By Steph Haeg
In middle school, one of the first stories that we learned during Black History Month was that of Ruby Bridges. Ruby Bridges was the first African American student to be integrated in a New Orleans elementary school, and we were taught that it was a long, difficult integration with threats of violence.
And so, when setting out to do an all-too-brief examination of Black history at CSB/SJU, I turned to the question of integration. When did black students enroll at the colleges, and how were they received?
The first African American students enrolled at CSB in 1938. Kathleen Yanes and Gertrude Danavall were described as ready and eager to attend college, and were, according to a letter from Academic Dean Claire Lynch “received [by the student body] with the utmost courtesy and a spirit that is truly Christ-like… There is no manifestation of antipathy against them.”
It is, of course, difficult to say how true that letter was; but it seems that Yanes and Danavall were integrated into the community. Danavall was selected as an attendant to the Posture Queen, which was a woman awarded for the best posture. Yanes was involved in multiple clubs and societies, and was secretary of a group called Pro and Con, an elected position, as it would be today. Yanes graduated in 1942, while Danavall did not seem to return for the 1939-1940 school year.
But it was not a completely smooth process. The aforementioned letter from Sister Lynch is written in response to a letter from a group of St. Paul alumnae protesting Yanes and Danavall’s acceptance to the school, with some of them threatening to withdraw support. Although I couldn’t find the original letter in the CSB Archives, Lynch’s rebuttal remains.
At the time, integration was not required by law. Plenty of schools at the time reserved the right to refuse students entry based on their race, including many Catholic schools. Lynch, however, found that contradictory to the mission of CSB. “As a Catholic college, it is our policy to accept students of any race.”
Lynch went on to give some of the earliest statistics about diversity at CSB I’ve been able to find. In 1908, she claims there was a black student attending the St. Benedict’s Academy, and refers to a history of Chinese students attending CSB.
“At present [Chinese students] number two among our student body,” Lynch said.
Native American students are also referred to. Two students are mentioned attending in CSB 1938 of mixed Native heritage, and it is mentioned that previously there had been others. For example, there was a Filipina student from Washington, D.C. who attended CSB.
Lynch went on to press the importance of inclusion and diversity in Catholic education. “Racial discrimination [is] unjust, immoral and un-Christian,” Lynch wrote, which was a fairly radical statement in 1938. Catholic education access was important to Lynch and she pointed out that many extremely prestigious universities at the time were starting to be integrated.
Of course, not all of the letter aged as well as her protests against the racism of the alumna. Perhaps trying to walk a fine line, to reassure the white alumnae of the late 1930s, she also wrote. “As only a limited amount of [black] students will be qualified—economically, intellectually and socially—to attend college, there is no possibility of St. Benedict’s ever having a large enough group to change appreciably the atmosphere of our college.”
But she also openly celebrated the diversity that CSB already had, writing that the inclusion of students of color “will do much to break down preconceived racial prejudices, and exercise a broadening and educative influence on our student body as a whole.”
Of course, Lynch could hardly know what was to come. The latter part of the twentieth century would bring many changes to the makeup of CSB, and Yanes would only be the first of many black students to attend the college.