Black at Bryn Mawr and the Enid Cook ’31 Center at Bryn Mawr College

by Grace Pusey 

President Cassidy and students Grace Pusey, Khadijah Seay, and Danielle Cadet at the Cook Center dedication, August 31, 2015. Photo credit: Bryn Mawr College Communications.

Bryn Mawr College President Kim Cassidy and students Grace Pusey ’15, Khadijah Seay ’16, and Danielle Cadet  ’16 (August 31, 2015). Photo credit: Bryn Mawr College Communications.

At Fall Convocation on Monday, August 31, 2015, President Kim Cassidy announced that the residence hall and cultural center built to replace Perry House — the residence hall and cultural center that African American women fought for and won in 1972 (which later also housed members of Mujeres and BACaSO, campus affinity groups founded by and for Latina, African, and Caribbean students) — has been named the Enid Cook ’31 Center in honor of Enid Appo Cook, the first African American woman to graduate from Bryn Mawr College. After President Cassidy shared this news with an audience of students, staff, and faculty packed into Goodhart Hall, I joined Enid Cook ’31 Center co-presidents Khadijah Seay and Danielle Cadet (both Class of 2016) at the Center’s dedication. President Cassidy made a few remarks explaining why Bryn Mawr had chosen to name the Center after Enid Cook and acknowledged Khadijah and Danielle for their hard work and visionary leadership on the Relaunching Perry House Committee. She also thanked me for the essay I wrote on Enid Cook for the Black at Bryn Mawr project, which proved instrumental to the College’s decision to name the building in her honor.

When the festivities ended, I went home and wrote a heartfelt Facebook post about how meaningful the day had been to me. Monica emailed me the next morning to say that she had been moved by what I wrote and asked if I would feel comfortable blogging it, since we have used this space to toggle back and forth between historical research and reflections on the meaning of that research. I agreed; since then, I have been staring at a blank screen, trying to figure out how to repackage what I wrote then for the readers of this blog. What I shared with my friends on Facebook suddenly seemed embarrassingly sincere. Rather than revising my original post, however, I have decided to share it as it was written. It remains the most candid summary of my feelings about the experience, and I cannot think of a way to suppress the emotion behind it without minimizing how truly significant the dedication ceremony was to me. I wrote:  Continue reading

Early Bryn Mawr Black History, 1719-1824

Harriton House, Bryn Mawr, PA | Photo credit: Monica Mercado

Harriton House, Bryn Mawr, PA | Photo credit: Monica Mercado

by Grace Pusey

Unlike the projects that inspired Black at Bryn Mawr, including the Black and Blue walking tour at the University of North Carolina and student-led digital humanities projects on histories of slavery at Harvard, Brown, Princeton, and Yale, Emma and I assumed that Bryn Mawr had no ties to American slavery when we started our research five months ago. That all changed when we visited the local colonial cemetery and started asking questions about its unmarked graves. In our search for answers we learned that Richard Harrison, who built Harriton Family Cemetery in 1719, owned the northernmost tobacco plantation cultivated by slave labor in the American colonies prior to Independence. While most of the unmarked graves that sparked our curiosity did not belong to slaves, we learned that two graves were thought to belong to Harrison’s house slaves, and that there was a separate cemetery on Gulph Road where his field slaves were buried. We learned that the Vaux family, related matrilineally to the Harrisons and also buried in the graveyard, bequeathed part of Harrison’s 688-acre estate to the College, including the building that is now English House, and donated the mineral collection displayed in Park Science. Thus, our initial curiosity about rows of rocks yielded a surprising discovery: Bryn Mawr College likely benefitted handsomely from wealth founded on slave labor.

At the end of the spring semester, however, I still had questions about Harriton Family Cemetery. I was curious: The cemetery’s history obviously disrupts the myth that only the American South is implicated in the legacies of slavery, but is it also significant for understanding the role of white women in those legacies? Even though women could not will property under colonial Pennsylvania law, when Richard Harrison died in 1746 he gave the property to his wife, Hannah, bypassing his sons for unknown reasons. When Hannah died in 1774 she bequeathed the property to her daughter, also named Hannah, who joined deeds with her husband Charles Thomson in 1798 to convey the property to the descendants of her son-in-law Robert McClenachan. Under this arrangement, the plantation went to McClenachan’s granddaughter Naomi, who allocated one-third of the property to her eldest daughter Sarah. Sarah married George Vaux. Did Richard Harrison’s descendants purposely manipulate the law for generations to pass the property down to women in the family? Why? Did these women inherit Harrison’s slaves, or have any control over the wealth he built on slave labor? If they did, what did they do with their inheritance?

I also wanted to learn more about the work Harrison’s slaves did, their relationship to the Harrison family, and any other details that Bruce Copper-Gill, Curator and Executive Director at Harriton House, could provide. In the days leading up to my visit to Harriton House last week, I read about colonial Pennsylvania history and early settlement on the Main Line. My independent research, combined with my visit to Harriton House, revealed that the town of Bryn Mawr harbors a complex and astoundingly dynamic Black history. Harriton Plantation is a useful case study for understanding both enslaved and free Black life in the eighteenth century — two strands of historical experience often obscured in a country that remembers the era first and foremost for the Founding Fathers. Continue reading

Black at Bryn Mawr: The Digital Tour

Cast of maids' and porters' play, ca. 1939 | Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA

Cast of maids’ and porters’ play, ca. 1939 | Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA

by Grace Pusey

The Black at Bryn Mawr digital tour is now live and can be viewed online here! The digital tour is not designed to replace the walking tour experience, but instead supplements it by enriching each location with archived photographs, digital materials, and links to other digitally accessible resources. The digital tour also includes information about sites too distant to include on the walking tour. Please note that the digital tour is still a work in progress and that the site is in beta mode, so the program may be a little buggy. I plan to update the map with new information, photographs, and resources throughout the summer, so stay tuned!

