Read: A priceless archive of ordinary life
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.
We met with a dean who was from the South. Her accent, full of extended vowels and crystal-clear consonants, was enough to make any Black girl go right back to feeling like lynch meat. We met in a sterile classroom with linoleum floors and no art.
Our demands were modest: We wanted courses in Black history and a Black faculty member or two. The meeting did not go well. The dean told us that if we exhibited “undesirable behavior,” the administration would not be happy to have us there. And “if you continue to show undesirable behavior,” she said, “we’re certainly not going to pay to have you here.”
If a dean were to talk like that to a group of Black students now—heck, if a school custodian were to talk like that to a group of Black students now—they wouldn’t even get to the “pay to have you here” part. They’d be fired by the time they said “undesirable behavior.” Someone would put it on social media, and that would be that.
Back then, though, there wasn’t much we could do.
I resorted to mimicking the dean, accent and all, and gave performances whenever requested—on the walkways to class, in the dining hall, while doing archery (my effort at fulfilling the physical-fitness requirement). My comic reenactments of our meeting served as a kind of salve. Of course, we should have been outraged. We were outraged. When you laugh loudly you bare your teeth.
We finally got a Black-studies course—not a whole curriculum, a single class—and a Black faculty member, a grandfatherly type, who quickly helped make us feel more at home … and then, sadly, died. We created a performance—a celebration of his life through songs, poems, and readings—to eulogize him, and our “we” got even stronger.