The Negro-Caucasian Club
By James Tobin
The colored were not part and parcel of the school.– Joseph Leon Langhorne
Chapter 1 Dirty Dishes
It began at the lunch hour one day in the fall of 1925, when there were perhaps 60 black students at Michigan out of a student body of some 10,000.
An African-American student named Lenoir Bertrice Smith had only a short break between classes. There was no time to run home for lunch, and she hadn’t brought anything along.
So she and a white friend, Edith Kaplan, stepped into a restaurant near Nickels Arcade and sat down for a quick bite.
They waited a long time.
Finally a bus boy came to their table and set a pile of dirty dishes on the table between the two young women.
Lenoir Smith looked at the dishes, then rose from the table.
Before attending U-M, Smith’s white friend Edith Kaplan had never spent time with black people. So it took her a moment to grasp what was happening.
Then she looked at Lenoir Smith, Kaplan recalled long afterward, and “I trembled with rage when I saw her face, and knew that the dirty dishes had not been accidental.”
I trembled with rage when I saw her face, and knew that the dirty dishes had not been accidental.
Chapter 2 “Correct, Cold and Unsympathetic”
The two women went to see Oakley Johnson, a young instructor in the Department of Rhetoric. Lenoir Smith was taking Johnson’s class; she knew him to be sympathetic to the difficult situation of black students. The women asked Johnson what might be done.
Johnson took them to see John Robert Effinger, dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. They hoped he might bring the University’s influence to bear on Ann Arbor restaurant owners who refused service to black students.
Effinger’s response was “correct, cold and unsympathetic,” Johnson said.
“Why, I’m very sorry about this,” Johnson recalled Effinger saying, “but, you know, the University has no control over the businessmen of the city. Our domain ends at the edge of the campus. We can’t do anything at all.”
“But can’t you express the University’s desire that its students be treated properly? After all, they’re students here, regardless of color.”
“No,” Effinger said. “My grandfather owned slaves in Virginia, but you mustn’t think I’m prejudiced. I would do something for you if I could.”
“He seemed to think we were demented,” Johnson recalled.
So the students and Johnson decided to do something for themselves. They gathered friends and declared themselves the Negro-Caucasian Club of the University of Michigan. It may have been the first such group on any American college campus.
If not demented, they were certainly audacious.
"He seemed to think we were demented."
Chapter 3 “Not Part and Parcel of the School”
The first two African American students had been admitted to U-M in 1868. But only a handful followed, and by the 1920s, blacks still comprised only a tiny fragment of the student body. By University practice and informal understandings, they lived in a segregated sphere, joining white students only in classrooms.
In that era only women lived in University dormitories—but not the six or seven black women enrolled at U-M. They lived in a boarding house arranged by the University. African-American men generally lived in one of three black fraternity houses—Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, and Alpha Phi Alpha—or boarded with black families. The Michigan Union would not serve blacks. The University barred them from its swimming pools and University-sponsored dances.
“The colored were not part and parcel of the school,” recalled Joseph Leon Langhorne, a black graduate of 1928.
In this atmosphere, the Negro-Caucasian Club asked to be recognized as an official student organization. In their petition they declared their aim—“to work for a better understanding between the races and for the abolition of discrimination against Negroes.”
The University’s response: Not so fast.
Chapter 4 “Very Careful Consideration”
The Club’s petitition went to the faculty senate’s Committee on Student Activities. But first, Joseph Bursley, the dean of students, wanted a word with Oakley Johnson, who represented the students as faculty advisor.
“Sometime at your convenience,” Bursley wrote Johnson, “will you drop into the office so that I can talk over with you the application for recognition of the Negro-Caucasian Club. I should like to get a little more data on the matter before the petition is submitted to the Committee on Student Affairs.”
Bursley apparently advised Johnson that it would be all right for the Club to meet and talk about race relations, but not to work for “the abolition of discrimination against Negroes”—not if it wanted official recognition.
As amended, the Club’s articles of agreement included this paragraph, apparently amended to suit Bursley’s advice: “The aim of the Negro-Caucasian Club is to encourage a spirit of friendliness and fair-mindedness between the races, and to study and discuss, impartially, the problems arising in relations between them.”
Even this wording made the faculty nervous. After eight weeks and “very careful consideration,” the Committee on Student Activities granted its approval, but only for a trial period of one year, and only “with the provision that the name of the University of Michigan shall not be used in connection with the Club.”
With that cold send-off, the Club began its business.
I should like to get a little more data on the matter...– Joseph Bursley, dean of students
Chapter 5 “How Many Negroes Have You Met?”
There were 26 student founders. Most were black, including several of the tiny handful of black women students then at U-M. About five were white.
The faculty senate had been dubious, but other faculty members stepped forward to support the Club as an advisory committee. These included Howard Yale McClusky, a young educational psychologist who would teach at Michigan for nearly 50 years and serve on the U.S. delegation to UNESCO; a mathematics professor named William Wells Denton; Eileen Erlanson, an instructor in botany; and R.C. Trotter of the French Department.
The Club sent 100 surveys to white students with questions such as: “How many Negroes have you met other than your maid or butler?” and true-or-false choices such as: “All Negro men are drooling for the chance to rape white women.”
