Excerpts of Black History at Purdue University: Part 1, EVER TRUE

To commemorate Black History Month, Purdue University Press is featuring excerpts of notable moments in black history at Purdue. 

In this post, we’re featuring a chapter from John Norberg’s Ever True: 150 Years of Giant Leaps at Purdue University on the desegregation of Purdue University’s Residence Halls. 

African Americans Apply to Purdue Residence Halls 1944 to 1947

In the summer of 1946 Winifred and Frieda Parker, two sisters from Indianapolis, prepared for their freshman year at Purdue University. They were excited and nervous like all freshmen.

Excellent students, after being admitted to Purdue they applied for a room in a residence hall where all freshmen women were required to live. But Winifred and Frieda were denied.

They were African Americans.

During World War II, by federal mandate, African American male military personnel had been housed in Cary Hall — something that had not occurred throughout all the previous years of the University’s existence.

But when the war ended and military personnel left, Purdue continued its practice of refusing African American students housing in residence halls. Some men were placed in a converted home that was occupied by international students. The rest, including women, had to find housing with families across the river in a segregated Lafayette neighborhood around the Lincoln School at Fourteenth and Salem Streets. African American children attended that segregated school through eighth grade and then went to the integrated Jefferson High School. All Lafayette school grade levels were not integrated until 1951. In West Lafayette there were written restrictions in neighborhoods against renting or selling property to people who were not “pure white.”

One African American student denied access to a Purdue residence hall went on to become chief justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia — one step below the U.S. Supreme Court. During his long, successful career, Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. recounted his experiences at Purdue and credited them with convincing him to become an attorney and civil rights advocate.

“In a career of energetic accomplishments and unambiguous liberalism, Judge Higginbotham received much recognition as a legal scholar and civil rights advocate, including the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” the New York Times said in his December 1998 obituary. “Some historians say Judge Higginbotham was one of a handful of black jurists President Lyndon B. Johnson considered as candidates to integrate the Supreme Court before he named Thurgood Marshall in 1967.”

Higginbotham enrolled at Purdue to study engineering and was placed in International House, where students slept together in a top-floor room with open windows. The room was very cold in winter. It was believed that open-air circulation helped stop the spread of viruses, and cold dorms were common in fraternities and sororities. Some students liked them. Others, including Higginbotham, did not.

In 1944 Edward Elliott was president of Purdue, and his office was always open to students. Elliott had met Higginbotham previously. Higginbotham and another student protested that the Union barbershop would not cut the hair of African American students. Elliott told them he would buy clippers to be kept in the barbershop so they could cut each other’s hair.

Now Higginbotham was entering Elliott’s office with another request. He asked to be placed in a Purdue residence hall where students slept in warm rooms.

What happened next was retold many times by Higginbotham but was never mentioned by Elliott. “In emotional speeches, the judge . . . described how a white college president at Purdue University had flatly told him when he was a college freshman in 1944 that the school was not required under law to provide black students with heated dormitories and, therefore, never would,” the New York Times stated.

According to Higginbotham, Elliott told him he would never be allowed to live in the residence hall, and if he didn’t like it, he should leave Purdue. Higginbotham did leave. In the fall of 1945 he entered Antioch College in Ohio and in 1949 was admitted to Yale Law School.

It’s not known how many African Americans were enrolled at Purdue in the mid-1940s, because the University did not then keep records of students by race. African Americans who attended Purdue at the time estimated there were not more than twenty-five.

In a paper titled “Evolution of the Black Presence at Purdue University,” Alexandra Cornelius said, “Between 1940 and 1951, African Americans began attending Purdue in increasing numbers. Despite their proven abilities, African American students in every college in the state were discriminated against both on and off campus. . . . West Lafayette restaurants did not admit African Americans. Blacks were only allowed to eat in the Union Building or the cafeteria during lunch time.”

Nationally, The Negro Motorist Green Book, published from about 1936 to 1966, was a guide to African Americans as they traveled through the country. Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation were in effect not only in the South but in many parts of the country. In their hometowns, minorities knew where they were welcome and unwelcome. But they did not know this when they were on the road. So the Green Book was their guide, listing hotels, restaurants, taverns, gas stations, and all manner of businesses where they would be welcome and safe. The 1949 guide lists only one business open to African Americans in Lafayette — the Pekin Café at Seventeenth and Hartford Streets. That was in the heart of the segregated African American neighborhood. There were other establishments in Lafayette open to minorities that didn’t make the Green Book. But discrimination was the norm of the day.

A Social Action Committee at the Purdue Methodist Church Wesley Foundation was opposed to segregation and sent African Americans to various businesses in Lafayette and West Lafayette to see what would happen. In February 1947 the committee reported that of nineteen restaurants investigated, five refused to serve African Americans, six did serve them but were rude and hesitant about it, and some of the employees who did serve blacks were not aware they were breaking management policy. Three movie theaters would only permit African Americans to sit in the balconies. No barbershop in Lafayette, West Lafayette, or Purdue would cut the hair of African Americans.