Emma’s Reflections: Speaking, Questioning, Moving Forward

by Emma Kioko

Now that our Black at Bryn Mawr research project is finishing for this semester, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on my experiences leading six public walking tours in April and May and a handful of private tours. (Grace and I were even given the opportunity to present an abridged version of the tour to President Cassidy and Provost Osirim!)


Emma Kioko ’15 and Grace Pusey ’15 introduce the Black at Bryn Mawr tour in Thomas Great Hall (May 6, 2015). Photograph courtesy of the Office of College Communications.

When I originally proposed the idea of the walking tour last summer, and then again in the Fall of 2014, I overlooked the amount of anxiety speaking and presenting in front of large groups of people usually causes me. As Grace and I researched for the tour, none of my nerves kicked in–with the amount of research we had to cover, reaching the walking tour stage of our project always seemed so far away. It wasn’t until the morning of our first tour that I started to panic. There are so many stories of black experiences on campus that our semester-long research period was unable to uncover, so many more angles of research that we were both interested in exploring. I felt a little bit unprepared. The night before the first tour, in fact, when Grace and I met to run through a quick overview of the tour, a Spanish professor stopped to tell us a story about Black student Enid Cook (Class of 1931) outraging students and the administration when she was let into Rockefeller dorm by another student. As interesting as the story was, it was just another reminder for me of just how many stories still sat undiscovered, despite how much information we had uncovered during our time in Special Collections.

Emma speaks to Professor Beard's Black Bards class (April 21, 2015). Photograph by Monica Mercado.

Emma speaks to Professor Beard’s Black Bards class (April 21, 2015). Photograph by Monica Mercado.

On the day of the first tour, I was grateful that our fieldwork advisor, Monica Mercado, suggested holding “test run” tours. The friendly faces in Professor Linda-Susan Beard’s Black Bards class really helped me get over my nerves and the initial awkwardness of testing out the precarious boundary between presenting academic research and presenting a walking tour. One of the greatest challenges leading up to the tour, for me, was challenging myself to break out of my academic voice. While preparing for the tour, Grace and I even had to scrap a huge document that detailed everything we wanted to discuss, because when we practiced for the tour and read from the paper we had written, it came out dry and incredibly academic. Negotiating the difference between the language I would use for a paper and the language I ended up using on the walking tour was not an easy process. Continue reading

Grace’s Reflections on Black at Bryn Mawr

by Grace Pusey

Grace Pusey and Emma Kioko give a Black at Bryn Mawr tour to Professor Linda-Susan Beard's Tuesday morning class. (Credit: Monica Mercado)

Standing in front of Taylor Hall, Grace Pusey and Emma Kioko give a Black at Bryn Mawr tour to Professor Linda-Susan Beard’s Tuesday morning class. (Credit: Monica Mercado)

To date, Emma Kioko and I have given five tours to more than sixty students, staff, faculty, alumnae, trustees, and members of the local community. There are three more public tours scheduled for the semester; happily, two of these are tours we had to add to accommodate the overwhelming volume of interest in the project. I will also be offering a presentation on my digital walking tour at the Greenfield Center‘s “Women’s History in the Digital World” conference at Bryn Mawr College on May 21. The groundswell of support for Black at Bryn Mawr, I argue, is a testament to its necessity to the College community, and the positive feedback we’ve received on this blog (with its readership of 1,300+ strong) speaks to its value as a replicable model for similar public history projects. Overall, my experience with Black at Bryn Mawr has been incredible.

The project’s multidimensional approach to engaging the College community in understanding experiences of Black students, staff, and faculty throughout its history has deepened my awareness of Black history at Bryn Mawr and unsettled many of my assumptions about the spaces I move through and inhabit on campus. For example, I was unaware that servant tunnels even existed at Bryn Mawr prior to collaborating with Emma on a place-based approach to the College’s Black history, and had no idea that there was a cemetery behind English House, let alone one that belonged to a slaveholding Quaker family. I was not cognizant of the massive amount of unnamed, unseen, and now largely forgotten Black labor that went into building the College and curating its reputation as an aesthetically appropriate environment in which white women could socialize and study. I was unaware of M. Carey Thomas’ racist rhetoric and white supremacist beliefs and did not know that she envisioned Bryn Mawr not only as a place where women would be trained to become social, political, and cultural leaders, but as a place where white women would be groomed to inherit co-ownership of a role that had long belonged exclusively to white men: dominating over men and women of color. I feel like I have begun to grasp the gravitas of the fact that I walk daily through hallways and sit in classrooms designed to enrich the lives of women who look like me at the expense of Black women and other women of color.

As I draft the forthcoming digital tour (which will debut in May), this realization hits me even more viscerally in ways that force me to stop and think. For example, I have encountered photographs of a student’s room with Uncle Tom and pickaninny caricatures painted on the walls, and know from archival research that Black maids would have vacuumed and changed the sheets in that room every day while living in abysmal conditions themselves. It reminds me that College housekeeping and dining services staff, of whom many, if not most, are Black, are much less able to take an hour out of their day for the walking tour, spare the time to read this blog, or see the digital tour. I am overjoyed by the unanimously positive responses to the walking tour we’ve received so far, but if I could rewind time and restrategize our outreach to these groups, I would.

Student's dorm room, Merion Hall ca. 1902-1905 | Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA

Student’s dorm room, Merion Hall ca. 1902-1905 | Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, Bryn Mawr, PA

Continue reading