Wright, and Clark were among the intellectual architects of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. All three are alumna of Columbia University. The recruitment and intellectual development of Black women at Columbia, whether in the Teachers College or elsewhere, proved crucial to the success of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, some notable Black women attended Columbia University. Most of these women were first educated at an HBCU in the South before coming to Teachers College, Columbia, where many received their degrees. These women include Anna Julia Cooper, Sadie Delany, and Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany, May Edward Chinn, and Lucy Diggs Slowe. Cooper, Slowe, and the Delany sisters first acquired experience as teachers before completing their degrees at Columbia. Slowe taught English in a Baltimore high school before she went to Columbia to earn her M.A. degree in English in 1915. Cooper and the Delany sisters all attended Saint Augustine’s in North Carolina and each one of them acquired teaching experience that, under the Teachers College system, allowed them to secure course credit at the college level. Chinn was educated in the Northeast but eventually earned her B.S. degree from Teachers College, Columbia in 1921. Slowe went on to become the Dean of Women at Howard University from 1922 to 1937 where Marion Thompson Wright earned her B.A. degree in 1927. Dean Slowe, who was invited to Columbia to speak on occasion, became a mentor to women such as Wright, Thelma Bando, and others, encouraging them to attend Columbia for graduate school. Slowe corresponded with Columbia-based education reformer Mabel Carney while she was Dean of Women at Howard.

Hundreds of Black women students came through Columbia during the summer program to take graduate courses in a particular subject or at Teachers College, Columbia. In her book Changing the Subject: How the Women of Columbia Shaped the Way We Think About Sex and Politics, Rosalind Rosenberg states that, “By the 1920s Columbia’s graduate faculties and professional schools—most particularly Teachers College—were enrolling more Jews, Catholics, and African Americans than any other major research university.” This was not the case for male undergraduates at Columbia College or undergraduate women at Barnard, as both of these Columbia University affiliates put up noticeable resistance to integrating Black students (though Barnard did eventually start its own summer program for working class women, some of whom were Black, by the 1930s). Black women graduated from Columbia’s Teachers College with bachelor’s degrees a decade before the first Black woman (Zora Neale Hurston) received an undergraduate degree from Barnard in 1928.

Teachers College was the site of a summer program that brought hundreds of Black women students into the Columbia University system each year and many of these women did matriculate and earn their degrees.1This summer program had the support of James E. Russell, head of TC, and, later, education reformer Mabel Carney then from educator-activist George Counts.  Anna Julia Cooper likely benefitted from this initiative since she took courses in the summer at Columbia after she graduated from Oberlin and began working as a teacher full time in Washington, D.C. It is also pertinent to note here that Jane Ellen McAllister the first Black woman in the U.S. to earn a doctorate in education in the U.S. received this degree from TC. Teachers College, Columbia produced more Black Americans with graduate degrees than any other school by the second decade of the twentieth century. The majority of these graduates were Black women.

Russell was a social reformer who believed that progress “must come through education.” He actively recruited Black students from the Harlem section of New York and HBCUs across the American south including from Hampton Institute in Virginia, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and Saint Augustine’s in Raleigh, North Carolina.2 “The thing that was and is possible is equality of opportunity,” stated Russell in a 1908 essay titled “Democracy and Education.”3 Although Saint Augustine’s only initially provided up to a high school education, students were given college credit for the teaching experience that they acquired after graduating from high school while Russell was head of Teachers College.

Russell argued that the most important developmental years for young adults was age fourteen to age twenty and that this was also the time that young people needed the most support. “I contend that every American boy and girl is entitled to practical help in this time of greatest need—and at public expense,” Russell urged. He ensured that the first group of Black students attending Teachers College received financial support and credit for their previous teaching experience. Many Black students in the American South were frequently taught by individuals who only had a high school degree, or some college, in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

Mamie Phipps Clark, Constance Baker Motley, and Marion Thompson Wright as participants, on the part of the plaintiffs, in the Brown v. Board of Education case each were educated at Columbia before 1954. Wright earned her Ph.D. from Columbia Teachers College in 1941 and Mamie Clark earned her Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts in Sciences by 1943, and Constance Baker Motley secured a Bachelor of Laws from Columbia Law School in 1946.

