Race and the BDH

By Norman Boucher / September / October 2002
June 29th, 2007
A May/June letter about Ralph Cunningham '52 prompted a flurry of e-mails and letters from Brown Daily Herald editors of the early 1950s. Although this correspondence is too long to print here, it sheds light on a murky 1951 incident and the ways in which racial and ethnic biases affected choices during that period in Brown - and American - history. It also shows the ways some students battled that bias.

In 1950Ð51, Cunningham was the BDH's executive editor and the obvious choice as the following year's top editor. James S. Keat '51, the editor in 1950Ð51, described the context for that choice in an e-mail to me a few months ago: "From 1946 to 1950, enrollment was swollen by the influx of World War II veterans on government scholarships. By the 1950Ð51 academic year, the campus was returning to its prewar atmosphere. The gray flannel suit, striped tie, and dirty white bucks were the uniform of the day. The fraternities were striving to regain their dominance on campus, [which had been] temporarily lost to the older and more mature [military] veterans."

Alan Levy, the 1950Ð51 BDH features editor, recalls that when Keat convened the paper's seven-man senior board in April 1951 to select the next year's leadership, he assumed that everyone would agree on Cunningham's promotion. But, as Levy wrote in an e-mail this past June, one of the three Alpha Delts who worked on the BDH's business side produced two photos of an African American woman seated in the section of a bus labeled "Colored Only." Beside her in one of the photos was Ralph Cunningham.

Just how many BDH staffers knew that Cunningham was African American is unclear. Keat says he'd learned of it the year before, after he'd unexpectedly encountered Cunningham's mother, and Richard Sherman '52, the assistant sports editor at the time, also recalls knowing. But apparently the light-skinned Cunningham's race went largely unnoticed during his time at Brown.

In the meeting Levy and Keat responded to the photos by protesting that Cunningham's race had nothing to do with his qualifications. Levy recalls the three Alpha Delts arguing that the issue was not Cunningham's race but his choice to conceal it. "What else hasn't he told us?" Levy remembers one of them asking. To prove that bias wasn't an issue, Levy recalls, one of them suggested him as editor, under the mistaken impression that he would be the first Jew to head the BDH. (Arnold H. Raphaelson '50, Keat's predecessor as editor, was Jewish.) With three board members supporting Cunningham and three opposing him, the last member of the board agreed to support a compromise candidate: Richard Sherman, who as an assistant editor was not present.

Sixteen members of the BDH staff immediately resigned, including Keat, Levy, and production manager Ed Barz '52, whose letter on the incident appeared in the July/August BAM. Sherman, later, was stunned. "Ralph Cunningham's superior qualifications were beyond dispute," he wrote in a letter this summer. "I was an assistant sports editor and, having been a BDH staffer for only eighteen months, aspired merely to become sports editor."

Thus did the BDH senior board turn down the opportunity to name its first African American editor. Levy says that when he, along with one or two others, broke the news to Cunningham, he said, "I guess it couldn't go on forever." (Cunningham has since died.) Yet, following the board meeting, few staffers were willing to admit, publicly at least, that race was the deciding factor in Cunningham's rejection. "In our opinion," Keat told a reporter for the Providence Journal later that week, "the assistant sports editor was chosen because the majority of men on the Senior Board are fraternity men and they felt they wanted a fraternity man in as editor."

Today at least some of the participants admit that Cunningham's race played a major role in his rejection. In fact, Sherman discounts the fraternity explanation altogether. "As to the charge," he wrote this summer, "that the Alpha Delts were engaged in some kind of fraternity vs. independents power play: If that were so, they certainly didn't organize the conspiracy very well. If they had, they certainly would have recruited me, the new editor, as a cat's paw for the dreaded fraternities. No such thing happened. Nobody approached me at any time with a pro-fraternity or anti- Ôindependent' agenda. Sadly, Ralph's color seemed to be the only salient issue."

And Sherman concludes: "The BDH elections were a microcosm of issues that overwhelmed many people in those years. For blacks, still downtrodden, and Jews, emerging from the Holocaust, those issues were open wounds. As a WASP, I recognized this, of course, but mostly in the abstract. Whatever the rationale, in the end the events at Brown generated much bitterness and no joy for anyone."

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September / October 2002