A Note on Method: Researching “Black Labor at Bryn Mawr”

by Grace Pusey

Two laborers working on Merion Hall ca. 1903. | Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA.

Two laborers working on Merion Hall ca. 1903. | Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA.

During my Historical Methods seminar on Monday, Professor Sharon Ullman requested that I write a post discussing the methodology I used for “Black Labor at Bryn Mawr: A Story Imagined Through Census Records, 1880-1940.” Conspicuously absent from my essay, she noted, was any mention of a group of College employees who migrated from a small town in Tennessee to Bryn Mawr over the course of several generations to work as maids. I was aware of the story of these maids when I conducted research for my post, but I did not write about them because I was unable to corroborate the story using the sources available to me. Because of this omission, Professor Ullman felt my essay made the history of Black labor at Bryn Mawr seem like a closed narrative. I did not draw enough attention to gaps in historical understanding and knowledge that exist due to a dearth of information available on the topic. Instead, I glossed over these gaps or omitted them from my narrative entirely. My goal here is to offer a corrective to my original narrative by providing a brief overview of my research methodology.

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Institutional Attempts at Interracial Understanding and Change, 1988-1989

by Grace Pusey 

Content Warning: This post contains racist slurs.

Racism Alive on Campus

“Bryn Mawr College Hispanic students (from left) Nora Gutierrez and Christine Rivera say things seemed to have calmed down on campus this year following a rash of racist incidents against Rivera last year.” Diane Garrett, “Racism Alive on Campus,” Main Line Sunday, Vol. 6, No. 36, October 22, 1989. Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA.

ON OCTOBER 7, 1988, first-year student Christine Rivera returned to her dormitory to find an anonymous note slipped under her door. “Hey, spic,” it read, “Why don’t you leave Bryn Mawr? If you and your kind can’t handle the work here, don’t blame it on this racial thing. You’re making our school look bad to everyone else. If you can’t handle it, get out. We’d all be a lot happier.”1

Rivera reported the note immediately. College administration responded swiftly, issuing a memo to students, staff, and faculty the next day. “We want to make it very clear that prejudice, harassment, and discrimination will not be tolerated in the bi-college community,” it read. “They represent the antithesis of the values essential to our basic mission: pursuit of knowledge in a free and open atmosphere where differences of opinion, background, and belief are valued and respected. […] [Until] everyone in our colleges — students, faculty, and staff — is free from harassment and discrimination here, we have failed to live up to our principles.”2 The memo concluded by urging the perpetrator of Rivera’s harassment to turn herself in to the Honor Board, or to his or her immediate supervisor if they were College staff.

No one came forward, however, and the abuse continued. First, Rivera found a paper she had written for an English course slipped under her door with a slash through her last name. Then she discovered a decoration that she had hung on her door ripped to shreds and slipped underneath it. “I was very fearful of walking through my door,” Rivera later admitted in an article published in Main Line Sunday a year after the initial verbal attack,but she did not report these incidents at first.3 Unwittingly placed at the center of an unfolding campus scandal, she “[…] didn’t want to cause any more tension.”4 Because the identity of Rivera’s harasser remained unknown, all the controversy was drawn to her. Some students, unable to fathom how such a vitriolic note could have been written by anyone at an institution with a “liberal, open-minded” reputation like Bryn Mawr’s, even believed Rivera was faking her own harassment.

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  1. Huntly Collins, “Student Conference Focuses on Campus Racial Problems,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 6, 1988. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://articles.philly.com/1988-11-06/news/26248254_1_student-conference-minority-students-white-students []
  2. Memo from Deans to Bi-College Community, October 8, 1988, Box 9JAF, “Diversity,” Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA. []
  3. Diane Garrett, “Racism Alive on Campus,” Main Line Sunday, Vol. 6, No. 36, October 22, 1989, Box 9JAF, “Diversity — Newspaper Clippings,” Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA. []
  4. Ibid. []

Unwavering Dissent (Part I): Challenging a Curriculum of Racism in 1970

by Emma Kioko 

Note: This is the first of a two-part post about the climate of racial activism on campus between 1970 and 1972. The two posts center on two events: the “near sit-in” of March 12 (1970) and the first fight for Perry House (1972). Woven through both events are incredibly intelligent and nuanced discussions of race introduced and led by students including Bryn Mawr’s Sisterhood. These women paved the way for truly engaged activism on campus and their efforts should be celebrated and remembered.

