What can we learn about the Bryn Mawr School from its history?

Part I of the Story of Bryn Mawr’s Integration

There has been growing interest in the history of the Bryn Mawr School. Such interest can be healthy, for an institution can learn quite a bit about itself by looking at its past. Some of this interest stems from revelations about one of the founders of our school, M. Carey Thomas. While Thomas was a suffragist who worked to advance women’s rights to higher education and the vote, she was also openly racist throughout her life. She actively sought to exclude black and Jewish students from both Bryn Mawr College and The Bryn Mawr School. It is important for Bryn Mawr to acknowledge this. At the same time, we must remember that she lived at a historical time when such attitudes were pervasive in society.  

In the last two years, more students have asked archival questions. And a remarkable number of Upper School students have participated in the Bryn Mawr History Project, doing research in their free periods with the Upper School History Department. The current interest seems to run deep, stemming from a curiosity about the ethos of the school and a sense (a hope?) that at its core Bryn Mawr is an institution that tries to do the right thing. This blog can be a way to uncover and explore the school’s history.   Anyone with an interesting story about the school’s history is welcome to share it by posting to the blog. 

Bryn Mawr’s Integration

The stories about Bryn Mawr’s integration are fascinating. In June of 2018 Bryn Mawr marked the 50th anniversary of the graduation of its first black alumna, Erselle Datcher, ’68.   Screen Shot 2018-07-31 at 8.38.39 PM

Although Erselle Datcher did not enter Bryn Mawr until 1965, the question of Bryn Mawr’s integration arose at the time of the Supreme Court’s May 1954 ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. Baltimore’s public schools set about integrating at that time. Private schools were not required by law to change.

Bryn Mawr’s Board first examined the question in January 1955. The archives contains a history of the school’s integration, a master’s thesis written in 1995 by former Upper School Director Marlene David. David interviewed former faculty and students about the integration process and learned that at the time of the Supreme Court ruling, there was a sense the faculty supported immediate change.

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Bryn Mawr School Faculty – 1955-6

The Board decided to form a committee, largely made up of alumnae, to examine the issue and make a recommendation. Marlene David says that members of the committee,

. . . clearly were trying to determine the right thing to do at this particular moment in history. Many felt the weight of Bryn Mawr’s long tradition in strong moral leadership. Some recognized the tenuous financial strength of the school and worried about lost enrollment. A few referred to Christian responsibility.

The committee decided to poll parents, alumnae, teachers and friends. Eighteen hundred letters were sent out, with about one third responding. Of those respondents, two thirds opposed integration. In 1956, the Board made the decision not to integrate the school at that time and added a provision that it would provide eighteen month’s notice to the community before the school integrated. Headmistress Katharine Van Bibber ’20 announced the Board’s decision to the faculty with regret. Marlene David notes that two longstanding members of the faculty, Ruth Feisel and Ann Merriam left the school in 1956 out of frustration with the slowness to change. (As a teen, Feisel had fled Nazi Germany with her mother, before WWII.)

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Ruth Feisel, Latin and Greek Teacher – 1943-1956

Meanwhile, Headmistress Katharine Van Bibber quietly supported making a change to the admissions policy. In 1961 she announced that she would retire after the 1961-2 school year. According to Marlene David, several of Ms. Van Bibber’s colleagues believed Van Bibber wanted the policy changed before she retired.

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Katharine Van Bibber ’20, Headmistress 1939 -1962

It was the voice of a student who finally helped to precipitate change.  In October of 1961, Junior Judith Sullivan ’63 wrote a letter to the Board, pointing out that excluding blacks from the school did not fit with what students were taught at Bryn Mawr and that it was time for a change.

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Judith Sullivan ’63

Around the same time, the Board heard from the search committee tasked with finding a new Head of School. Diane Howell, the leading candidate, told the committee that the policy would have to change before she would agree to take the position. As Ms. Van Bibber later said in an interview, the issue of integration was “in the air.”

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Diane Howell, Headmistress 1962-1973

In January of 1962, a proposal to change the admissions policy was put before the Board for a vote. It passed. On January 31, 1962, Katherine Van Bibber stood before the Upper School students and faculty at Convocation and made the announcement:

. . . Two weeks ago, at the January meeting of the Board of Managers of the Bryn Mawr School, a history-making decision was reached, a decision which was completely in harmony with the principles upon which this school was founded.

As you know, the Bryn Mawr School was founded 76 years ago with just exactly one idea, — to give to girls the kind of education that was available at that time only to boys, — an education that would make it possible for girls to take and pass the most rigorous examinations then given for admission to colleges of the highest standing.

Bryn Mawr was never a finishing school for young ladies. It was never intended to be a school that your parents chose so that you could make the right social contacts. There were plenty of schools of that sort at the time. No. Bryn Mawr was a pioneer school in that it set out to train and discipline girls’ minds, and, along with their minds, to train their characters, too, — so that they would grow up to take their place in a free America, to be intelligent constructive citizens of their country and of the world.

