At the time Cornell was founded, University President Andrew Dickson White was adamant that the new university be open to women as well as men, and to all people regardless of race. The process of creating a tolerant and respectful campus community that offers opportunity to all has been a complicated one. It has been influenced by the particular views of different administrations, changing social and political ideas and expectations, and the individual students who have attended the university.
Since the arrival of Jane Eleanor Datcher, the first known black woman to matriculate at Cornell, black women have lived, studied, and cultivated friendships at Cornell while pursuing a premier education. Although they have been an important part of Cornells history, various factors have also set them apart. Themes of the exhibit include the experiences of black women as students at Cornell, as well as the stories of racism and anti-racism and the complex road toward inclusion.
The changing accessibility of campus housing is an example of the varied institutional attitudes toward black women students. Sarah Winifred Brown of the Class of 1897 spent her years at Cornell living in Sage College for Women. She went on to become a medical doctor, and during World War I was a member of the flying squadron of fifty women physicians appointed by the Womens War Work Council. Just a few decades later, under the administration of President Livingston Farrand, R. Louise Fitch (Dean of Women) denied residency to black women in Sage College.
While the university was filled with a spirit of great opportunity and promise, it was still part of an American culture that was mired in the racism of its time. In the classroom, African-American women learned alongside their white counterparts. Socially, they often created community with each other and within Ithacas black community. Despite the social challenges and because of their own single-mindedness, many of them flourished and graduated, and went on to lead full and accomplished lives. Alumnae featured here include Sarah Winifred Brown 1897, Jessie R. Fauset 1905, Evie Lee Spencer Carpenter 18, Adelaide Cook Daly 18, Pauline Davis 31, Ruth Peyton 31, Nellie Tidline 37, and Sarah E. Thomas 37.
Evie Lee Carpenter Spencer 18, ca. 1914–1918.