Launching a university where any academically qualified person could get an education was a radical idea in 1865, said Cornell University Archivist Elaine Engst, MA '72. In contrast to other universities at the time, A.D. White and Ezra Cornell wanted Cornell to be "aggressively non-sectarian," open to all regardless of religion, race, gender or ability to pay.
Yet at times during the university's early years, blacks and Jews who enrolled at Cornell often found closed doors at fraternities and sororities, added Carol Kammen, Tompkins County historian.
Engst and Kammen were featured speakers at "Part and Apart: Black and Jewish Students at Cornell, 1869-1969," a Jan. 26 lecture at the UJA Federation in New York City, part of the Cornell on the Road series. Using archival photographs, school documents and personal manuscripts from Cornell Library, Engst and Kammen stitched together personal accounts of early Jewish and black students to a capacity crowd of more than 100 alumni and friends.
"Both of our founders had wonderfully liberal ideas about how our institution would be run," said Kammen. However, "institutions are as imperfect as society; they reflect the people and times in which they exist."
Prejudice seemed to flare during various periods, said the speakers. For example, "Between 1910 and 1920, intolerance of Jews began to grow" as it did in the country, said Engst. Many academic institutions, though not Cornell, set up racial and ethnic quota systems. Because of growing discrimination on campus, "Jewish students created parallel lives and institutions like Zeta Beta Tau and the Menorah Society [those are the earliest]," said Engst. "Debating 'virtually presented the situation of a Jewish monopoly,'" she quoted a student as saying.
"There was a good deal of racism and anti-Semitism and a lot of prejudice in the 1930s," said Kammen, "and in that instance, Cornell did not hold to a higher standard as stressed in the Cornell charter of 1865."
While historians can learn about the experience of early Jewish students through the scrapbooks and writings they left, the speakers said, uncovering the story of blacks at Cornell is more difficult, said Kammen, in part "because Cornell never asked for race identification on documents."
"It was difficult to find black students at the university's earliest years," said Kammen. "Many didn't have the academic qualifications, most didn't have the money, and because of Cornell's location, some didn't know it existed." Early on, said Kammen, when Ezra Cornell received a letter asking if a 'slightly colored' student could come to Cornell, he responded, "Send him."
"It's clear that Cornellians have much to share across generations and classes, and ethnic and religious lines," said Sheryl Tucker '78, who attended the event. "I came away with a deeper appreciation about how much students are willing to endure to further their education and build successful lives."
The event, sponsored by Cornell Hillel and the Cornell Black Alumni Association, has inspired Hillel to capture more personal accounts of Jewish students, said Julia Levy '05, director of advancement for Cornell Hillel, who asks people to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to share their stories. "We've already received two stories since the event," she said. Cornell Hillel estimates that 22 percent of Cornell's students are Jewish.
"Now, when you walk around campus," said Arthur Maas '09 during a question and answer period at the event, "the Jewish and Asian students seem the majority. Today, the controversial debate is sexual orientation."
John Mikytuck '90 is a freelance writer living in New York City.