The birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. brings attention to the nation’s turbulent history of segregation, but Dartmouth has its own past of racial injustice and discrimination to reflect on.
The first black student graduated from Dartmouth in 1828, at a time when the doors of many universities were still closed to blacks and slavery was still a fact in the South. But in order to be admitted to the College, Edward Mitchell had to overcome objections from prejudiced trustees.
Mitchell was born in Martinique on Jan. 27, 1794 and became connected with College President Francis Brown when Brown took a journey to the South for health reasons in 1819.
According to Leon Burr Richardson’s “History of Dartmouth College,” Brown brought Mitchell back to Hanover as a servant, and Mitchell remained with the President’s family after Brown’s death in 1820.
He then applied to join the freshman class of 1824 and passed examinations set by the College’s faculty, only to be rejected by the trustees who feared, according to Richardson, “objections from undergraduates.”
Dartmouth’s students proved the trustee’s objections to be unfounded and formed a committee to argue Mitchell’s case. A dark-skinned Caucasian student named C.D. Cleveland led the effort to admit him, according to Advisor to Black Students Dawn Hemphill.
He argued that if skin color was a factor that determined admission to the College, then he too should not have been admitted. The Trustees’ decision was reversed, and Mitchell went on to be the College’s first black graduate.
Mitchell’s graduation may have been a sign of progress, but it was 27 years until the next black student, Edward Garrison Draper, graduated in 1855.
At the same time that Draper was a student at Dartmouth, the College’s President Nathan Lord published pamphlets, according to Richardson, affirming his belief that slavery was a “divine institution.”
Through his study of Biblical scripture, Lord had become convinced that slavery was a punishment designed by God to mark treason, sacrilege and filial dishonor. His 1854 pamphlet consisted of questions such as whether slavery was not “an institution of God according to natural religion (as instanced by the subordination of backward races)?”
Black students in the earlier days of Dartmouth faced what Hemphill described as “a difficult existence.” After the hurdle of admissions, social institutions were also less than equitable.
Some Greek houses still had national rules that excluded minority students. Sigma Nu fraternity split from its national organization in 1963 because of the fraternity’s national policy of offering membership only to white students.
“We seceded from nationals, along with other northern chapters, because they wouldn’t allow minority members,” Sigma Nu president Will Rack ’04 said. “We became Sigma Nu Delta until 1986, when nationals took the clause out of their constitution.”
African and African-American Studies Department Chair J. Martin Favor applied to Dartmouth in the 1980s, but attended Carleton College instead after deciding that Dartmouth’s atmosphere was less than comfortable.
“When I applied, I didn’t think it would be the place for me at all,” Favor said. He remembered a protest by Dartmouth students supporting divestment from South Africa that was sabotaged by members of The Dartmouth Review. “They had set up a shantytown, and the Review came and tore it down,” Favor said.
The application process was also a deterrent, he said. Students had the choice of either coming to Hanover for an interview or being interrogated by a panel of alumni in their hometown. Favor was interviewed at home, and called the interview “intimidating.”
“It was to see if you could be ‘a Dartmouth man,'” Favor said. Compared to Carleton, which at the time had a minority prospective weekend, Dartmouth did little to make black applicants feel more at home.
“At Dartmouth, the attitude was, ‘Apply and be glad you are one of us,'” Favor said.
Hemphill believes that Dartmouth is presently “very committed” to diversity, and noted that the creation of her advisory position represents a “great stride” for the College, but she admitted that not all students feel comfortable.
“Some students definitely have difficulty adjusting to the environment,” Hemphill said.
A lot has changed, Favor said, since he applied, but not as much as some might like to think.
“Students from 20 years ago had very different opinions about race, gender and sexual orientation, although we are not always as different as we might like to think we are,” Favor said.
Currently, Hemphill estimates that Dartmouth has approximately 270 black students, and according to the Princeton Review, they make up seven percent of the College’s total enrollment, a number that is in the middle of the range for the Ivy League.