The responses, tabulated by sympathizers in the Department of Sociology, were appalling.
“We concluded that the problem was one of belief in the sub-humanity of Negroes and unfamiliarity,” Lenoir Smith recalled later. “On this basis we decided to bring outstanding Negroes to the campus to show people that there were Negroes who were not ‘hewers of wood and carriers of water.’”
The first to be invited was the African-American philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke, a key figure in the black cultural awakening called the Harlem Renaissance.
Locke’s address in the Natural Science Building had the intended effect among white students. Julius Watson, a black student from Detroit, remembered the reaction of a white teacher from Arkansas who was attending graduate school at U-M.
“After [Locke’s] talk someone asked her if she was surprised,” Watson said, “and she remarked that she was really shocked because she did not dream that there was a Negro who could say so many things that she could not understand.”
More speakers came, including the great activist and writer W.E.B. DuBois, a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the novelist Jean Toomer. Members of the club met with A. Philip Randolph, the labor leader who would organize the first march on Washington for civil rights; Frank Murphy, the liberal Detroit judge who would later defend minority rights as a U.S. Supreme Court justice; and Clarence Darrow, the fiery criminal lawyer who defended the black Detroit physician Ossian Sweet in the most celebrated civil rights trial of the era.
...she was really shocked because she did not dream that there was a Negro who could say so many things that she could not understand.
Chapter 6 White Attitudes
It’s hard to know what the overwhelmingly white majority of Michigan students thought of the club. But one gets a glimpse of prevailing attitudes in a letter written to Oakley Johnson many years later.
It came from Nelson Ritter, a white physician who trained at Michigan in the 1920s. Ritter had read an account of the Negro-Caucasian Club that Johnson published in the Michigan Quarterly Review in 1969. He had been surprised to learn that blacks at U-M in his day had been treated as inferior, and he sent Johnson his own recollections. The letter reveals something of the white myopia, the blind acceptance of stereotypes, and the gulf between blacks and whites that prevailed for much of Michigan’s history.
Ritter recalled Chester Chinn, “the only negroe [sic] to graduate in my class… He seemed to be a very fine person and I recall his being spoken of as more like a white than any of the other Blacks who started with us. By that I mean he had none of the other characteristics of his race which we commonly thought of in those days except his skin…
“I must confess that I and I think my friends, fraternity brothers and so forth had little or no awareness of a feeling on their part of not being a part of the human race… Among the northerners I am sure there were none who would have intentionally hurt their feelings. Actually to me they were simply another class of people as were the very rich, i.e. not part of my middle income life. If I had any feeling it was to be very careful not to let them know that we weren’t all on a par. The cook and houseman in our medical fraternity couldn’t have been more highly thought of…”
...to me they were simply another class of people...
Chapter 7 Later in Life
Oakley Johnson, who was not only a champion of civil rights but a Marxist and a member of the Communist Party, left U-M in 1928, his bid for tenure denied despite the backing of his colleagues in the Department of Rhetoric. The Negro-Caucasian Club continued until 1930 with another faculty advisor, then faded as the Great Depression took hold.
The members went their separate ways, many to distinguished careers.
Because of her experience in the club, Sarita Davis gave up her plan to become a missionary abroad and instead became a social worker.
Lenoir Smith Stewart returned to Michigan for a master’s degree in the 1930s. From 1953 to 1958 she was head of the serology section at University Hospital.
Smith’s companion for lunch on State Street, Edith Kaplan, became an authority on ancient languages at the University of Chicago.
K.T. Harden became dean of the medical school at Howard University.
Armistead Pride became the long-serving chair of journalism at the historically black Lincoln University, and the nation’s leading expert on the African-American press.
* * *
In 1969, alumni of the Negro-Caucasian Club gathered in Washington, D.C., for a reunion. Looking back at their time in Ann Arbor, it was their own informal gatherings they remembered most, usually at 620 Church Street, the home of Oakley Johnson and his wife, Mary.
“We sat on the floor and talked and ate peanuts,” Lenoir Smith Stewart remembered. “We tried not to discuss the Race Problem, but everything else in order to prove that we could – that we were not sub-human, that we had ideas, feelings and aspirations.”
“The Negro-Caucasian Club at Michigan helped relieve the Negro student’s feeling of isolation,” wrote Armistead Pride, “and to give him some portholes onto campus life other than those of the classroom and the Michigan Daily.”
“I think the N.C. Club served a distinct purpose then,” wrote Joseph Langhorne. “It was the only forum…for airing of Negro people’s views and students’ problems in Ann Arbor.”
“For many of us this represented the first social contact with Caucasians which was of more than a casual degree,” wrote K.A. Harden.
White members remembered a fundamental change in their outlook.
“Because of those associations, I lost my black-white feelings,” Sarita Davis recalled. “Ever since, a Negro has been another human being to me.”
Sources include the papers of Oakley Johnson in the Joseph Labadie Collection, Special Collections, Hatcher Graduate Library; and Oakley Johnson, “The Negro-Caucasian Club: A History,” Michigan Quarterly Review (Spring 1969).
I lost my black-white feelings.– Sarita Davis