Understanding the names of our everyday: a tour of Swarthmore’s historical buildings

11 mins read
Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda
Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda

“You know,” began Chris Densmore, curator at the Friends Historical Library, “These names, they’re not just dead, white, rich men.”

The dozen relatives, alumni and students stood awkwardly around Densmore, blocking the entrance to McCabe Library.

History is not only a performance, but also a burden. For most at Swarthmore, McCabe signifies books (and 10 o’clock snacks), Dean Bond signifies roses (and bucket-list hookup spot), Parrish signifies administration (and segregated dorm rooms) and Magill signifies oak trees. The tour was literally disrupting the direct significance and value of what has become in time the “œkonomia” or “house-conduct” of Swarthmore College, and it was tearing a visible hole into the “house” to which my conduct had become accustomed.

For Densmore, however, even “Swarthmore” represents something completely other to what it is in reality.

“When I deal,” said Densmore, an ironic twinkle in his eyes, “with student groups, usually I ask two ‘Swarthmore’ questions: One is: ‘Why are we called Swarthmore?’”

The sounds of two books being checked out interrupted what would have otherwise been a pause as the tour-attendees looked back and forth at one another, eyebrows raised, frowning. Densmore’s eyes laughed as he continued.

“Because Swarthmoor was a place of refuge for Quakers during a time of very bad persecution. It was one place [in England] that for about ten years they could go to and not be sent to jail.”

A broad expanse of analogies opened up on the map of the institution. Swarthmore as a refuge today … but from what? Obviously it serves many as a refuge from the general mediocrity of higher education, a refuge from the inflated cost of that education and a refuge from reality.

“Another one of the questions I ask them … I bring a five-dollar bill, if you know who Isaac Hopper is.”

Another pause interrupted by the beep of the check-out desk. History must be performed in order to remain relevant; validated and checked out in order to be utilized. But in order for these things to be accomplished, history must also be given a face, a name, something with which the public can relate — an ID card.

“He’s an older Quaker gentleman,” continued Densmore, “sitting in a painting over in Parrish Hall with his cane … He was a very well-known troublemaker who is now forgotten. He was president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. And at this time, he and other abolitionists were trying to prevent kidnapping, because if you’re living in Philadelphia at this time and you’re a nice-looking 16-year-old young man running around here … if I whack him over the hand and entice him some way to Baltimore, I’ve got $500 or $5,000—”

“Twelve Years a Slave,” someone from the audience interjected, introducing Densmore’s historical narrative to popular culture and the representation given it by Hollywood.

“Yeah,” resumed Densmore, not exactly amused. “And so, there was a big impetus for kidnapping. And if you got caught for it you’d go to prison; and some people say that the North sent all the slaves south; but that’s not really true. Because the gradual emancipation act, or acts, that follow right behind it, made it very much illegal to move anyone outside of state.”

The portrait of the man, like an idea, still needed to be finished, so that it could speak.

“So Isaac Hopper would be down on the docks, saying: ‘Where are you going with that person? Do you want your ship impounded?’ Hopper was not so much averse to the idea of getting anyone anyway he could away from the clutches of slavery. He would do it legally if he could, but if he couldn’t, there are — other things you can do.”

Hopper was a barrier to efficiency, an obstacle to profit and economic ‘house-conduct,’ at least in Maryland and Delaware. But in order to recognize the face and name of his life, you must of course reconcile the man with the geography of lost names and lost faces.

As the group moved outside, the sounds of gas-powered leaf-blowers contrasted with a chance of rain.

“The temperatures are going to drop,” said Densmore, peering into the clouds.

“Dean Bond Rose Garden,” resumed Densmore as the group stood before its gates, “is named after Elizabeth Powell Bond, the first Dean of Swarthmore College. She literally spent the night of December 31 to January 1, 1863 with Frederick Douglass in the garrisons, waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation to come into effect.”

The image of the refuge of Swarthmoor colored the gestures of an Arboretum caretaker several feet away, whose leaf blower had been contracted to push leaves off a sidewalk, like how, perhaps, Densmore was blowing a century of sediment off the heritage of the local environment, to which the feet of Swarthmore students, administrators and Managers continue to compete for influence. I returned to the historical narrative which continued to impede the “œkonomic” efficiency of the institution.

“In 1922, two women go up to the President, Aydelotte, and say: ‘We think it’s about time Swarthmore became racially integrated, and we know a student and we have a scholarship for this student. And Aydelotte said: ‘I’ve got the Honors Program and I got all this and I got all that. I don’t want to tackle another issue.’ So he didn’t do it.”

“[Bond] also said in her last collection address that there’s a race problem in this country, and white people made it, and they better do something to try and fix it. An interesting perspective.”

The tour ended before the troublemaker, Hopper’s, portrait in Parrish Parlors, and it hit me — or else it was a side-effect of the gasoline fumes intermingling with the yet-to-be-historicized historical byproducts of my generation — all obstacles and barriers to the “oekonomia” of Swarthmore, swirling around inside my head. The “haven” seemed a cage, complicit in an unsustainable system of energy-appropriation: hydro-fracturing, deep-sea drilling, the general absence of democracy in the Middle East and Russia. The fossil fuels in which the intimacy of our institution and our “house-conduct” are invested are more profitable, after all, and a greater return on investment for the institution of private education, than most of its students.

Not only are there no buildings or walkways on campus named after the troublemaker, Isaac Hopper, but there are no buildings, or institutions on campus, to my knowledge, named after slaves, former slaves, fossils or fuels. McCabe, Bond, Magill and Parrish all remain monolithically human and impersonal, like the slaves and fossil fuels that produced the American industrial revolution and whose historical momentum, moreover, produces the paper form and continues to reproduce the electronic form of this article. Unless we dig into their histories.

The Underground Railway can be found beneath the names of McCabe, Bond, Magill, and Parrish, but so too can pipes full of natural gas, and a power grid dependent on fossil fuels.

If Swarthmore doesn’t recognize itself and its own opportunities in the inspiring frame of Isaac Hopper and in his stubborn need to act as a political obstacle to unsustainable, inhumane systems of appropriation, then Swarthmore loses the opportunity to be remembered and studied as an example of a “haven.” At the moment, it seems more of an example of “civil society’s” status quo than anything else.

“These names, they’re not just those of dead, white men.” They’re exemplary narratives, symbols, guides.

There’s a reason, after all, why we have a portrait of Hopper, and why Aydelotte’s preference for Honors over equality is seen now as a colossal historical failure.


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