Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The Daily Gazette had a chat with Ralph Roy ’50 on his experiences with the Race Relations Committee at Swarthmore, his acquaintance with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and being jailed as a Freedom Rider in the 1960s.
In the first part of this two-part interview, Roy discusses the social atmosphere at Swarthmore from 1946-1950 and his involvement with civil rights activism on campus.
DG: What was Swarthmore like at the end of the 1940s?
Swarthmore was quite progressive for that time. One of the most active extra-curricular groups on campus was the Race Relations Committee. Swarthmore had almost no African-American students, but probably was ahead of many colleges which admitted none.
Also, Swarthmore certainly was more formal than it would be today, but there was dissension. For example, the Student Council passed a resolution asking female students not to wear jeans to Sunday dinner. The next Sunday a whole line of young women came in, all dressed in jeans!
DG: What kinds of things did you do as part of the Race-Relations Committee?
While at Swarthmore I joined with several students in ‘testing’ various restaurants and other places in the area to make sure they admitted African-Americans. It [Swarthmore] was near enough to the Mason-Dixon Line that there was prejudice. We would gather together groups and go to restaurants with an African-American to make sure that there was no discrimination, and that we were put in the proper tables and not in the back. One of the YMCA’s in Philadelphia didn’t allow African-Americans to use the swimming pool, which was shocking, and we picketed it.
DG: Were race and race relations big issues at Swarthmore?
With the people I hung around with, it was a big issue. I think it was a very big issue. We worked very hard to get more African-American students in Swarthmore. We were suspicious that they [admissions] were turning African-Americans away, so we got a couple of our students on the committee. We also opposed applicants having to include their photo when applying; we thought that might be a factor.
Swarthmore was not a reactionary place at the time, it was a progressive school, but maybe it didn’t work hard enough to get a diverse student body. I don’t know; I wasn’t privy to what was going on in the administration. However, it was very progressive and taught in a very progressive fashion. It wasn’t a very conservative place. The social atmosphere was progressive; even the fraternities dissented from their national chapters which sometimes barred African-Americans and Jews from joining.
DG: What was social life like at Swarthmore?
There was something of a rift between fraternity and non-fraternity members. The non-fraternity students had a Garnet Club which sponsored dances, et cetera. Swarthmore had five fraternity houses, and fraternities were the subject of a good deal of discussion, mainly because some national fraternities had these clauses that did bar African-Americans and Jews. So there was quite a bit of hostility to them. I was one of those who were fairly hostile. I had a radio program every week and I would comment on different subjects. One week I gave a 50-minute criticism on this. The next morning, when I entered the cafeteria for breakfast, I was roundly booed at first until the Garnet Club crowd saw what was happening and began to cheer.
It’s only fair to point out, however, that our campus fraternities took issue with the national organizations. One example comes to mind. One of the fraternities that officially banned Jewish membership sent two Jewish fraternity brothers, one of them its president, to its national convention! It wasn’t that our group was so bad, but with their national clauses they [fraternities] were racist organizations.