We Were the Last of the Nice Negro Girls

illustration of a row of white pencils with 7 black pencils in the middle
Katie Martin

This article was published online on February 9, 2021.

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.”

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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.

“I’m Marie.” A resonant voice with a rich timbre. My roommate, a white girl with long, straight hair and an infectious grin, was holding out her hand. Her mother was elegantly dressed and wore sunglasses, which she never took off. I rose from the desk chair to greet her.

Marie led the small talk right away. “How many kids in your family?” At the frontier of race and class, even simple questions cause a twinge. Concern about the “Negro number,” as a result of Margaret Sanger’s 1939 Negro Project, still had resonance in the ’50s and ’60s. The Negro families I grew up around were much smaller than in my parents’ generation. My father had been one of six. My mother, one of eight. My cousins—the other children of the six and eight—did not exceed three per family, and most of the clusters were two per household.

“Five,” I said.

“Beat you by one! We’re six!” she announced. Marie was Catholic.

My family left me with a sea of white girls and headed back to Baltimore. I walked along the slowly rising road past the wishing well, past the castle, past the lacrosse field, past the art studio and the theater that had once been servants’ quarters, to the chapel that had once been a stable, and climbed the stairs for the convocation.

Like any self-respecting Negro, as I took my seat I counted every single person with color in their skin. Beaver College recruiters had found seven “nice Negro girls,” including myself. There was no Black Students’ Union. We were not even “Black” yet. We made eye contact and nodded toward each other.

The seven of us occupied different places within the Negro community’s distinct class system. We had different relationships to hairdressers, different slangs, different high-school experiences, different ways of worshipping (if we worshipped), different family arrangements. Race may have looked like it overrode those differences, but in 1967 it did not. Three of the girls had gone to the same high school, so they hung tight.

One of us, Karen McKie, lived in Philadelphia, and had been recruited in person from Simon Gratz High School, which had a low graduation rate, an abysmal college-attendance rate, and a reputation for being a violent, dangerous place. I caught up with Karen a few weeks ago.

Anna Deavere Smith: When we arrived, we didn’t have afros.

Karen McKie: Absolutely not. The idea was to blend in.

Smith: We, being these obedient girls—what was the frame of reference for our behavior? Were there any movies or novels about nice Negro girls like us?

McKie: No.

Smith: Right?

McKie: Being “Black and proud” was already a lyric to songs—James Brown. But we were walking that fine line, because we weren’t following anyone onto the Beaver campus. I didn’t know that anybody who looked like me went to Beaver.

We were an experience. They were giving us an opportunity to be the experience for these white girls. So that then they could be more comfortable going out into the world where people were talking about being Black and proud. Something needed to be done so that they would be prepared.

Smith: That’s hilarious. I thought it was coming from a white-savior thing on their part, to give us an opportunity.

One night, still early in the term, my roommate and I were studying at our desks.

“Did you get a letter?” she asked casually, swinging her feet from her chair.

“What letter?”

“I got a letter asking if I minded having a Negro roommate,” she said.

“No,” I said. “I did not get a letter.”

None of the seven of us got a letter.

There were a dozen or so students in my freshman English class—all white except two of us. Our professor was Helen Buttel, a white woman (Beaver had no Black faculty when I arrived). She’s in her 90s now. I called her the other week.

Smith: I just have to see if you remember anything about this at all. In my first paper for freshman English class, the assignment was to write about a taboo word. And I wrote about the word nigger—we now say “the N-word”—and so did the only other Black woman in the class.

Helen Buttel: I certainly do remember making that assignment and I certainly must have been amazed.

Smith: Why were you amazed?

Buttel: Well, it seemed like a sort of brave thing for a couple of Black students to bring this up—a pejorative word about your race—in a class where papers might be read aloud. It seemed like a very dramatic thing to me.

Smith: I remember you coming in when you were handing back the papers and saying, “Well, two people in the class have written about the same word, and they’ve written about it differently.”

The other Black girl and I, who at that point in the year had never spoken a word to each other, did not even look at each other when Dr. Buttel announced that we’d written about the same word with completely different interpretations. My classmate had written that the N-word was a word of affection; I had written that it was offensive and hurtful.

Buttel: I don’t remember a classroom that broke into wild discussion on the subject. Do you?

Smith: No, I don’t. I don’t remember any wild discussion at all of any kind. [Laughs.]

Buttel: I imagine that probably just shut them all up. [Laughs.]

One evening, four nervous white girls visited me in the study room of my dorm. Beaver was a small school, less than 1,000 students, but none of these girls were in classes that I took. They wanted to tell me that their roommate, who was from the Deep South, had flown a Confederate flag from the wishing well in the center of campus after Beaver had won a lacrosse game. Perhaps I’d heard about it? I hadn’t. Their roommate had a big personality, and they assumed that I’d noticed her around campus. I had not.

The purpose of the meeting: Would I be willing to function as ambassador to the Negroes in our freshman class and explain that their roommate meant no harm? Why had they chosen me? More perplexing, why had they assumed we seven were a group?

I started with the three girls who’d gone to the same high school and hung together. The consensus was to give the southern girl the benefit of the doubt.

And “we” were now a group.

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.

Most of the seven of us came to this pseudo-Gothic architectural setting from cities that had been embroiled in riots. The Kerner Commission Report, the landmark report on American race relations released in 1968, begins like this: “The summer of 1967 again brought racial disorders to American cities, and with them shock, fear, and bewilderment to the nation.”