Read Part I here now and don’t forget to check back to read the second post: Unwavering Dissent Part II: Challenging the Rhetoric of Racism in 1972 and the First Fight for Perry!

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Bryn Mawr and Haverford College News, April 15, 1969. Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA.

An Initial Upset in 1970 

We shall find you a house for a cultural center. As you know the Spanish house by a two-year old agreement is currently being planned as a Russian house. We shall nevertheless find a house and I understand that it will be as are all residence halls open to students on invitation, white or Black…

-President Katherine E. McBride

The Black women of Bryn Mawr College were upset. In the 1968-1969 academic year, concerned with Bryn Mawr’s academic and administrative “patterns of falsification and omission that characterized the treatment of the role and contribution of the Black people in America, and all the world,”  a group of students created the Black Students Committee to review the status of Black Studies on campus. In Spring 1969 the committee issued a list of curricular proposals in the hopes of forcing Bryn Mawr to acknowledge “racism on its campus and in its courses.”1 The “reasonable and just” proposed changes were given with an action deadline of April 25, 1969. Continue reading

  1. 9JAF Diversity African-American, Sisterhood, Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA. []

Black Labor at Bryn Mawr: A Story Imagined Through Census Records, 1880-1940

A maid on the steps of Merion Hall, ca. 1898.

A maid on the steps of Merion Hall ca. 1898. | Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA.

by Grace Pusey

Before Bryn Mawr: 1880-1885

Five years before Bryn Mawr College opened its doors in 1885 to young women seeking the kind of rigorous academic training that was then available only at a few elite institutions for men, only fifteen Black people resided in Lower Merion Township.1 Most were young, single men from Pennsylvania and its neighboring states — the youngest among them, a nine-year-old servant named George Taylor, was from New Jersey. There was only one Black family among the residents of Lower Merion Township in 1880, a married couple with five children.2 Continue reading

  1. 1880 United States Census, Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. []
  2. 1880 United States Census, Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania: p. 24, family 202, dwelling 195, lines 31-37; June 9-10, 1880. []

Engaging “Backtalk”: Decolonizing Bryn Mawr’s African Art Collection

by Grace Pusey


My sketch in response to the “Backtalk” exhibit at Bryn Mawr College, February 21, 2015.

On Saturday, February 21, 2015 I attended the Creative Workshop engaging the Backtalk: Exposures, Erasures, and Elisions of the Bryn Mawr College African Art Collection exhibit in Canaday Library. The workshop, facilitated by Whitney Lopez, Class of 2015 and Alice Lesnick, Term Professor of Education and Africana Studies Coordinator, encouraged students to respond to the exhibit via writing, visual media, and performance. The exhibit itself showcases 35 artworks pertaining to various aspects of family, political, and spiritual life and invites viewers to “[…] engage questions of what the collection includes, leaves out, clarifies, and obscures, as well as how the collection came to be and how it functions within and beyond the College.”1 Because creativity is not my forte I was hesitant to participate in the workshop, but I forced myself to go for two reasons. First, I felt strongly that the questions the exhibit poses about Euro-American legacies of colonialism in Africa and Bryn Mawr’s relationship to them were relevant to the Black at Bryn Mawr project. Second, I felt it would be terribly opaque to focus solely on the “hidden histories” of Black experiences at the College revealed to us in archived documents while overlooking spaces on campus where Black students, faculty, staff, and their allies are already questioning Bryn Mawr’s representation of its history, challenging its master narratives, and speaking truth to power.

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  1. Museum label for “About the Backtalk Exhibit,” Bryn Mawr, PA, Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, February 21, 2015. []