Berry College Desegregation


Legacy of Segregation at Berry College

According to Berry President John R. Bertrand in a speech to the whole college entitled “Beyond Racism,” the original charter for Berry College restricted enrollment to white students. The school remained segregated throughout its first fifty years, dedicated to its mission of educating poor, white students. Interestingly, however, the original charter makes no mention of race in its purpose statement, saying it only seeks “to carry on a School to meet the needs of poor boys from the rural districts.” No mention is made of race or “Appalachian Children” another coded term for white children. Regardless of the fact that the charter never barred white students, Bertrand used this frequently to explain why the college chose to remain segregated. Of course, just because the charter itself did not narrow Berry’s purpose to white students, this was likely the understood purpose of the school through other official statements, cultural pervasiveness, or the attitudes of Miss Berry herself. In any case, no black students applied to Berry until 1963, presumably because they assumed they would be denied. When a black student did request admission, they were denied on the basis of “full rooms.”

A Visit from Morehouse

Faculty and staff at Berry College worked to challenge this legacy throughout the 1960s, in some instances causing divisive conflict. While these conflicts fell far short of the significant riots that plagued UGA when it desegregated in January 1961, these conflicts add some nuance to the generally accurate interpretation that integration at Berry occurred smoothly. The first and most divisive conflict occurred In the Spring of 1961, when Berry speech teacher William Gorden collaborated with Morehouse sociology professor Lionel Newsom to conduct a tape exchange between the two schools. The project resulted in five total exchanges of taped conversations about sit-ins, desegregation, and race between students of Berry and the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of black colleges which included Morehouse. (Newsome, Lionel and William I. Gorden, “An Exchange of Taped Discussions Between Students of Negro and White Colleges,” November, 1962, Desegregation Vertical File, Berry College Archive, Mt. Berry, Ga.) The exchange quickly led to a desire to meet, and the Berry students visited the Atlanta University Center without incident. (Anderson, “We Have Had a Peaceful Relationship Between the Races Here) In April, Bertrand approved a request for the Atlanta students to visit Berry on the 29th, offering to receive them at the President’s home on campus and tour them around the school, excluding the dining hall and other significant student gathering places. (Beyond Racism, 8)

Three days before the anticipated visit, while Bertrand was in New York on school business, approximately twenty-five male Berry students gathered to protest the visit and marched towards Gorden’s on-campus home at the Log Cabin Area. The dean of students stopped them during the march and forced them to disperse, but the students were still adamant in their desire to stop the visit. In the next edition of The Campus Carrier, one of the participants in the protest discussed his opposition to the visit, stating that “we will not acquiesce like bleating sheep to an administrative decision that contradicts all which we have been taught since infancy” (Dickey, 135).

Upon hearing of the protests, Bertrand immediately returned to campus and postponed the visit. Arriving on the night of the 27th, he had received a chilling letter from the Ku Klux Klan. [INSERT DOC: KKK Letter – April 27, 1961. Box 67, Folder 9] The letter warned that the Klan did not “want to see any trouble caused by these outside advocators of race mixing,” and trusted that “the white blood which now courses through your veins will keep your mind clear and intact today while you make decisions and declarations that will not only affect Berry College but our community as well.”

In response, Bertrand summoned all faculty and staff to a meeting in the College Chapel, where he gave a speech entitled “Beyond Racism.” [INSERT DOC: BEYOND RACISM]  Although he clarified that “there has been no thought of accepting Negro students for enrollment” at the time, he nontheless reminded the students of the school’s affiliation and commitment to Christianity, tolerance, and right conduct. He did this by referring to moments in Berry’s history where the school welcomed African Americans to campus, such as Martha Berry’s invitation to Roland Hayes, as well as the on-campus stock-judging competition for black high schoolers. Furthermore, he juxtaposed their own moral responsibility to human rights with the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Holocaust perpetrator who was on trial at the time. In a final exhortation to justice, Bertrand stated “today the ‘Negro Problem’ is not only our greatest failure in America but also our incomparably great opportunity.” (Beyond Racism.)

