Students seek to recover lost history at Bryn Mawr

Emma Kioko and Grace Pusey, two seniors at Bryn Mawr College, have created a project entitled “Black at Bryn Mawr” in order to highlight the history of Black students, faculty, and staff at the college. As part of an independent study, the two have created a campus walking tour and a digital archive focusing on Black experiences at Bryn Mawr.

In September of this year, two Bryn Mawr students hung a Confederate flag out of the window of their dormitory. Nearly 600 students, staff, and faculty gathered at the college in order to protest the flag. A series of community conversations touched upon the history of Bryn Mawr’s marginalized groups and led Kioko and Pusey collaborate on what would become Black at Bryn Mawr.

Kioko and Pusey utilized the Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, which contain the historical records of the college and have also digitized much of the college’s archives. They are looking both at the actual history of racism at the college as well as the way in which Bryn Mawr has chosen to remember this history.

The inspiration for the walking tour came from Kioko’s experience on the Black and Blue tour at the University of North Carolina. The Black and Blue tour explores Black life at UNC, beginning with slavery and moving through Jim Crow laws, the desegregation of the campus, and the racial tension that accompanied the shifting student body. Pusey, who works at the South Asian American Digital Archive in Philadelphia, offered to help with creating a digital archive to go along with the tour.

The two hoped that the walking tour would “prompt community members to look at the campus and experience the place we inhabit in new ways, and that the digital historical record will function as a complementary space of deepened historical consciousness,” they wrote on the project website in mid-February. In order to create the tour, Kioko and Pusey analyzed the college’s archives in order to locate places on campus which served as spaces of racial conflict or conversation.

Kioko and Pusey intend for the project to create lasting institutional memory of the ways in which Bryn Mawr has engaged with racism.

“One thing that becomes clear from even a cursory overview of the College Archives is that incidents like the one that occurred in September are not exceptional in Bryn Mawr’s history; in fact, they are deeply embedded in it,” Pusey wrote on the project website at the beginning of the spring semester. “We see the same kinds of problems recurring over and over again. A major contributing factor to this recycling of traumas is that the College community is constantly in flux: as students graduate every few years, institutional memory is wiped clean. Fruits borne of past conversations and reconciliations gather dust, or disappear.”

The two also hope that future students will be able to utilize this history in order to make themselves and the wider Bryn Mawr community attentive to racial power dynamics at the college. “We hope … that the community can use our work as a resource to address this cycle of trauma, to promote dialogue that brings the community to deeper levels of understanding, and to foster sustainable collective growth,” Pusey wrote. The project is also geared towards raising greater awareness of Black experiences at the college, centering these perspectives in the ways in which Bryn Mawr sees and represents itself, and creating a way for Bryn Mawr to measure its progress over time.

Kioko and Pusey have engaged with a number of different topics so far in the course of their research. Pusey, for instance, explored the history of Black labor at Bryn Mawr. Utilizing census records, Pusey began with the story of the sixty-eight Black people living on Bryn Mawr’s campus in 1900, most of whom were women and all of whom were servants, in order to create a fuller history of Black experiences at Bryn Mawr.

“What happens when we look at Bryn Mawr not just as a premier educational institution for women where women were groomed for elite social, intellectual, and cultural leadership, but as a premier educational institution for women that relied intensively on White supremacist rhetoric and the entrenchment of a racial hierarchy that ensured a steady supply of Black labor to secure its elite status?” Pusey wrote on the project website.

She also noted that Black history tends to be thought of separately from the history of the college, and that when it is considered as part of this larger history, its origin points are with the first Black women who studied at the college. Yet Black history has been inextricable from the history of Bryn Mawr since the college’s founding.

“Looking at the history of Black labor at Bryn Mawr opens doors to the sorts of deep, pressing questions about Bryn Mawr’s relationship to racial inequality that we, as members of the College community, must address,” Pusey wrote.

A close look at this history raises a number of questions about not only the college’s past but its present. “Ancillary to Bryn Mawr’s promise of a first-class education was its ability to market a first-class lifestyle, which it continues to rely on in its marketing today … What sorts of values and expectations has Bryn Mawr’s long history of Black labor inculcated in the institution?” Pusey wrote. In other words, how is this history still with us today?

Kioko, meanwhile, explored the climate of racial activism on campus between 1970 and 1972. Black women in 1970 at the college, attempting to carve out a space for themselves and Black women to come, called for Black faculty, Black studies courses, respect for Black staff members, and a cultural center of their own. Elements of these concerns are still relevant today, Kioko believes — hiring faculty of color and encouraging diversity of academic thought, she wrote, are still issues with which Bryn Mawr struggles today. Additionally, “a lot of the Bryn Mawr experience as a person of color has not changed,” despite the fact that the Black women at Bryn Mawr in 1970, in refusing to accepting marginalization, created a legacy which still affects the college to this day.

