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We'll Just Say That You Chose To Withdraw

More from Virginia Foster Durr's autobiography (previous post here).

In 1921, Virginia went off to college - Wellesley College, in Massachussetts, which was very different from Birmingham, Alabama.

She can speak for herself:

The first night, I went to the dining room and a Negro girl was sitting at my table. My God, I nearly fell over dead. I couldn't believe it. I just absolutely couldn't believe it...I promptly got up, marched out of the room, went upstairs, and waited for the head of the house to come. I was from Alabama and my father would have a fit. I couldn't do it. She would have to move me immediately. She looked at me.

"Well, Virginia, why do you feel this way?"

"Because I'm from Alabama and my father would have a fit. I just couldn't dream of it." I was rather irritated with her for thinking that I could do such a thing.

"Well," she said, "you think then that it is just impossible for you to eat with a Negro girl?"

"Why, absolutely," I responded. "I couldn't think of it. You'll just have to move me."

"You know, Virginia," she said, "Wellesley College has rules, and the rule is that you eat at the table to which you are assigned... Now if you don't want to obey the rule, then that is up to you."

"What happens if I won't do it?" I asked.

"We'll just say that you chose to withdraw. We won't expel you or suspend you. You'll have nothing on your record except that you are through and that you chose to withdraw."

"But my father would have a fit."

"He's not our problem. He's your problem. You either abide by the rules or you go home."

Virginia's roommate thought she should stay, and her argument was stunning in its simplicity: "I just think you're crazy. You're dated up for the Harvard game and you're dated up for the Yale game. If you want to go home and give all that up because you don't want to eat with a Negro girl, I just think you're crazy."

Virginia had a sleepless night after that:

It was terrible for me, because I knew if my father ever heard of it, he would be furious... Now I was having the time of my life at Wellesley. I had never had such a good time. I was in love with a Harvard law student, the first captain of VMI, and life was just a bed of roses. But I had been taught that if I ate at the table of a Negro girl I would be committing a terrible sin against society. About dawn, I realized that if nobody told Daddy, it might be all right. If I didn't tell him, nobody else was likely to tell him. That was the only conclusion I came to. I didn't have any great feeling of principle. I had not wrestled with my soul. I just told myself that Daddy would never hear about it and I would get to stay at Wellesley.

The most enraging thing to me about this sequence is the utter lack of, as Virgnia herself acknowledges, morality.

There is custom.

There is dating nice boys.

And dating nice boys wins.

Not for a second does she think of what her actions mean. She is full of feelings about her emotions, and how hard and scary it would be for her to do this, without at all considering the effect her actions would have on the other student (or how they support a greater system of inequality, but she's not even managing a bare minimum of empathy here, let alone a larger idea of how her actions fit into everything).

The thing I like most about this sequence is the implacability of the head of the house. She does not validate or engage with Virginia's racism in any way - simply makes her attendance at dinner a requirement to participation in the culture of Wellesley as a whole1.

And it's that last bit which is key - if someone is being racist, and gets to keep all their "nice things" while no one acknowledges the racism, I'm sure most of the time they don't even think of what they're doing as anything questionable at all. After all, it's just what people do. And isn't it so nice that all these (white) people respect each other's beliefs! How American!

There's been a lot of discussion about focusing on the actions, rather than the intent, of people who've just done something racist, because otherwise the discussion swings swiftly into a, "you can't say what's in my heart," place. I feel like this approach is not only productive in getting people to change their behavior, but also dovetails with another goal - that of hamstringing the social system that's helping to hold up discrimination2. I feel like focusing on intent is an individual interaction, while focusing on action (while it also may change the individual) is trying to clear room in the public space for greater levels of equality.

It also underscores how important people with power are in carrying out that hamstringing. Because it was no logical argument that convinced Virginia - it was the absolute fact that if she didn't sit with someone who wasn't white, she would be leaving Wellesley. The only way to keep that kind of penalty on the table is through collective social action (which is hard in a society in transition that likely has a lot of people who would have had the same problem Virginia did; I feel like student factions would have been inevitable) or through the "people in charge" consciously deciding to use it.

By taking this stance, Wellesley created an integrated dining hall in a time in which there were still law-like social norms in the south against such things.

Of course, what I really want to do is read a book or some articles about the black women who were attending Wellesley in the 1930s, and what it was like for them.

