Race in the 1950's

January 4th, 2012

The well-deserved tribute to Gus White '57 mentions the postponement of the 1956 Delta Upsilon national convention because White was the only nonwhite delegate ("The Doctor of Prejudice," September/October). In 1957 I succeeded White as the Brown chapter delegate to the convention, which was held at Middlebury College, and I found the stain of bigotry still palpable among some of the delegates, mainly from the South. Several displayed animosity toward me as a white man who had shared fraternity living quarters with a "Nigrah" who had become the president of our chapter.

"It's bad enough you pledged him, but to elect him president.…," one incensed delegate said.

"Well," I replied, "if you would only meet Gus, you'd see what a good man he is."

After a lot of beer had been consumed at the climactic cookout the next evening, about ten delegates joined hands in a circle around me and chanted, "White from Brown is black, White from Brown is black." As the light from the bonfire gleamed in their eyes and I listened to their malicious words, I thought of Klansmen and was glad Gus White had been spared a visit to this convention a year earlier. I was no longer sure that if he had attended the gathering he could have won over the haters, even despite his great personal charm.

Later, a bearded young man from Texas, with a scholarly air and wearing a three-piece suit, apologized for the bonfire chant. He told me he had an open mind on the issue of race, because, living in a segregated community, he had never had any personal contact with a Negro. "I haven't even met a Jew, as far as I know," he confided.

I don't want to be too hard on my benighted fellow delegates, some from outside Dixie, because in the 1950s even Brown students were not immune from bigotry. After all, Delta Upsilon was then the only fraternity with even one African American brother.

George Held '58
New York City


The article by Beth Schwartzapfel '01 about the admirable career of Gus White was informative and I enjoyed it. But its beginning was unfortunate. "When Augustus A. White III arrived at Brown in 1953," she wrote, "he joined a student body as whitewashed and WASPy as a beach house in Kennebunkport, Maine." WASPy might strike the writer and her editors as a term so mildly pejorative as to be harmless, but it strikes me, who am neither Anglo-Saxon nor Protestant, as offensive, not merely because it was used, but because the writer clearly meant to indicate her satisfaction in seeing a certain ethnic group disestablished. I suspect that if a writer treated other ethnic groups this way the editors would not be indifferent and would not print such a sentence.

The article said that the doctor's main efforts were now directed at exposing and finding ways to overcome "unconscious bias." I wish him good luck—there is certainly much work to be done.

Lawrence Proulx '76
Cergy le Haut, France

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Related Issue
January/February 2012