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Race Relations at Guilford College

Although Guilford College never had an official segregation policy per se, its faculty, staff, and trustees made decisions in the past that excluded, segregated, and limited people of color from participation and membership.  Examples include exclusionary student admissions policies, inadequate or substandard pay for workers, disparities in staff and faculty hiring, and restrictions on campus lodging for people of color.  These realities were at odds with the historic Quaker ideal of equality and with the personal beliefs of specific individuals within the college community.

While the college property includes land once used in the Underground Railroad and North Carolina Friends banned slaveholding by members sixty-one years before the opening of the school, the diversity on campus still reflected the dichotomy and underlying racist attitudes of the larger dominant culture.  People of African descent are noticeably absent for the institution’s first 125 years, except for a few under-documented staff roles, despite the fact that a significant number of African Americans lived in the area. 

Guilford began as New Garden Boarding School in the 1830s as the Quaker population in North Carolina faced serious decline.  Many Friends were relocating westward to live in states without slavery and to have access to new land and opportunities.  The institution was founded to provide a “guarded education.”  Basic guidelines and expectations considered part of a guarded education, such as plainness in dress and speech, were strictly enforced to protect and encourage dedication to the Quaker faith.  While anti-slavery stances often did not translate to anti-racist actions, several early school personnel actively practiced their commitment to racial justice through direct involvement in anti-slavery activities and encouraging use of “free produce” (i.e. purchasing goods not produced through slave labor).1  Initially restricted to members of the Society of Friends, non-Friends were admitted by the end of the school’s first decade in an effort to increase tuition revenue and the student population was no longer majority Quaker by 1865.  The strict rules and regulations associated with New Garden in the early years were gradually modified, especially as more non-Friends joined the student body, to reflect the wider non-Quaker world. 

Following the Civil War, Friends worked to rebuild their schools throughout the state and work was also done by Friends to established schools for African Americans.  For example, former New Garden Boarding School faculty member John W. Woody was a founding teacher and administrator at Slater Academy, now Winston-Salem State University.  However, primary efforts focused on educational opportunities for their own members (of whom there were none of color at this time) and any European Americans in the local area.  Efforts to educate African Americans were separate endeavors and illustrated the “separate but equal” policy which would be followed by North Carolina Friends and the soon-to-be Guilford College for another century. 

By the twentieth century, some international students began entering Guilford College and included students from Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East.  These students were often from areas with a Quaker mission presence.  Notably, the international students did not include any of the growing group of Quakers in East Africa.  Apart from exceptions such as Japanese-American students attending Guilford during the internment period in the 1940s, U.S. students at Guilford remained exclusively white until the 1960s.  Diversity at Guilford included Jewish students, individuals for different regions of the United States (though still primarily North Carolina), and a few international students.  Diversity did not include an equal acceptance of those of African descent.

Campus culture in the twentieth century very much reflected the surrounding European American attitudes and practices of the era.  This included many activities that were at the least insensitive and often overtly racist.  Minstrel shows were performed on campus as a popular entertainment through the 1950s.2  African American staff, often invisible, was portrayed in campus yearbooks with dialect and references to their weights.3  Official college decisions repeatedly denied overnight hospitality to people of color participating in conferences at the colleges until the 1960s.  Simultaneously, Guilford promoted itself as having an international atmosphere and highlighted the presence of foreign students from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

At this same time, there were individual students and faculty at Guilford who participated in interracial efforts both on and off campus.  Influential faculty members served as leaders in interracial and social justice organizations in Greensboro and supported students in their efforts.  However, these activities were not incorporated into the overall college mission nor receive full support.  Therefore, activities waxed and waned depending upon the presence of specific individuals.

In 1954, the same year that the Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court decision invalidated segregation, Guilford advertised itself as the “home college for white men” with the rationale that Greensboro already had women’s colleges and a university for African Americans.4  Guilford was not considering a change in enrollment in the near future.  One trustee wrote to another in 1958 that, “I definitely think this matter of integration, about which there seems to be much hysteria, at this time does not have a place in the constructive thinking of the school, and I want to leave it out of the picture.”5  A proposal was made at the 1951 sessions of North Carolina Yearly Meeting for Guilford’s trustees to consider admission of students without regard to race or color and members spoke freely both for and against with no resulting recommendation.6  The Greensboro Daily News reported that the majority of Guilford students supported admitting African Americans.7  A cautious faculty statement in 1956 stated that “no student should be denied admission to a Christian college because of race, nationality, religion, or political thinking,” but went on to stress integration as an ideal rather than an immediate realistic goal and discouraged several options.8  Trustees and administrators continued to deny lodging for interracial conferences sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee.  The integration debate would continue into the 1960s.