So the Board of Managers, remembering the principles of the founders of the School, and wishing this School to stand, as it always has, for the best possible education both for college and for American citizenship, has taken an important step. If this school is to teach its girls, it must, itself live up to that ideal on which this country was founded, —- the Judeo- Christian belief that every person of whatever race is a child of God, and must be treated accordingly. The Prophet Micah said, ‘And what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’

A school — a good school — must do justly, — it must be fair to all the children of God, and so the Board of Managers, at its meeting on January 12th adopted by an overwhelming majority, the following resolution: “that beginning in September, 1963, all qualified applicants for admission to the Bryn Mawr School will be considered on the basis of their qualifications without regard for color.”

Because of an earlier resolution of the Board, which promised that eighteen months notice would be given, this newly adopted policy will not take effect until September, 1963, — a year from next September. I want you all to know that I have wanted the Board to take this action and that I am very glad that the Board did pass the motion this year while I am still here. And Miss Howell, your new head, is just as glad as I am.

There are two things that I do want to stress. One is the great emphasis on the word qualified. No girl, what ever her race or color, will be accepted by the Bryn Mawr School — or, for that matter, will she be allowed to stay in the Bryn Mawr School if she is already here now unless we are perfectly sure of two things: (1) that she can and will do the hard intellectual work that the school requires, and (2) that by her personality and character, she can and will make a contribution to the life and spirit of Bryn Mawr for the sake of every girl here.

The other thing that I want to say is this. Notices of the Board’s action were mailed to every one of your parents yesterday. They ought, therefore, to be in today’s mail. If in some few cases, the mail does not get through, do tell your parents that the notices were mailed and that they must be on their way.

And now because this is the beginning of a new semester, let us sing Jerusalem —-

In her remarkable statement, Ms. Van Bibber clearly articulated the mission and core values of the school. Bryn Mawr was founded, “to train and discipline girls’ minds, and, along with their minds, to train their characters, too, — so that they would grow up to take their place in a free America, to be intelligent constructive citizens of their country and of the world.” The school was dedicated to rigorous education but also to the development of character. The school’s purpose was to cultivate young women who would take an active and positive role in society. Bryn Mawr’s current mission statement, clearly articulates the same core values.

Bryn Mawr has long been an institution of ideals, but it is also a community made up of human beings with different perspectives and beliefs. In 1983-4, long after her retirement, in an interview Ms. Van Bibber had with former Headmistress Barbara Landis Chase, Ms. Van Bibber reflected on the resistance to change, which was a real force in the community during her time:

It’s a curious thing about Baltimore. It’s always the same. . . You practically never have someone come in and say, ‘I won’t send my child to your school if you’re going to admit blacks.’ They never say that . . . It’s always, ‘I don’t mind. I’m open-minded, but all these other people. . . will drop out.’ 

Some favored continuing the long practice of segregation and exclusion. But a significant part of the community wanted change very much and worked to bring it about. When the first black students entered the school, those members of the community embraced Erselle Datcher, Michele Eubanks, Clara Fletcher, and Edna Wright, doing the best they could to welcome them.

The question remains, “What can we learn about the Bryn Mawr School from its history?” I will close by sharing another part of the interview Barbara Landis Chase conducted with Katharine Van Bibber, one Bryn Mawr Head speaking with another about an institution they both served and loved.

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Barbara Landis Chase, Headmistress 1980 -1994

Throughout the interview, Barbara Chase (BLC) had asked Katharine Van Bibber (KVB) about her experiences as the head and about some of her main accomplishments. She concluded by asking her about the nature of the school itself.

BLC: Different schools have strengths about them and almost a spirit about them that makes . . . each school distinctive from each other school. During these years of your association with Bryn Mawr, as a student and then as a teacher and then as the head of the school . . .  What would you characterize Bryn Mawr’s greatest strength as being?

KVB:  (long pause) I think individualism. (long pause)

BLC: The ability to take each girl . . . and work with her . . .

KVB: Yes, and each teacher . . .

BLC: . . . One of the things that strikes me about Bryn Mawr . . . It seems to me to have enormous integrity as a school, as if it’s always been that way.

KVB: Yes, I think it has.

BLC: I am quite struck by that. And of course the intellectual rigor and excitement I think is outstanding.

And this is a very cosmic question: As you read about education today in the world . . . what do you think are the greatest challenges facing us in schools . . . today and in the next decade . . .?

KVB: Well just judging by what I see and read . . . I would say that the greatest challenge is to keep the past alive. Historically speaking, now. There are too many people who don’t know anything at all about history.

We have a wealth of Bryn Mawr voices from the past to which we can listen. I hope this blog can be a place for us to share about our past, in order to keep Bryn Mawr’s past alive and carry what’s best about the institution into the future.

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Barbara Landis Chase, Katharine Van Bibber, Blair Stambaugh, Diane Howell

 

Sources:

David, Marlene M. “The Voices for Integration at the Bryn Mawr School: An Oral History.” Master’s thesis, Johns Hopkins University, 1995.

DiCataldo, Elizabeth. Ex Solo Ad Solem. Baltimore: The Bryn Mawr School, 2011.

Van Bibber, Katharine. Convocation Announcement about the Change to the Admissions Policy. January 31, 1962.

Van Bibber, Katharine. Interview by Barbara Landis Chase, 1983-4?, audiocassette.

Photographs from the Bryn Mawr School Archives, Baltimore, MD.

 

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