‘Americanism’ in universities: An early tool for exclusion

Unwelcome Guests: A History of Access to American Higher Education by Harold S Wechsler and Steven J Diner is published by Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, United States. ISBN: 9781421441320.

Conservative commentators who bemoan the rise of “identity politics” in America’s colleges wax poetic about a time when the campuses were placid and students and faculty stuck to a post-secondary iteration of the public schools’ curriculum of “readin’, ’ritin’ and ’rithmetic”.

It is the singular contribution of Unwelcome Guests, written by the late New York University professor of education, Harold S Wechsler, and Rutgers-Newark University global studies professor, Steven J Diner, to show that identity politics has always been part and parcel of America’s colleges and universities. (Mutatis mutandis for Oxbridge, which had the mission of fashioning English gentleman scholars, the Sorbonne and France’s mission civilisatrice, and German universities and Kulture, to name only the three most obvious examples.)

Few put the matter more succinctly than Charles P Norton, chancellor of the University at Buffalo in the second decade of the 20th century, when the nearby city of Niagara Falls counted among its population of 500,000: 60,000 Poles, 50,000 Italians, and tens of thousands of Germans, Irish and Hungarians. Norton declared that the aim of the university was “to bring together and to teach city life, city government, and above all Americanism” (emphasis added).

At stake for both the evangelical Christians who founded Oneida college in central New York State in 1827, and the 300 men who destroyed the school because it admitted black students, was their (respective) understanding of ‘identity’.

We might flinch at the language the observer who visited the rebuilt college used: “It was gratifying to find marked evidence that a dark colored skin and crisped hair do not stand out as indices of mental inferiority and barrenness”, but the words both challenged the nostrums of America’s racial thinkers and the American public.

These students merited a “solid education and equal rights”, which declared their identity as Americans, something the men who used 100 oxen to demolish the school’s buildings clearly did not believe.

Denied entry

The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution passed in 1868 may have made the freedmen and freedwomen, as the former slaves were called, American citizens, but almost a century followed during which universities denied them entry.

Again and again, universities and state governments used the freedmen and women’s racial identity as the reason to refuse them admission.

Wechsler and Diner raise a point I had not seen before – and one that shows that even America’s most solemnly held beliefs about how private enterprises should be left alone were jettisoned in pursuit of preserving “lily white” campuses, to use a phrase from the period: Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Tennessee went so far as to prevent private universities from enrolling blacks.

The states were abetted by the US House of Representatives which deleted the clause prohibiting racial discrimination from the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

The previous year, during the debate over allowing blacks to enter Atlanta University (Georgia), the author of a letter to a local newspaper left no doubt that the issue at stake was white identity and whites’ assumption of their innate intellectual superiority.

To allow “Negro students [to] swarm … into the university” would lead to a lowering of standards to that of “an average high school”. Even worse, for him, having “Negro students” on campus would promote “race mixing” and the horror of “amalgamation”. An editorial in Savannah, Georgia, said racial coeducation “would be the end of our civilization”.

The beaten and unconscious body of cadet John W Williams found tied to a bed in West Point one day in 1880 was a clear message that the other cadets did not think he belonged in America’s military academy. To West Point’s shame, its leadership agreed, as evidenced by the fact that the only cadet court martialled for this incident was Williams – for injuring himself.

Ongoing animus

The animus against blacks continued once they were allowed onto formerly white campuses, Wechsler and Diner detail. The backhand compliment that WHP Faunce paid the black student Fritz Pollard after he led Brown University (Rhode Island) to a victory in a 1916 game against Yale, makes Faunce’s view of identity plainly obvious: “There is no bigger white man on the team than Fritz Pollard.”

In 1955, a year after the case of Brown v Board of Education, in which the United States Supreme Court overturned the noxious notion of “separate but equal”, Georgia’s governor, Marvin Griffin, asked the state Board of Regents to prohibit Georgia Tech from playing in that year’s Sugar Bowl against the University of Pittsburgh because its team had one black player.

“The South stands at Armageddon … One break in the dike and the relentless seas will push in and destroy us.” Clearly, the governor believed that his white supremacist identity hinged on who played on the gridiron.

Much of the chapter that charts the lowering of barriers to minority students makes for grim reading. The famed GI Bill, which may have allowed millions of American veterans, including my father, to go to university and, afterward, become the foundation of America’s middle class, was, Wechsler and Diner show, one more piece of legislation that reinforced the racial status quo.

This is because it was administered by the states, thereby allowing those in the South to deny benefits to black veterans.

Fair-minded readers might fail to avoid wincing when they read the 1948 mea culpa issued by the Association of American Colleges, which expressed “deep concern, shame and humility” for having promoted segregation and antisemitism: “We have a troubled conscience. Unlike the Nazis, we have no blood on our hands, but nonetheless our hands are not clean,” establishing for the association’s future actions a low bar indeed.