Guilford’s administration and trustees repeatedly denied that the college had a policy denying admittance to African Americans.  However, careful reading of college records and review of actual practices tell a different story.  In 1959 the college faculty approved implementing a requirement for entrance examinations to match the requirements of other colleges such as Bennett, Davidson, and Duke.  A faculty proponent of integration asked that these requirements be “administered regardless of race, creed or color” which resulted in a discussion.  Several spoke in favor and several against integration.  One supporter stated Guilford was not integrated “on account of contempt for the Negro and fear or publicity.”  Opponents argued the opinion that integration would cause decreased enrollment, social problems, and alumni dissatisfaction.  College President Clyde Milner said “that Negro students would not be accepted until the Board of Trustees as a body was willing to accept them.”  The September 1961 faculty minutes further clarified the admission practices following inquiries from two faculty regarding applications by African American students that “the present situation is that no admissions of Negroes are to be made without the knowledge and consent of the Board of Trustees.”9

It is worth noting that many of the same arguments used to halt the admission of African American students also potentially applied when the college was asked to admit Japanese American students in the 1940s.  However, there is no mention of the Trustees’ opinion and the college’s president, the same Clyde Milner, was a vocal supporter of bringing these students to Guilford.  The question was brought to a called faculty meeting in 1942.  Sixteen faculty were in favor and seven against admitting Japanese Americans students who were being evacuated from the west coast.  With the administration setting a tone of acceptance, these students were accepted and thrived at Guilford during a time when they faced great discrimination beyond campus.10 

Guilford was by no means a leader in integration.  The last of the Quaker-founded colleges to allow African American students, Guilford integrated around the same time as most other denominational colleges in North Carolina (and years after leaders within the state).  The first African Americans to take courses at Guilford were adult students enrolled in non-credit religion courses and did not reside on campus.  Guilford initially integrated its main campus with African students when two Kenyans Quakers were accepted in the spring of 1962 for fall enrollment.  The first African American student enrolled soon after and graduated in 1966.  By 1967 only a dozen Black students had been admitted.  Guilford finally hired a faculty person of color in 1966 but did not prioritize recruitment in this area.

Pressure from the international Quaker community is credited with facilitating the integration of Guilford in 1962.  Plans were being made for a Fourth World Conference of Friends to be held at the college in 1967.  College officials were informed that there was opposition to the conference being held at the college if all Friends, including those of African descent, were not allowed to reside on campus.  Providentially, the insistence of influential Friends and recognition of Quakers in Kenya finally provided the opening needed to allow full entrance to African American students. 

Integration did not bring an end to exclusion and inconsistencies.  People of color remained a disproportionate minority.  The 1968 first year class only had three students of color (two African American and the other Asian) and the overall campus culture and institutional structures often reflected the inherent racism present in the wider community.  The Guilford community was also grappling with responses to and involvement in the broader Civil Rights Movement.  European American students participating in sit-ins and other protests received mixed responses – discouragement from an administration trying to keep the college out of controversy and varying levels of support from faculty and fellow students.  As with other schools and society at large, major shifts in campus culture occurred through the 1960s decade.  While the campus was sometimes unrecognizable from a decade earlier, true transformation was still needed in the area of anti-racism.

-Gwen Gosney Erickson 
Librarian and College Archivist, Friends Historical Collection, Guilford College


1 See Peck Family Papers for accounts of the anti-slavery climate at New Garden in the late 1830s.  Unless otherwise stated, all references available in the Friends Historical Collection, Hege Library.

2 “Niggers here in full force,” states an account of a minstrel show in The Guilfordian (April 1917).  Minstrel shows were still be reported almost forty years later in The Guilfordian (December 1953).

3 An article in the 1931 yearbook, The Quaker, lampoons dining hall staff for their weight gain, “when they came here not one of these darkies were more than normal weight.”

4 Guilford College Bulletin, 1954.

5Joseph Cox to Robert Frazier, July 8, 1958, Board of Trustees Correspondence.

6 North Carolina Yearly Meeting Minutes, 1951, 47.

7 Greensboro Daily News, 1953.

8 Guilford College Faculty Report, 1956.  “The committee definitely believes that in discussions of the duties of the Christian college, the emphasis should be placed on those duties as they relate to all groups, and not merely as they relate to the Negro. We feel that it is a mistake to consider any dramatic or sensational coup, which might well produce undesirable results. We believe that the college should join other groups in natural as contrasted with artificial or manufactured situations. For example, the committee deems it generally inadvisable at this time to arrange for or engage in competitive contests with teams of other races.
We believe it would be detrimental, however to force upon the constituency of our sponsoring body and the community in which we are situated any inter group or interracial policies for which they do not seem prepared.”

9 Faculty Meeting Minutes, March 16, 1959, April 13, 1959, and September 16, 1961.

10 Faculty Meeting Minutes, April 30, 1942.

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