Bertrand Integrates Berry College

By June of 1964, it appeared that Berry students started to realize these unjust principles themselves. A poll in The Campus Carrier reported that at the end of the school year, sixty percent of students were willing to attend class with a “qualified Negro student and fifty-one percent were willing to eat in a dining hall with them. [INSERT “The Results of a Survey on Educational Opportunity Without Regard to Race.” The Campus Carrier, July 18, 1964. RG 4: Office of the President, John R. Bertrand, Box 63, Folder 1..pdf] Some principles die hard, however, as only twenty-six percent said they were willing to live in a dorm room with a black student. (Dickey, 135, maybe The Campus Carrier article.) Still, the response to black students appeared somewhat warm, but whether the increased activism of the Civil Rights Movement had changed opinions or whether these were long-held ideals by Berry students is unclear.

Regardless, by the summer of 1964 Bertrand believed the moment was right. On September 23, a day before fall classes began, he gathered all Berry faculty and staff together in the chapel to announce that Berry College was no longer segregated. [INSERT DOC: WITHOUT REGARD TO RACE, Bertrand, John R.,Beyond Racism. Fall 1964. Desegregation Vertical File. Berry College Archive, Mt. Berry, Ga.]  Restating comments he had previously made to the Trustees, Bertrand emphasized that the decision was based on both moral and practical convictions. Financial constraints were the greatest concern in the latter category, and Bertrand noted that as long as Berry was segregated, it was ineligible for necessary federal funding, such as a grant from the National Science Foundation. Berry was also ineligible for a variety of donations that excluded segregated schools, ranging from the vital Ford and Rockefeller Foundation grants, to two checks totaling three hundred dollars that the school could cash on the condition that “Berry publicly declares itself in favor of integration” (Without Regard to Race, 6-7). These financial decisions were least important to Bertrand, however, as he also emphasized his consideration of “the justness of our position and whether it is an honorable and right one.” (Without Regard to race, 7)

As a result, Bertrand recruited three “Rome Negroes, with no aggressiveness on their part” from Main High School. With the help of Main’s principal and RCHR member C.W. Aycock, Bertrand convinced Evelyn Hamilton, Marisue Harris, and Frank Twyman Jr. to apply to Berry. All three were accepted; Berry’s admissions policy never officially excluded any students on the basis of their race, even if it had been a de facto reality. All that was needed at Berry was the will to finally allow it. As all three lived in Rome and were day students, there was no tension over integrating the dorms. Bertrand announced would be attending classes beginning the next day (Bertrand, Beyond Racism).

Bertrand allowed twenty-four hours for any students “fundamentally in disagreement” with integration to leave the school with a complete refund. With one final call for goodwill and positive human relations, Bertrand dismissed the students in orderly fashion. Despite rumors that over half the student population would withdraw over the decision, only three students did so. (Without regard to race, 8) Unknown students burned an effigy of Bertrand on the lawn next to Blackstone Dining Hall the following night, but otherwise there were no further protests. (Dabney, Joe. “Berry College Enrolls Negroes.” The Atlanta Journal, December 31, 1964, Found in the Desegregation Vertical File, Berry College Archive, Mt. Berry, Ga.) Furthermore, the Berry Alumni Quarterly reported that the vast majority of letters sent to Dr. Bertrand in the days after the announcement were positive. According to the magazine, “from all indications, the transition has been a relatively smooth one.” (Without regard to race, 8)

A Profile of the Integraters

While the integration of Berry was undoubtedly less violent and faced less protest than the integration of many other colleges and schools in the South at the time, measuring the success of integration by how many white people protested is a simple and dismissive way of evaluating this historical moment. Such an analysis that focuses on how the community reacted to the students while ignoring the students themselves is, in the words of Charles A. Payne in his article “The Whole United States is Southern,” reducing the debate to only the notion that “if we upset white people, we are going backward” (Payne, “The Whole United States is Southern”).