To read the Kerner Report is to hear auguries of the summer of 2020—riots, police beatings, murder.

Many believe that the moment we live in is unprecedented. I don’t know about that. I’ll just say that as hard as what the seven of us went through in 1967 was, what others went through not long before us was even worse. I once interviewed the journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who had integrated the University of Georgia about half a decade before we seven got to Beaver. Her presence caused a riot on her third night at school. Someone threw a rock through her dorm-room window. There was glass, she told me, all over her clothes, which lay in an open suitcase on the floor. Tear gas was used to disperse the crowd. The girls in her dorm were ordered to strip the sheets from their beds to get the tear gas out. The dean came to remove Charlayne from the dorm and to tell her she’d have to leave the university. As she was escorted out, all of her white dormmates were lining the hall, dressed in their nightgowns, some standing on chairs. As she headed toward the front door, one of the women threw out a quarter and said, “Here, Charlayne, go and change my sheets.”

The Beaver College Blacks were among the last of the nice Negro girls. We had aspired to be educated, and to move a step beyond where our parents had been able to get to. We were told that we had to get good grades in school and that we had to work harder than the white kids (just like today). We were told to never piss off authority figures—especially white authority figures. We were told that we had to be good and we had to be nice in all ways. We were told that we must above all escape teenage pregnancy, because pregnancy would ruin our lives. (The use of birth-control pills for unmarried women was not legalized until 1972, a year after we graduated.)

Then, as the seven of us nestled into our senior year, Angela Davis hit the FBI’s most-wanted list, accused of supplying guns for a shoot-out at the Marin County courthouse. She was on the run for two months, and during that time Black women who looked remotely like her (or not at all like her) were getting apprehended by cops. Renouncing our nice-Negro-girl personas, we grew our afros as large as hers, as if to say Come and get me too. Freeing ourselves from the hot irons and lye-based products that left scabs and burns on our scalps and on our foreheads and necks in pursuit of straight hair was a cosmetic choice, yes, but as Davis went to jail and nearly to death row, we were also saying: You’re right, we could be her. The nice girl was gone.

Were we ever really “nice”? Gracious, perhaps. Kind, perhaps. We definitely had manners. But those manners had to do with how we treated one another inside the walls of segregation. Anyone over 30 was addressed as Miss or Mr. But the “nice” that Beaver recruiters sought was a performance left over from slavery and Jim Crow, when to not be nice was a potential death sentence.

I may have left my nice-Negro-girl persona behind at Beaver College, but the need to be “nice” remained. In the ’80s, when a terrifying hurdle was thrown onto my tenure track, some older white male friends quickly identified the cause as racism—yet they counseled me never to use the word race as I struggled to survive. Though the academy boasts about its dedication to truth, few people tell it like it is. A cadre of savvy academics, Black and white, helped me escape. One literally helped me pack. To this day, I carry the trauma, but I landed tenure at Stanford. The horrible story had a happy ending. But I know it is not always so.

Today, America’s dark past is breaking through the cracks. Divisions are stark. Did the Civil War ever end?

A new generation of sisters who no longer perform “niceness” have a palpable sense of their vulnerability, even as they’ve got a better hold on the ladder to success than we seven did.

Andrea Ambam, an excellent recent graduate student of mine, is a first-generation American whose family immigrated from Cameroon and settled in a tiny Missouri town. She was educated in predominantly white institutions from preschool through graduate school—didn’t have a Black teacher until college. She was raised in a household that emphasized the need to stay out of trouble. But in high school she began to question respectability politics.

“I think that so many Black women moving through the world are warned about their attitude—you know, about being polite, about being feminine enough,” she told me recently. In the litany of videos of Black people being attacked or killed by police, the one that hit closest to home for her was Sandra Bland’s. In 2015, the 28-year-old African American college graduate was pulled over and jailed after a traffic stop in Texas, and died in lockup three days later. The descant of our hour-long conversation about why Bland holds so much significance for Andrea and her peers was “That could be me.”

Andrea Ambam: If I would’ve been in that car and the policeman told me to put out my cigarette, I would put it out, right? But I understand the feeling of not wanting to pretend, of not wanting to say “Yeah, everything’s good, everything’s great, Officer.” The last video we have is her fighting for her life and for her right to not be treated this way, and then the next thing we have is that she [died]. I feel so deeply connected to her defiance. It can make you cower and say, “Okay, I’m not gonna do that.” Or it can make you lean into defiance. It can ignite something in you that says, I am going forward proud in my defiance, rather than stifling that defiance and that resistance as a safety measure.

There’s progress, of course. Beaver College, now Arcadia University, is coed. Black students and other historically oppressed minorities have affinity groups there. Arcadia’s president, Ajay Nair, is publicly dedicated to social justice. In the late ’60s, the seven of us had to fight to get one Black teacher—and now many colleges have entire African American–studies departments.

We no longer have to strain so hard for the sake of euphemism. When I spoke with Dr. Buttel, she recalled that a dean had told her she had to get the seven Negro girls, to whom she had become the institution’s dedicated adviser, to stop using the “dreadful” name we had given ourselves: the Beaver College Blacks.

“And I said to the dean, ‘ That’s impossible. What would you want it to be called, the Beaver College Colored Folk?’ ”

In our current moment of division, we cannot afford to go forward without looking back. We must excavate history to assess how we learned to restore human dignity that had been ripped away by plunder and slavery. How did we get this far? Not by being nice.


This article appears in the March 2021 print edition with the headline “The Last of the Nice Negro Girls.”