The history of Black students at La Salle: Part I (From the 1930s to the Civil Rights Era)


Bianca Abbate, Editor-in-Chief

This article was written with the help of the La Salle University Archives. University archivist Catherine Carey makes the following disclaimer: “It’s difficult to tell the story of Black life at La Salle because of the lack of documentation we have in the University Archives. Most of the information we have about our first Black students or the early years of the Black Student Union is told through records created by the University administration about those people. We have very few records created by those students themselves. We can fill these gaps in the historical record by doing things like oral history interviews, but the fact is that those records were not considered to be as important as other records at that time, and so we are missing important, first-hand accounts.” 

It started in 1938 with a letter from a woman named Ethel Lee addressed to the then-archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Dennis J. Dougherty. Lee, the secretary of the Philadelphia chapter of the Federated Colored Catholics of the United States, had originally sent a letter to then-President of La Salle, Brother Edwin Anselm in 1937, but when it was not answered, Lee took the issue to His Eminence. The prior academic year, two Black students had been rejected — seemingly without cause — from La Salle College: James Richardson and Harvey Scott. Lee called on the cardinal to push for the acceptance of Black students into the college in order to preserve Catholic values and reject “communist” ones. “This debarring of Negroes from Catholic colleges is furnishing the Communists with additional propaganda to lure the Negro from the Catholic Church,” wrote Lee. “We direct this plea in the belief that you will make it possible for our Negro youth in this diocese to be given the advantages of a higher education under the auspices of Holy Mother Church, and at the same time protect them from the baleful influence of communism.” Later that year, the Lasallians held a meeting in which they approved the admittance of Black Catholics. Had Lee not brought the issue to the cardinal’s attention, Black students might have started at La Salle at a much later date.

The following fall, the college welcomed its first Black student on campus: a man from Philadelphia named Elmer Brown. A member of the Track and Field team, Brown was an active part of life at La Salle. While there are few official records to indicate the challenges faced by La Salle’s first Black student, Brown’s tenure on the Track team was not always smooth sailing. In fact, at one meet in a Southern state, Brown was barred from competition because of his race. The incident was criticized by the Collegian staff in its editorial section. While Brown is an important part of La Salle’s Black history, Brown was not the first Black graduate of La Salle, however. Brown ultimately enlisted in the army during World War II and did not return to La Salle. 

Elmer Brown is seated third from the left.
Photo courtesy of the La Salle University Archives

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, there would be only a small Black student population. The first Black graduate at La Salle would be Edward Murray in 1946. Following his time at La Salle, Murray would go to medical school and ultimately become a doctor. Warren E. Smith was one of the first Black students to graduate from La Salle’s Pre-Med program in 1954. He would become La Salle’s psychiatrist in 1969 and remain at the institution until 1984 when he retired. While maintaining a private practice, Smith also served on the staffs of Hahnemann University Hospital and Einstein Medical Center. Smith was also a psychiatric consultant to other Philadelphia institutions.

With the acceptance of more Black students, the college needed to address Black issues. In the late-1940s, La Salle became an actor in the Interracial Council — an organization created in order to address issues of race at the local colleges. According to the Collegian’s records, the Philadelphia institutions met at La Salle College for the first time. The organization discussed the work that the institutions had done for the local communities. In the 1950s, members of La Salle College also published the Collegiate Interracial Monthly which addressed issues of race. Black students did not have much of a voice on campus at this time. For this reason, the Collegian has little insight on the unique experiences of Black students or individual events of racism at the time. However, more generally, racial discrimination was pervasive in Philadelphia and across the nation in the 1940s and 50s, and racist attitudes would also exist on college campuses.

The Civil Rights Era brought many changes to La Salle, including greater inclusion and accountability. The 1960s saw a rise in activism and greater civil liberties for Black Americans across the country; that spirit of activism was present also at La Salle University. Firstly, it was at this point that the institution started to track demographic data consistently. The Black Student Union also became a critical presence on campus in the late-1960s. The organization had a sizable impact on the school. Largely because of the activism of the Black Student Union, La Salle began to accept more Black students, hire more Black faculty/staff and incorporate a Black history course into the curriculum. Yet, the Black Student Union faced many difficulties as an organization. Members of the University even labeled the organization as a “threat.”

The Black Student Union was not the only Black organization on campus to face struggles, however. According to the archival work of junior Emily Dorr, “almost every Black student group that has been present on campus was shut down, disbanded or suspended for reasons hidden under bureaucratic pretenses.” Furthermore, these groups were seen by the University as special interest groups. In 1968, then-President of the college, Brother Daniel Burke released an official report in which he stated, “As the diversity of the campus population increases, so do the number of special interest groups and subcultures. Polarization threatens the sense of community that must integrate the College. The problem is a real one at the present time. Our black students must be encouraged in their efforts to promote their self-respect and their cultural pride without separating themselves into an antagonistic relationship with the majority.” 

Photo Courtesy of the La Salle University Archives

Despite the administrative challenges, Black student groups persisted. Without a complete oral history, it is impossible to quantify the unique experiences and struggles of Black students as events during this era unfolded across the country. Yet, the events and publications of these student groups offer a hint into Black culture at La Salle through the 20th century. In 1969, the first Afro-Americans Arts Festival was hosted on campus. A celebration of Black art, the event featured a number of performances. Among the attendees were names like Muhammad Ali and Sammy Davis Jr. 

Around this time, La Salle experienced a wake-up call in terms of race relations. La Salle had recently piloted its Open Door Program, which was an initiative to accept more Black students into the institution. The program was a precursor to later support programs at the University. It had partially failed, however, because the institution underestimated the level of support Black students from the local community might need. 

The controversy surrounding the program is an indication that efforts of Black students to bring to light the issues of racism on and off campus created a dialogue about race at La Salle. From this discourse, it was clear that there was a disconnect on campus. In an October 1969 issue of the Collegian, a sociology professor wrote about racism and La Salle in a commentary article. In the article, he defended La Salle as a school which promoted equality for the Black community and criticized those who questioned the program, saying, “The style of disrespect will not advance interracial justice.” The article was in response to another letter to the editor titled “No Compromise,” in which the author — who signed the article “Frustrated Black Student” — called out the University for the program which the student saw as a band aid solution. The student wrote, “It is rare, if ever, that Whites in positions of solving racial problems really ever want to get right down to the real nitty gritty and deal directly with the crux or the reality concerning such matters.” The student ended with a call to action: “The seeds are being sowed by whites with power, and only they can change the situation, not only mine, but my people many of whom feel just as I.” Black members of the Lasallian community were demanding change, while White members were applauding La Salle’s efforts.

The decade would end with these dynamic insights about race on campus, and a new decade would begin with La Salle opening its doors to its first Black women students…

The sequel to this article will feature Black students at La Salle from the end of the Civil Rights Era into the 21st century. To contribute your voice, please contact the author.

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