Pusey also looked at institutional attempts at interracial understanding and change between 1988 and 1989, when, though years of institutional reforms were in the works, racial tensions exploded after a student was repeatedly harassed. Driven by this student’s experience, others demanded change, and the college hosted a series of workshops on race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, power, and privilege. A number of reforms took place, including mandatory diversity training for students, a diversification of course curricula, and the addition of a diversity clause to the Honor Code that aimed to help marginalized students address discriminatory acts.

Pusey pointed out troubling similarities between 1988-1989 and the Confederate flag instance and resulting community conversations during this academic year. “The usefulness of the term ‘progress’ to describe Bryn Mawr’s momentum toward racial equity may seem suspect,” Pusey wrote. “‘Why are Bryn Mawr students still fighting the same kinds of issues that students rallied against 25 years ago?’ is not so much an argument as it is an expression of frustration and disbelief.”

However, Pusey believes, there are many lessons to be learned from the past, primarily that campus-wide conversations and actions driven by students of color can create meaningful institutional change.

“Above all, a study of Black history at Bryn Mawr reveals that students — especially students of color — have consistently driven the changes that have made the College what it is today,” Pusey wrote. This isn’t the way it should be, though: “College should be a time for personal growth, not a time when students of color are saddled with the burden of confronting ignorance.” Pusey hopes that Bryn Mawr students can honor the legacy of the students who came before by attempting to make the college a respectful space for the experiences and contributions of their peers.

Kioko and Pusey underwent a number of challenges in crafting their project and conducting their research, which pointed to some of the larger issues which their research seeks to engage with and highlight. Pusey’s census search began because of the paucity of archived materials on the college’s Black labor history in the Bryn Mawr Special Collections.

“Most of the materials that do exist are recent attempts to fill archival silences on the history of Black staff experiences at Bryn Mawr,” Pusey explained on the blog. “The fact that I had to go beyond materials archived at Special Collections in order to research Black labor history at Bryn Mawr at all gestures to one of the major pitfalls of this project: the uneven power dynamics of the College Archives.”

Special Collections maintains a “diversity box,” but Kioko and Pusey say that this is essentially the Collections’ “junk drawer.”

“In comparison to the neatly organized boxes of Presidents’ papers, the Diversity box overflows with marginalia from various student groups, diversity trainings, and college publications. The materials themselves lack structure; news articles about the 2014 Confederate flag hanging and response, for example, are stuffed in a folder labeled ‘1990.’ There are no archived materials from Black faculty members … Black staff are discussed in the archive, but they rarely represent themselves,” Pusey wrote. She noted that Black students began in the 1990s to conduct oral histories with college staff, in order to correct this archival oversight, but that accumulating historical materials in the past two decades or so has been extremely slow.

All of these issues, Pusey believes, point at one of the larger questions of the research project: who exactly gets to write the history of Black experiences at Bryn Mawr, which power dynamics structure these narratives, and how can a lost, disorganized history be recovered, reconstructed, and corrected for accuracy?

“It is in the best interest of elite academic institutions … to erase, obscure, or trivialize discourses and histories of racism and racial intolerance on administrative, social, and academic levels,” Kioko wrote, reflecting on a conversation with the UNC Black and Blue Tour creator. “This erasure, whether or not it is intentional, makes projects such as ours incredibly important.” Students at Swarthmore sought to correct a similar erasure or obfuscation of the historical record of Black experiences at the college in their projects for the Black Liberation 1969 class in the fall.

As of this month, Kioko and Pusey have given tours to more than sixty community members,  including students, staff, faculty, alumnae, trustees, and local residents. The tours have been so popular that Kioko and Pusey scheduled two more in addition to the six planned tours. Pusey will give an additional tour during the Women’s History in the Digital World conference to be hosted at Bryn Mawr at the end of May.

Kioko reflected that she hoped the histories of Black students at the college would be remembered continuously, rather than simply when it is convenient. “It is too easy to only focus on these histories in times of institutional and social distress. I realized just how easily the experiences of people of color can be forgotten and erased,” she explained.

While Black at Bryn Mawr began as a result of the Confederate flag incident in the fall, Kioko hopes that the conversations begun by the project and its attempt to re-remember Black histories at Bryn Mawr will continue past this semester. “Black voices, particularly Black women’s voices at elite institutions, deserve to be heard and remembered.”

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