In 1949, the College of Charleston (South Carolina) privatised rather than desegregate. Sixteen years later, at the high-water mark of the Civil Rights Movement, when a black student sought admission, the college’s president, George Grice, wrote: “I am recommending a direct confrontation with this applicant. If this refusal is challenged in the courts – so be it.”

Only when the US federal government threatened to deny other students at the college access to loans under the GI Bill did the College of Charleston begin to desegregate.

Presenting the facts

Nativist Americans in the 1920s screamed that America’s colleges and universities were going to be overrun by Jews and other ‘distinctive’ racial or ethnic groups. The facts Wechsler and Diner present were quite otherwise: in 1927, children of immigrants and immigrants accounted for 35.7% of the university cadre. Most students were descendants of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Anti-Catholic racism by college administrators kept the number of Catholics in American colleges low and was one reason American Catholics founded their own schools – 42 in the 1850s alone. An equally important reason was the Catholics’ desire to protect their separate religious identity and culture; this also explains why Catholics founded parallel primary and secondary school systems in a number of cities, including New York.

Wechsler and Diner show that the Catholics were sensitive to differing cultural identities amongst themselves. Fordham University in New York was where the Irish sent their sons; French-Canadians, who had immigrated to New England to work in its “dark satanic mills”, sent their sons to Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The story of how City College of New York (CCNY) and, later, the city’s tuition-free college system became a conduit for Jewish education is well known in America but less so elsewhere.

In 1889, 89% of the students of City College were Jewish; a decade later, the Review of Books averred that it was “fast becoming the foremost Jewish institution of learning in the world”.

While this did not become an issue on campus, beyond academe’s gates, those who said CCNY stood for “Circumcised Citizens of New York” made clear who they believed were the “real Americans”, to borrow a phrase bandied about by those, like former president Donald Trump and his supporters, who today speak of “America First”.

In 1935, President Charles E Beury of Temple University in Philadelphia, tried to reduce Jewish enrolment because he blamed Jews for all the problems in the world and because they were communists and, thus, were not true Americans.


Wechsler and Diner are spot-on when they note that Boston University President Daniel Marsh’s response to the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League’s complaint that the university discriminated against Jewish applicants following World War II gave with one hand what it took away with the other.

After listing the percentage of Jews (14.5%) and others to show the university’s openness, he added that while it “would be possible to fill [student seats] with a single group, such as (for instance) Jewish applicants, we try to maintain a sense of proportion; but … there are no ‘quotas’.”

To this, I should add to Wechsler and Diner’s picture that many of the Ivy League and other premier colleges and universities had quotas limiting Jewish enrolment until the 1960s.

Beury’s antisemitism aside, Temple University figures prominently in Unwelcome Guests because it was a “street car” college (today’s commuter college) that, like CCNY, made higher education available to the poor in cities. Indeed, The Crisis, the publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), praised Temple for having enrolled the second-largest number of blacks after Ohio State University.

Much less familiar than the black and Jewish experiences are those of Hispanic Americans who, Wechsler and Diner write, caused white mainstream administrations “deep concern about the race, nationality and religion”.

Of dark-skinned Cubans, one commentator wrote in the 1880s: “The college which matriculates one of the despised race will quickly be deserted by the ‘superior’ [ie white American] class who may be enrolled there.”

During World War I, the normal school (teachers’ college) in El Rito, New Mexico, sought to inculcate Americanness by, among other things, having the students wear military uniforms and sing patriotic songs on the Fourth of July.

White enough

In 1921, as nativist politicians became more vocal, noted education professor WC Bagley recommended closing El Rito because it operated under the ethos of New Mexico’s state constitution which authorised bilingual education.

According to Bagley, “Fusion and integration should be the motto, not separation and segregation”. Hispanics were not, I must underline, miraculously viewed as fully white; rather, in the tortured algebra of American racial thinking, they were white enough – but their culture and language had no place in an American institution of higher learning.

On other campuses, Hispanics were suffering the same indignities in fraternities that Jews did.

At St Lawrence College in northern New York State, the gatekeepers of “Greek Life” (so called because fraternities were known by Greek letters such as Alpha, Gamma and Omega) refused entry to one Isadore Demsky (born of Russian Jewish parents) who rose to fame as the actor Kirk Douglas.

In the Southwest, Spanish-speaking students formed their own fraternities, and a Jewish fraternity was established at Columbia University in New York.

Doing so signalled the students’ commitment to their identity and recognition that the prevailing winds at their schools defined Americanness at least equally by exclusion as they did by the Emma Lazarus’s poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour, which ends with the following hopeful words about American inclusion:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!