Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
College History

Academics

1902

Wheaton's acceptance policies are tested

Wheaton's unofficial policies barring the admittance of African-American students were truly tested in 1902. Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, and the most prominent African-American in the country at that time, requested that his daughter, Portia, be admitted to Wheaton.

Other larger women's colleges, such as Smith and Mount Holyoke had already opened their doors to African-American students by this time, and in fact Portia had attended Wellesley for a year before applying to transfer to Wheaton.

With Portia's application, Wheaton was faced with a tough decision. Enrolling the daughter of a famous national figure would bring a measure of respect to Wheaton, but Portia's attendance would also involve "some practical difficulties, and might seriously disturb a portion of the patronage of this school," wrote President Samuel Valentine Cole in a letter to the Wheaton trustees. The "practical difficulties" probably referred to finding an appropriate residence for Portia off-campus, so that no white students would have to share living quarters with her, and finding a second African-American student to attend Wheaton, so that Portia would not be totally isolated from the community, since it was possible that none of the white students would socialize with her.

Cole did not immediately rule out the possibility of Portia attending Wheaton, however, and he treated Portia's application like that of any other potential student. It was school policy to gather information about applicants from the prior schools they had attended, so Cole wrote a letter to the secretary of Wellesley, asking,"the race question aside, was she a desirable student?".

Cole then wrote a letter to Portia's father, Booker T. Washington, asking to meet with him to in Boston so "that we might talk the matter [of Portia's application] over" in depth. Washington seems to have been too busy to meet with Cole in the near future though, because the meeting never took place.

Though the reply from Wellesley does not survive, it appears that their response to Cole held enough evidence to reject Portia on the basis of her academic level, and not her color, which was probably a great relief to Cole and the Wheaton Trustees. The seminary had received a record number of applications that year, and "we are obliged at this season to give perference to students of good scholarship who apply for the regular courses," and not to the smaller college preparatory program, to which Portia had applied.

Though it was not mentioned publicly, Portia's race probably did play some part in the administration's decision, however. The same day he told Portia of her rejection, Cole accepted another girl on scholarship who would have placed only at the beginning of the college preparatory program, which was equivalent to 9th or 10th grade in a modern high school, and below the level that Portia would have entered.

 

Stewart, Ruth Ann. Portia: The Life of Portia Washington Pittman, the Daughter of Booker T. Washington. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1977, pp. 41-42. For more information on the integration of African-American students at Smith and Mount Holyoke, see Perkins, Linda M. "The Racial Integration of the Seven Sister Colleges." in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 19 (Spring, 1998), pp. 104-108.

SVC Letterbook: Cole to Trustees, 7/10/02, p. 363.

SVC Letterbook: Cole to Secretary, Wellesley College, 7/15/02, p. 369.

SVC Letterbook: Cole to Mr. Washington, 7/16/02, p. 370.

SVC Letterbook: Cole to Mr. Washington, 7/25/02, p. 378, and Cole to Mrs. Bird, 7/25/02, p. 377.

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