1. I would love to see "backstage" meeting minutes from Wellesley administration discussions of the situation. From what I can tell there was a not insignificant number of women from the south attending the college. It would be interesting to know the number of them that were sent home because of something it was "just impossible," for them to do. I wonder how many times allowances were made, with someone being moved to a different table (or similar) because her father, for example, had given Wellesley money. Virginia's family, while appearing somewhat well-to-do, didn't actually have a lot of money. That may have factored into the "implacable" approach from the head of house.

2. I don't mean the entire system, by this, because there are a lot of economic, historical, etc, other factors that this wouldn't address.



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Mar. 4th, 2010 05:04 pm (UTC)
This is fascinating (hi! lurking on another's f-list). I can't help wondering how the "Negro girl" felt, seeing someone stare at her in horror, then get up and "march out of the room."
Mar. 4th, 2010 06:00 pm (UTC)

Yes, exactly. I expect the southern students had a reputation for bad behavior, but what a shitty experience. Ah, here's a new girl from the south. Let's see if she acts like an asshole. Oh, yep, here we go.

I found a publicity release from Wellesley comparing their enrollments from 2003-4 (6% African-American students) and 1953-4 (<1% African American students). That less than 1% translates to twelve students.

And that's two decades after Durr was there.

In Jane Bolin's obituary (the first female African-American judge in the U.S.) it notes she graduated from Wellesley, class of 1928. With only one other African-American student.

So barring enrollment fluctuations, it's probably a safe bet that she was one of only two to seven or so African-American students out of a college of maybe around 1500.

I can't find anything else. Maybe I will go bug the dashing grad student librarians at the Internet Public Library.
Mar. 5th, 2010 03:31 pm (UTC)
(Sorry, responded to myself instead of you, yesterday, and didn't realize until now)

Ah, wait, I'm wrong, Durr attended from 1921 to 1923, before Jane Bolin graduated. It would be sweet if the woman she refused to sit with was Jane Bolin, eventually to become the first African-American judge in the U.S., but the dates are off by three years (Durr was in the class of 1925, but never graduated because her parents ran out of money). History is not so just, I guess.

Still, it means it's likely that the student Durr refused to sit was probably one of maybe two or three African-American students at the college.
Mar. 5th, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC)
You are mighty with your research. It would be wonderful if the African-American woman had a diary as well.

It's very interesting that Durr seems to have no personal opinion of the African-American student save through the lens of her father; it defines her utterly - an echo of the fact that one could only go to certain events/participate in social life if a male determined one could go.
Mar. 6th, 2010 06:12 pm (UTC)
That is an excellent point. For her whole life access to good outcomes has been dependent on the approval of men, and so of course her first concern is about her father's opinion. It still just makes me gag.

The only mention of the student beyond what I quoted is in the next paragraph, after Virginia decides to stay (and actually totally illustrates how well you nailed it):

"I did eat with that Negro girl for about a month, and I came to realize in that time that it wasn't the Negro girl I was afraid of. It was my father's reaction I feared. She was a perfectly nice girl, well-mannered and intelligent. She used the right fork and all. She was a Southerner, too. They served us Indian pudding on Saturday nights, which was nothing in the world but cold grits with molasses on it. The first time they served it, we both said, "Cold grits! With molasses!" We thought it was the most horrible concoction we had ever tasted."

No empathy about the effects of her previous actions at any point in the entire paragraph. Also, most of the complements are the equivalent of, "And she was so articulate!"
Mar. 4th, 2010 05:32 pm (UTC)
Wellesley has a pretty hard-ass background, too; it began as a school for evangelical teachers, if I recall correctly, and the first group of faculty were all born again. Plus northern women's colleges thought of themselves as very different from the south, and they might have enforced integration as a power move.
Mar. 4th, 2010 06:19 pm (UTC)
Apparently the idea for it began as a seminary, but when it actually opened the founder had decided that rather than a religious focus he wanted it to be a Harvard for women.

And yeah, I wouldn't be surprised to see it as a power move, rather than a principled one. It's disheartening to consider how much prejudice and discrimination is still out there because people have managed to dehumanize the targets of it to the extent that their preferences and feelings are not considered; but it's also disheartening to think about how many steps toward equality have probably been taken by people who just want to differentiate themselves from a group of people they don't like, and slamming that group on its prejudices is an easy way to do that.
Mar. 4th, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC)

And wow... I try really hard to fully engage in people's life scenarios to better understand how they became assholics or racist or whatever, but she didn't even *consider* the moral implications of this? Just wow...

Still hoping she grew and changed though...
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