These days, Black History Month celebrations are commonplace, especially at GW, which markets its racial and ethnic diversity to prospective students.
To promote culture and education, the Black Peoples’ Union will host an event almost every day this month. And Feb. 19, students of all races will crowd into Lisner Auditorium to watch the African-American Greek-letter organizations stage a step show.
But not long ago, black students were not even allowed to sit with white students to watch a show at Lisner, much less star in one of their own.
In 1946, Ingrid Bergman was set to play the auditorium, which at the time was the University’s newest jewel. When the rising star learned the audience would be segregated, she was so infuriated she tried to break her contract in protest of the policy.
“Her actions were widely publicized and caused embarrassment for the school,” said G. David Anderson, the University archivist. “She sparked a lot of debate throughout the campus and the city about the University’s policy of segregation.”
Bergman eventually played Lisner, but the controversy highlighted the unfairness of segregation.
Increasingly, students openly voiced criticism of the administration’s pro-segregation stance. Despite widespread protest, the administration did not budge until the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue.
“Washington was still a very southern town,” Anderson said.
Most states neighboring the district were still operating under the Jim Crow laws, which upheld segregation as “separate but equal” and mandated strict legal punishments for perceived “race mixing.”
After the Supreme Court ruled that Jim Crow laws were unconstitutional in the historic Brown vs. Board of Education verdict of 1954, the GW administration finally conceded that separate was not equal.
In July of that year, GW’s Board of Trustees revised the governing bylaws, declaring that no student could be denied entrance to the University on account of race. Prior to that decision, black students only were permitted to study in the University’s evening classes – widely considered inferior – and in the medical school’s postgraduate classes.
After the changing of bylaws, The Hatchet opined, “We congratulate the University on its recent decision abolishing segregation on this campus.”
From Strength to Strength, a 1996 University-published history of GW, wrote of the early post-segregation days: “The riddle of integration was far from solved. As Washington became more and more black, the University did not respond in kind. Although blacks could attend GW, few chose to do so, and until the late 1960s, the University made only token forms of outreach to the black community. Like other parts of Northwest Washington, the University remained something of a white enclave.”
Discontent with the poor status and lack of black students at GW, civil rights activists on campus soon sought change. One catalyst for improvement was the Black Student Union, founded in 1968.
Two years later, the BSU renamed itself the Black Peoples’ Union, signifying the organization’s commitment to serving African Americans throughout the D.C. community. It remains the largest black organization on campus.
After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., concern for the needs of blacks on campus and black culture in the curriculum exploded. More than 200 students congregated on the steps of administrative building Rice Hall April 26, 1968, calling on the administration to meet the demands the BPU had set forth. The demands included more black-oriented courses, more benefits for black staff members, a better link with the District and a crackdown on discriminating student groups, according to From Strength to Strength.
This show of support led directly to the creation of more classes focusing on black cultural topics and a succession of leading professors in the field.
To remedy the dwindling population of black students at GW, administrators launched ambitious recruiting efforts to increase minority enrollment in the late 1960s.
The Educational Opportunity Program was established at GW in 1969, offering drastically reduced tuition to D.C. high school graduates and providing them with support services, enrichment and free tutoring.
Though initially offered to just 25 students, the program today benefits more than 200.
And by 1971, the law school’s 61 African-American students ranked it second only to Harvard.
Doing its part to promote equality on campus, the GW student government passed the Human Relations Act May 10, 1968, requiring recognized student organizations “to have a provision in their constitution or bylaws that membership shall not be restricted on the basis or race, religion or national origin,” according to From Strength to Strength.
The act profoundly affected the standing Greek-letter system, when many of GW’s sororities were found in violation of the law, because of national bylaws that explicitly discriminated against members of certain ethnic groups. By 1971, 10 of 14 sororities had closed, as had four of 12 fraternities.
Today GW still is progressing.
Recently ranked No. 36 on the Black Enterprise‘s first-ever list of the best schools for African-American students, GW is home to more than 15 black student organizations, including five Greek-letter organizations.
And according to the Office of Institutional Research, 545 undergraduates, or roughly eight percent of the current undergraduate population whose race is known, are African American.