“…where any student…”

Cornell’s Charter mandated that the university “be open to applicants… without distinction as to rank, previous occupation, or locality.” In an 1862 letter to Gerrit Smith describing his vision, Andrew Dickson White first required “a truly great University,” “to secure a place where the most highly prized instruction may be afforded to all regardless of sex or color.” And he continued: “To admit women and colored persons into a petty college would do good to the individuals concerned; but to admit them to a great University would be a blessing to the whole colored race and the whole female sex….” As a New York State Senator, White had argued for black suffrage and sponsored legislation to integrate New York’s public schools. His bid was unsuccessful, but he continued in the struggle, believing that quality education was essential to building a democratic society. The university founded by Ezra Cornell and Andrew D. White would be open to anyone who was academically qualified, regardless of sex, color, or national origins.

The diary includes notes, accounts, drafts, and copies of letters, as well as lists of “where students are from.” In 1870, students came to Cornell from twenty-eight states, Washington, D.C., and eleven foreign countries.

Cornell University was also notable for its support of racial and ethnic diversity. In his address at the Inauguration, Andrew Dickson White addressed the question directly: “I believe myself justified in stating that the authorities of the University would hold under the organic law of the institution we have no right to reject any man on account of race.”

Students of color from the Caribbean came as early as 1869, when William Bowler of Haiti attended; a Cuban student, Francisco de Paula Rodríguez y Valdés, Class of 1878, became the first student of African descent to graduate. Charles Chauveau Cook and Jane Eleanor Datcher, the first African-American students to graduate, came in 1886. Native American students came in small numbers, largely through the efforts of Erl Bates, who started an Indian Extension program in the 1920s. Currently, 38% of undergraduates self-identify as African American, Asian American, Hispanic American or Native American; 10% are international students.

Cornell’s first Japanese student studied Natural History in 1870; the first Japanese graduate, Ryokichi Yatabe, graduated in 1876. After Jacob Gould Schurman went to the Philippines in 1898 as head of the First Filipino Commission, Filipino students began coming to Cornell. The 1908 Alumni Directory lists 53 Japanese alumni, thirty-seven Chinese alumni, 26 Filipinos, 16 Indians, and one Korean. By 1922, students also came from Java, the Malay States (Malaysia), Siam (Thailand), and the Straits Settlements (Singapore).

Six Indian students entered the College of Agriculture in 1905, and considerable numbers followed.

After 1900, international students came in increasing numbers. Alfred Sao-ke Sze, the first Chinese student, graduated in 1901. In 1906, the Trustees authorized six scholarships a year for Chinese students. In 1908, funds authorized by President Theodore Roosevelt from the Boxer Indemnity, imposed on China after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, were used to fund these scholarships. Many Chinese students came to Cornell. The most well-known Chinese student was undoubtedly Hu Shih, sometimes called “the father of the Chinese literary renaissance,” who graduated from Cornell in 1914.

Cornell’s Cosmopolitan Club, the first group for all international students, began in 1904. “The objects of this club shall be to unite for their mutual benefit, socially and intellectually, men of all nationalities, and to promote the organization of chapters in other universities in the United States of America and in other countries.” In 1911, the group constructed a building at 301 Bryant Avenue. The club held formal meetings with lectures by students and faculty, which developed into a series of “national nights,” and hosted various events and programs. A Women’s Cosmopolitan Club was founded in 1921. While the club went out of existence in 1958, today, 54 groups categorize themselves as “international”; there are more than 80 Asian and Asian American student organizations, about 25 Latino/a and Hispanic groups, nine Black and six African groups.

Programs from Cosmopolitan Club include Brazilian Night, May 4, 1906, and the Chinese Students’ Club Celebration of the New Republic of China at the Cosmopolitan Club, April 20, 1912.

In 1934, African American students from Cornell, Ithaca College and the Ithaca community founded the Booker T. Washington Club. Sarah Ethel Thomas, who became a sociologist, and Margaret Morgan, a noted child psychiatrist, served as presidents.

In the 1930s, CURW took a special interest in “the improvement of race relations,” particularly through a “Negro Education Week,” with noted speakers, including Walter White, Secretary, NAACP; Countee Cullen, poet; and Dr. Thomas E. Jones, President, Fiske University. The program also included a discussion of the latest novel by Jessie Fauset ’05 and an exhibition of African crafts.

In 1964, President James Perkins, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation, instituted the Committee on Special Education Projects (COSEP) to encourage and support minority students to come to Cornell. The Interfraternity Council began hosting events aimed at encouraging diversity. It organized a “Soul of Blackness Week,” with notable speakers, including John Howard Griffin, Dr. James Porter of Howard University, Stokely Carmichael of SNCC, Jay Saunders Redding, and Paule Marshall. The event also included an art exhibition, a production of LeRoi Jones’ play The Dutchman, and a Motown Review concert featuring Stevie Wonder.

On December 4, 1906, seven undergraduate students at Cornell University, “The Seven Jewels,” organized Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate fraternity among African-American men …. The founders sought to combine social purpose with social action, to be more than a social organization. Throughout its history, Alpha Phi Alpha has promoted knowledge and achievement.

…. Over the years, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity has initiated national programs to end segregation in professional education, to increase voter registration and turn-out, to create decent and affordable housing for African Americans, to encourage business development, to foster male sexual responsibility, and to mentor young men ….

Robert L. Harris, Jr., National Historian
Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
13 April 2006

Additional Resources

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