Learning about Diversity & Student Activism at Sarah Lawrence: A Foray into Archival Studies

In my tenure as a Sarah Lawrence undergrad, I have heard countless students lament the lack of institutional memory present at our institution. As one of the senate representatives for the Diversity Committee this past academic year, I thought we (both the administration and the student body) did not pay enough attention to the gains, investigative reports and complaints regarding diversity (or any other issue) from those who came before us. You are probably aware that there have been at least two student led Sit-Ins at Westlands in 1969 and 1989, but did you know about the ‘69 Lynd House Sit-In, the ‘94 student Hunger Strike or the Westlands Sit-In of 2000? Did you know that community agitation led to the creation of the faculty group ‘Social Change and Black Studies’ in 1969? Or that one day in 2004, the College’s administrators canceled classes to hold a day-long community ‘Teach-In on Bias, Racism, and Exclusion’? Or that various coalitions of concerned students have had a great influence on the shaping Sarah Lawrence’s current curricular offerings? Our problems have precedents, as should our solutions. Though there are a number of faculty members and staff of the college who experienced many of these events and are able to personally contextualize them within our current experiences, these stories often remain unheard. I believe, to truly shape the future of our beloved College, we must have a strong connection its past. Sarah Lawrence’s Archival Collection has consistently documented all these occurrences and more.

The Archives are tucked away into a sometimes forgotten corner of the library. Located on the lower level near the ‘oversized book collection,’ our archivists Abby Lester and Sarah Pinard collect, classify, contextualize and preserve documents (from protest placards to feather boas) important to our school’s development. As a component of a fieldwork course on Community Archival Work, I compiled two Research Guides to our college’s archival collection: one on Diversity and the other on Coeducation. Armed with a pencil and slips of paper, I dove into collections of old SLC newspapers, oral histories, papers and memos from past college presidents. I did not expect to be surprised by anything I found while working on these research guides. I truly believed that my role as chair for the Women of Color and Allies group (WoCo), as well as a long-time member of Common Ground I would have been privy to all of the stories on racial and gender diversity at the school.

Despite coming into my archival work with a developed sense of institutional history and people’s stories, I did not know the depth of it. SLC was established in 1928 as an experimental two year junior college for women. Above all else, this newly established school prioritized a student-centered and led program of education. During the College’s first year, president Marion Coats commented that colleges like Sarah Lawrence diversify the existing types of college by giving attention to all parts of a student’s education (Course Catalogue 1927/8 15). With this unique attention to the individual student’s education, it is no surprise that student agitation for racial, social and cultural diversity has always been an integral part of SLC’s evolution.

One of the earliest documented attempts to racially diversify the college came in the form of a petition. In 1941, five students at a faculty meeting  –representing a body of 71 students– petitioned for the admission of ‘female negro students’ to the college. In the petition, students explained that this action would not only end segregation at the College but also increase intercultural knowledge and break down prejudices. While the language of the petition and the student’s requirements of this ‘negro student’ –one being that she was attractive and not ‘too aggressive’– made me cringe, it reflects one of the key ways early students have shaped the culture of Sarah Lawrence. On its own, this document is noteworthy but not terribly compelling. However, coupled with the student questionnaire filled out by the first ‘Negro’ female student, Barbara ‘Bobbie’ Gonzales ‘46, to graduate from Sarah Lawrence, I began to truly appreciate and analyze the ways in which students’ best intentions with the petition affected Bobbie Gonzales’ experience both positively and negatively. Gonzales’ constant correspondence with the College’s Alumni department shows the extent to which she values her experiences here despite her frustrations. She effectively criticized the administration’s policy to ‘treat her as any other student’ without realistically recognizing the issues she may have faced as one of the few non-white students at the college. As an institution, we can hold this early example as a celebration and reflection on the college’s long history toward racial diversity.

On the academic side of my fieldwork, I focused on the practice and importance of building community archives because  they work to preserve and produce collective memories. They provide the “blocks upon which memory is constructed, framed and ultimately accepted” (Piggott 2005 in Flinn, Stevens, Shepherd 2009). The bridge from memory to fact is often overlooked, but once this bridge is  crossed, the remaining ‘fact’ shapes both attitudes and policy. Archives are necessary so our community can reflect upon the past and thus decide the future. Our community at Sarah Lawrence will undoubtedly be enriched by incorporating past works and reports into our everyday discussion of our school’s future. We should celebrate past achievements, learn about past tensions and bring them all into our present, public consciousness.

Many thanks to Professor Susan Kart (Fieldwork Advisor), Abby Lester and Sarah Pinard (Fieldwork Supervisors) for their guidance, time and energy. 

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