In our junior year, in February of 1959, I was an exchange student at Bennett. Six of us, plus a faculty member, went to Greensboro and six Bennett students and a faculty member came to Mount Holyoke for, I think, a two-week period. We were assigned roommates and assigned to classes that aligned with our majors–though, of course, they were quite different from our MHC classes. I wish I could recall names, but my husband and I spend the winter in San Francisco (where we are now) and all of my Mount Holyoke memorabilia (including a picture of the 1959 group of exchange students) is in Champaign, IL.
The Bennett exchange was a fascinating experience, especially for someone who had grown up in the segregated south as I had. The timing of our trip was also fascinating. Don’t know if you remember that the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins started in Greensboro. And they had started about a week before we were scheduled to arrive. This was a huge step in the civil rights movement in this country. Most, if not all, of the young men who were arrested were students at North Carolina A&T university. My roommate’s boyfriend was one of those arrested who was still in jail. The timing of the sit-ins and the arrests also raised questions about whether it was prudent to have the exchange that year since it was thought the sight of any whites on the campus would further inflame racial tensions in Greensboro. The decision was made to go ahead but to keep us totally out of sight–either confined to campus or moved in cars a few times in ways that we could not be seen.
This was my first and only experience in feeling like I was a minority of one. As far as I can remember, we Holyoke students barely saw each other while we were there. I think we were assigned to different dorms and, of course, different classes. I realized how hyper-sensitive you can become when there’s no one else around who looks like you. I remember walking into a room where a group of Bennett students were talking and they suddenly became completely silent. I took it personally but realized later that they were probably talking about their boyfriends who were arrested or strategy or who knows what. But it made me very aware of how easy it is to overreact to seeming slights when they’re not there at all.
Another sidelight to this story sheds light on what Mount Holyoke was like at that time. I entered Mount Holyoke the month that Eisenhower had called out federal troops to protect the students integrating Central High School in Little Rock. Although I had attended only segregated schools in Arkansas, I loathed segregation and had taken some small steps to try to change it. So the fall we started college, Faubus and Central High were very much in the news. Miss Kaufman was my advisor and had learned how I felt and asked me to give a talk to Holyoke high school students to show that not all southerners were racist, which I did gladly. In 1959 I was asked (can’t remember if it was Miss Kaufman or someone else) if I would like to apply for the Bennett exchange. I was a scholarship student and there were fees involved (plane fare, etc.) so I explained that while I would like to, I couldn’t ask my parents to pay for something (with difficulty) that they wouldn’t approve of. (They were multi-generational southerners who were racist but not extremely so by any means.) The upshot was that Miss Cameron called my parents, explained the program and asked if they would let me attend if the college granted me a scholarship to cover all costs. They agreed and that’s how I went to Bennett.
Now to the most difficult question that I’ve been struggling with since the first post about Bennett a few days ago. Bennett isn’t Mount Holyoke. When I was there, I was (silently) critical of the academic level of the classes. It wasn’t as good as I expected it to be or wanted it to be. But that’s partly (or a lot of) the intellectual arrogance of a 19 year old. So is it a good thing to have a traditionally black women’s liberal arts college with a long tradition? I’ve worked through it as I’ve been writing this e-mail. I think it is. I’m not sure that Bennett has the financial base to survive but I think it would be great for us, as Mount Holyoke alums, to give some support. Liz, is there a way for us to do that and identify as Mount Holyoke 1961 alums?
Susan Pogue Krock