Wright, Clark, and Baker were pivotal members of the cohort of the key historians, social scientists, and lawyers who formed the legal team for the plaintiffs in the historic Brown case.

Wright’s work as a scholar, first working as a graduate student at Columbia on the issue of school segregation, proved to be central to the Brown case. Her analysis of school segregation in the nation that began first while she was a graduate student, working under social reformer and historian Merle Curti at TC, became the basis of the historical research for litigation in the Brown case. Mamie Phipps Clark’s ideas as a social scientist involving the famous doll experiments expanded while she was a graduate student at Columbia. This work became the basis of the social science data brought to bear in the Brown case. Constance Baker Motley became a law clerk to Thurgood Marshall while still a student at Columbia and later the first woman attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She went on to play a critical role in other key civil rights cases. Though these women are, at times, overshadowed by men such as Charles Hamilton Houston in analyses of the Brown case, their ideas about equity in education, initially shaped while they were students at Columbia, is a remarkable occurrence in the history of African Americans and American education.

  1. Walter G. Daniel, “Negro Welfare and Mabel Carney at Teachers College, Columbia University,” The Journal of Negro Education 11, no. 4 (1942): 560-562.
  2. Rosalind Rosenberg, Changing the Subject: How the Women of Columbia Shaped the Way We think About Sex and Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 142.
  3. James E. Russell, “Democracy and Education,” The Journal of Education 67, no. 1 (March 12, 1908): 288.
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Hettie Williams

Hettie V. Williams is the president of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). She is an Associate Professor of African American history in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University where she teaches courses in African American history and U.S. history. Her latest publications include 'Bury My Heart in a Free Land: Black Women Intellectuals in Modern U.S. History' (Praeger, 2017) and (with G. Reginald Daniel) 'Race and the Obama Phenomenon: The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union' (University Press of Mississippi 2014). Follow her on Twitter @DrHettie2017.

Comments on “Black Women at Columbia University before Brown v. Board

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    I had a good time writing this article and hope that readers feel free to share comments on this work in progress. This series allows us to look more succinctly at the contributions of Black women to the Brown decision. These women linked the quest for higher education and education, more generally, with the larger demands made by African Americans for civil rights in the nation as a whole.

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    I always thought that Hurston was the first Black woman to attend any Columbia affiliated school. This is fascinating and important work. I am looking forward to reading your book.

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    Excellent article! Ironically, right after I read this eye opening article, I met a woman from Louisiana who’s mother is an alumna of the summer program at Columbia’s Teachers College. She shared her mother’s experiences as an HBCU student taking advantage of this unique opportunity and how it greatly benefited the students of the teachers who participated, because they had knowledge and resources beyond the limited curriculum of the second class schools for African Americans in the south. I sent her this article and asked her to please share it with her mother. Hopefully she will read it and comment here as well.
    Lastly, my own mother was a student in the summer program at Teachers College, taking one two courses and also taking two music courses at Julliard. I had know idea of the history of her choice to do that. She did not attend an HBCU, but the school she attended in Ohio (Kent State University) still had segregated housing. What our foremothers endured, and overcame and transformed!
    Thank you so much for shedding light on this little known but very, very important history.

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      Wow! Please reach out to me at my Monmouth University e mail. I would love to do an oral history interview with you/your mom or anyone else that you may be in contact with who utilized this opportunity. Thank you for your comments.

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    Here’s an important story that hasn’t been told before. I’m curious about the role of underground knowledge networks that let Black women know of this possibility, “the common wind” (Julius Scott) of epistemic transmission, often surreptitious, that created a current for women to ride into advancement.
    Looking forward to reading this book! Thanks.

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