Marisue Harrison graduated from Main High School in 1964 and paid to attend Berry by working at the nearby General Electric Factory. he was also in a committed relationship and was considering moving to Atlanta at the time (Oral Interview, Evelyn Hamilton and Beverly Philpot Smith). The academic transition was difficult, and she received mostly Cs, Ds, and Fs in her classes. Despite receiving a $250 grant-in-aid from Bertrand to pay for tuition, she was still unable to quit work to focus entirely on school. By the end of the first year, the Dean of Students recommending suspending her, not only for poor grades but also a supposed “attitude problem”.  Bertrand’s letter that June informing Harrison of her suspension neglected to mention the discipline issue, instead citing her heavy work schedule. Bertrand encouraged her to work full time so she could enroll again in the winter without having to work, stating that there would be an opening for her. Furthermore, he offered to help her find a job, as the GE plant had laid her off due to a workers strike. Harrison did not return to Berry or take the offer of finding a job. (Various documents. RG 4: Office of the President, John R. Bertrand, Box 23, Folder 7, Berry College Archives, Mt. Berry, GA.)

Frank Twyman Jr., the only male of the first three black students, was one credit hour short of receiving his diploma from Main High School when he joined the Air Force in 1954. He returned to Rome and also worked in the General Electric Plant. (Bertrand, “Without Regard to Race”). His academic transition was also difficult, and although he was the first of the three students to earn above a C in any class, he was also the first to drop out. The winter quarter of 1965 was Twyman’s last (Timmerman, John. John Timmerman to John Bertrand, Mt. Berry, Ga., February 12, 1965. RG 4: Office of the President, John R. Bertrand, Box 23, Folder 7.)

After the first quarter, another black student enrolled at Berry: Lonnie Malone, another day student from Main High School. Malone is significant, as he was also the lead organizer of the 1963 sit-ins in downtown Rome. Very little is known about his experience at Berry, and he is often not mentioned alongside the other three students. This ommission is likely because Malone arrived in the winter quarter of 1965, and transferred to Tennessee A&I (later Tennessee State University) by the end of the school year. He is not featured in any cabin logs or commencements. (Timmerman, John. John Timmerman to John Bertrand, Mt. Berry, Ga., February 12, 1965. RG 4: Office of the President, John R. Bertrand, Box 23, Folder 7.)

Only one of the first four black students made it to the next school year: Evelyn Hamilton. While the transition was difficult, Hamilton was not working at the GE plant while in school initially, and after two semesters had not failed any classes. (Timmerman, John. John Timmerman to John Bertrand, Mt. Berry, Ga., February 12, 1965. RG 4: Office of the President, John R. Bertrand, Box 23, Folder 7.) Although she expected to be treated like a “sacrificial lamb,” other than a few students who spit at her, Hamilton’s presence was not disruptive to the student body.  (Many bridges to cross, V3 Magazine) Like the others students, Bertrand was invested in Hamilton’s success, [INSERT DOC: MAX SCHAIBLE TO JOHN R BERTRAND] and the two bonded because of it. When Bertrand gave her another personal grant-in-aid to help pay for school at the beginning of Fall 1965, he included a note thanking Hamilton for “your real contribution in helping us make the transition that we made last year. Let me know if I can ever be of help.” (Bertrand, John. John Bertrand to Evelyn Hamilton, Rome, Ga, September 3, 1965. RG 4: Office of the President, John R. Bertrand, Box 23, Folder 7.) After surviving the toughest part of the transition to Berry, Hamilton started work again, delaying her graduation until Winter 1969. As a result, she was not the first black graduate of Berry College, even though she was one of the first students to integrate the institution. (Desegregation Vertial File.)

John R. Bertrand

Of considerable interest is the question of Dr. John Bertrand’s true, personal beliefs towards integration during this time. Was he a champion for civil rights who was biding his time until the right and socially acceptable moment to finally integrate Berry? Or was he an opportunist and a pragmatist who was not a supporter of civil rights but believed the decision was best for Berry to continue receiving federal and charity grants? An analysis of Bertrand’s personal files and correspondences, collected from the Berry College Archive, paints the portrait of a quiet supporter of civil rights with long-held beliefs about integration and human relations. Bertrand, however, was particularly aware of the attitudes towards such a move within Berry and in the greater Rome community, especially after the confrontation over the tape-exchange. As a result, Bertrand sought to maintain a clear division between his personal beliefs and his role as Berry’s president, until such a time as he believed integration would be acceptable.

