We Were the Last of the Nice Negro GirlsBreaking News
tags: African American history, higher education, memoir, colleges and universities
My high-school counselor at Western High School, an all-girls public school in Baltimore, was a rotund white woman with a pleasant but less than energetic countenance. She was wholly absent from my education until one day, after rumblings about affirmative action in colleges had begun shaking the ground that Negroes traversed to higher education, she suddenly summoned my mother and me for a meeting. My mother, a veteran teacher in Baltimore’s public schools, took the afternoon off. We sat in the high-ceilinged counseling office, prim and proper as can be, while the counselor showed us one pamphlet after another with images of white girls in sweater sets relaxing in bucolic environments.
I knew nothing about the multitude of small colleges across the U.S. that had been founded, many by religious institutions, for the specific purpose of educating white women. Nor did I know anything about “suitcase schools,” some of which had reputations as glorified finishing schools where girls were focused on meeting boys attending nearby institutions. (They were called “suitcase schools” because on Fridays the girls took off to spend the weekend with their prospective husbands.) But in 1966, as my counselor put it to my mother, many of these all-girls colleges were “looking for nice Negro girls like Anna.”
My father did not like the idea. He was adamant that I attend Howard or Morgan State or some other historically Black college or university, just as he and his siblings and my older cousins had done. My mother and I made our case about “opportunity.” He became emphatic: If I went to a white women’s college, he said, I’d have no social life. This was a legitimate concern—but up to that point, my father’s strictness had severely circumscribed my “social life.” Now he was suddenly concerned about it?
I applied to three of the colleges the guidance counselor had suggested. When acceptance letters arrived from all three, my father said he would refuse to help financially, so my mother and I set about trying to find the money to pull this off. My father’s only acknowledgment of this was to murmur that I should pick the college closest to Baltimore, so I could get home with limited expense on a train. I ended up choosing Beaver College, in a suburb of Philadelphia, without having ever seen the campus.
August 1967: The Smith family left Baltimore for Beaver College at the crack of dawn. Because what would that be like—colored and late? My father sat behind the wheel, and two brothers, my two baby sisters, my paternal grandfather, and my mother piled into the car. My aunts Esther and Mildred, concerned about the shabby state of my luggage, had pooled their resources to buy me a brand-new set. My spanking-new luggage, my spanking-new clothes, my plastic record player (with my five LPs), and the weight of my family caused the car to emit a scraping sound as it made its way along the turnpike.
We were among the first to arrive. A large gray castle loomed. The place had originally been a private estate modeled after a castle in England. Buildings had been repurposed to become a theater, a chapel, an art studio, and a biology lab.
White girls accompanied by their families trickled down the dorm hallway throughout the morning and afternoon. While my mother and I sat alone in an antiseptically pristine room waiting to meet my roommate, the rest of my family wandered around the campus, sizing up the place.
I’d had white friends in high school, but I had not lived with them. I’d gone to only one slumber party at a white home, a sweet-16 sleepover, from which my father took me home at 10 p.m., because to him there was nothing sweet about me spending the night with a group of white girls. He and my mother didn’t allow me to hang out with anyone whose parents they didn’t know—and in Baltimore at that time, Negro parents didn’t know a lot of white parents.
April 4, 1968: The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. The white girls in Dilworth Hall ran up and down the corridor—horrified less, as I recall, about the murder and more because the curfews and travel restrictions in major cities would mess with their spring-break plans.
The nice Negro girls made a plan to meet. My roommate recalls that she asked me, “Can I come to the meeting?,” and that I said, “No, not this time.” I don’t recall that specifically. But I am sure I said no.
Up to that point, the world outside the walls of Beaver College had remained a distant, muffled drumbeat. A veil separated the student body from the reality outside. Many of my white classmates’ lives were centered on finding husbands at nearby Princeton, Lehigh, Lafayette, Haverford, Penn, and Franklin & Marshall. This was a suitcase school with very little political activity. But for the seven of us, King’s assassination shredded what was left of the veil. The veil would rip for our white classmates, too, because of Vietnam and the draft. It was all falling apart.
For the Beaver College Blacks, as we’d come to call ourselves, King’s death magnified the holes in our lives. Like Black students all over America, we sought to make sense of what was happening in urban areas before and after the assassination. “I think we learned how to demand to be educated,” Karen says.