Winifred, the younger of the two Parker sisters, had graduated number one in her high school class in May 1946. Frieda was second in her class and had graduated five months earlier in January. She completed a semester at West Virginia State College but decided to transfer. In early July 1946 both young women were admitted to Purdue. Their father, Frederick Parker, was a graduate of Amherst College in Massachusetts who had done graduate work at Harvard and Indiana Universities. He was the former head of mathematics at the African American Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis and had moved on to become a consultant to the Indianapolis Public Schools system. Their mother, Frieda Parker, was a graduate of Butler University in Indianapolis.

Immediately upon their being accepted, Mrs. Parker took her daughters to Purdue to meet with administrators. According to a statement written and signed by the Parkers in September 1946, they met with the registrar, who told them that while admissions had been closed prior to July, Winifred and Frieda were accepted “as a special case” because of their outstanding personal and academic records.

The Parkers next went to Clare Coolidge, acting dean of women, to obtain student housing in a residence hall. Coolidge gave them residence hall applications and told them to complete and mail them as soon as possible. The applications from the Parkers were rejected with a statement that the number of students seeking housing exceeded the spaces available.

The following day the Parkers received a letter from Coolidge. Parker said Coolidge was “gracious” to the family throughout the experience, but her letter was blunt. It stated: “I was informed by the [Purdue] President’s Office yesterday that at its last meeting the Board of Trustees of the University had discussed the question of housing negro students in the residence halls and felt it was not feasible for the present. Had I known of this action, I would, of course, have saved you and the girls the embarrassment of making an application which can only be refused.”

The most recent meeting of the board of trustees had been on June 22, 1946. The written minutes of that meeting make no mention of a discussion concerning African American students in the residence halls. However, at a meeting of the board on April 17 and 18, 1946, the topic did come up, without any official decision being recorded. Minutes of the meeting state: “[Board] Secretary [and University vice president Frank] Hockema presented an application for admission to Men’s Residence Halls from a negro student in the University. After discussion and by consent, the foregoing report was received as information.” A newspaper reporter was at the meeting but he did not write about the discussion.

Parker contacted Faburn DeFrantz, director of the African American Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis. DeFrantz was a civil rights leader in the state who had worked on integrating housing at Indiana University. DeFrantz told the Parkers they should all meet with Hovde. “Our hope was that we could show President Hovde that it was an injustice for our own state college to discriminate against its own supporters, the citizens and taxpayers of Indiana, regardless of their color or their religion,” Parker said. “We had heard that this new president was fair and just and therein lay our hope and prospects.”

They were unable to arrange an appointment with Hovde and instead met with Hockema, who told them the residence halls were full. Asked if the University had a policy that prohibited African Americans in the residence halls, Hockema said no. But “he admitted that such might be the case from ‘custom and usage.’”

Taking part in the conversation was one man who was Caucasian. After the meeting with Hockema he went to the office of the director of residence halls and said his two nieces were enrolling as freshmen in the fall. He was told there were several rooms available for them.

Parker and DeFrantz returned to Hockema. “We pleaded and we begged,” Parker wrote. “We insisted a man in so esteemed a position must be able to make the decision even if he had no precedent.”

Hockema said he could not go against the position of the trustees, who had told him to hold off on admitting African Americans to the residence halls.

Following their meetings at Purdue, Parker and DeFrantz contacted Indiana governor Ralph Gates, who was “sympathetic” to their position. Gates contacted one or more of the trustees and probably Hovde.

On December 16, 1946, Parker received a five-page letter from Hovde, who went into great detail, stating that he opposed discrimination in any form, but societal change would take many years and “will not be completed in your lifetime or mine.”

The University had no written policy excluding African Americans from the residence halls, Hovde said. But he also noted that over the years three or four African American women had applied to be admitted and had been rejected. “These have been refused,” he wrote, “not because we wished to discriminate, but because the administration did not think it wise to jeopardize the successful operation of the halls, jeopardize our incoming number of women enrollees in the halls; because administrative officers and faculty felt that neither our women students nor their parents were ready yet for true social democracy in living. The situation, therefore, exists, not because we of Purdue believe in discrimination of any kind, but because the decision was thought to be in the best interests of the University and its welfare.” They were afraid students would refuse to live in a residence hall with African Americans, placing a financial strain on the University’s ability to retire construction bonds.

In his letter to Parker, Hovde concluded, “You realize and understand, I am sure, the difficulties I have in persuading and influencing others to my point of view in these matters. . . . I must use my own method of accomplishing my aims. I am personally sure they are right and will produce results more quickly than other methods. Otherwise I would act differently.” Frustrated, Frieda and Winifred attended classes at Purdue in the fall of 1946 and lived in a home in the segregated Lafayette community. They took buses to and from campus. But change came. Hovde ended discrimination at the Union barbershop, and in January 1947 the Parkers were admitted to Bunker Hill Residence Hall.

Soon after the Parkers moved in, the students voted on leadership for their residence hall.

Winifred Parker was elected president of Bunker Hill.

Ever True is available for 30% off on the Purdue University Press website when you use the code PURDUE30.