Generally speaking, Dr. Bertrand’s personal files indicate a profound interest in the Civil Rights movement within Rome and around the South. Within the archival material available for Bertrand are countless newspaper clippings detailing the progress of the movement, magazine articles about African American culture, and academic studies on integration and best practices for inclusion. He sent these clippings sent to various members of his inner-circle at the school, as indicated by receipts of inter-campus mail services. These memos span from the late fifties to the late sixties, and indicate that Dr. Bertrand believed information about Civil Rights and integration were valuable for his staff, especially those he was closest to. It’s likely Bertrand read even more information than is available, as the archives only contained the materials he sent within the administration. (RG 4: Office of the President, John R. Bertrand, Box 63, Folders 1 and 2.)

The first available records of Bertrand’s support for civil rights is a letter exchange with H.B. Allen, an employee of The Civic Fund based in Michigan. The fund had received a Berry College catalogue, and Allen inquired whether the school accepted black students. Bertrand responded that the school’s original purpose was the education of white students, and has chosen to continue that service (Inquiries such as this were fairly common, and a vast collection of them can be found in the archives, especially Box 67, Folder 9.) Allen responded by extolling his and his family’s own personal experience living and attending classes with black students, as well as his wish that the South could make  steady, moderate progress in the area of human relations. Bertrand responded with “We are much nearer in our personal philosophies than you can possibly know.” Furthermore, indicating that these were long-standing beliefs, Bertrand mentions his own experiences completing his doctoral work at Cornell and working in Nevada where he worked with many people of all races and “count some of my best friends from among these groups.” ( Bertrand, John. John Bertrand to H.B Allen, May 7, 1958. RG 4: Office of the President, John R. Bertrand, Box 1, Folder 2, Berry College Archive, Mt. Berry, Ga. )

Although these beliefs were clearly long-held, it did not change his belief that it would be best to separate his personal beliefs from his role at the institution. Such a decision likely seemed to be the only option, as many leaders within higher education were extremely cautious following the riots when UGA desegregated in January, 1961 (Anderson, 60-62). Bertrand was highly aware that both government officials and average citizens were skeptical of higher education. Saved within his personal files was a clipping from the South Georgia Thomasville Times Gazette, which warned parents of sending their children to school where white professors had become “infected with the virus of integration” (Thomasville Times-Enterprise – E.R. Jerger was Editor. May 27, 1961, page 4. “White ‘Freedom Riders’” RG 4: Office of the President, John R. Bertrand, Box 63, Folder 1, Berry College Archives, Mt. Berry, Ga. )

Because of this climate, Bertrand’s tenure at Berry during the Civil Rights movement was an understandably cautious one, yet once he publicly announced his beliefs he was able to express them freely.  Several years after Bertrand ushered in an integrated era at Berry, he was more open and comfortable with discussing his personal beliefs and opinions, no longer separating them from his official duties as President. This changed nature is most noticeable in 1968, when Bertrand was advocating for the creation of the aforementioned scholarship fund for black students. A Mr. Robert O. Held had written several letters to Berry requesting information on the progress of integration before deciding to donate. His letters demonstrated a clear skepticism that the Berry Schools had actually and tangibly desegregated. Bertrand clearly took an offense to this.

“Mr. Held, in the heat of the racial troubles during the past few years, were you called anonymously in the middle of the night and threatened with “tar and feathers” because of your ‘liberal views’? I was! Did you, a year before other schools and colleges in your area, voluntary integrate your college and thereby set the stage for action a year later by other schools and colleges in your area? I did! Did you become actively interested in this matter more than twenty years ago and begin teacing in a southern college in deep east Texas courses in “race relations” and affiliate at the same time with the interracial Southern Regional Council? I did! Have you ever been an active member for more than ten years of the interracial Georgia Council on Human Relations? I have!”

(Bertrand, John. John Bertrand to Robert O. Held, June 28, 1968. RG 4: Office of the President, John R. Bertrand, Box 67, Folder 10, Berry College Archives, Mt. Berry, Ga.)