COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY'S Teachers College.
by B. Denise Hawkins
Out of times saddled with racial segregation and economic depression were born the dreams of hundreds of African American educators who spent their summers on board trains and buses bound from South Carolina, Washington, DC, Louisiana and other points south, for what they knew was the "mecca of higher education" in the North -- Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City.
For a terminal degree, they left behind families, friends and jobs and took with them a few dollars, good wishes and "the expectation to achieve as much as you could," recalls Dr. Carroll Miller, an 84-year-old Washingtonian who began his graduate work at the Teachers College in 1933.
"Before I left Howard University, I had heard a lot about Teachers College. It was a place where African Americans, then colored folks and Negroes, were welcome, and discriminatory practices were at a minimum," says Miller, who is active in the college's Washington, DC, alumni chapter.
By the time Dr. Paul P. Cooke left the nation's capital for Columbia, segregation had ended. But for many of his African American classmates from other Southern states, Teachers College was one of the few graduate schools open to Blacks.
"Instead of admitting Black students, most Southern states decided to send them out of state and have other schools in the North educate them. Politically, they were willing to spend all this money rather than open up their universities to all students," says Cooke, a former president of the District of Columbia Teachers College.
Morality and equal access did not drive the decision of most Southern states, argues Dr. Charles I. Rankin, a professor of education at Kansas State University and director of the Mid-west Desegregation Assistance Center, also at the university.
"The reality of that era of segregation was that you had historically Black colleges and universities in the South, but they didn't have graduate programs. In order for them to maintain accreditation, they had to have a certain number of Blacks with terminal degrees on staff.
"As a result, Southern states paid other universities and colleges to educate Blacks, and those students were then recycled back into the HBCUs," explains Rankin. "That process was a way to keep the government heat off of them, yet allow them to say that they were doing their part to educate Blacks."
Black Meets White
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, nearly 225 African American students were enrolled at Teachers College during the academic year, and 500 to 600 during the summer sessions.
"I had a great many of them [African Americans] for students," recalls Dr. Alice Mile, a retired white professor who taught elementary school curriculum in the 1940s. "When they came here they finally felt like they had a place that welcomed them and a faculty that cared about them."
In the 1940s, Dr. Mabel Carney, a white professor and advisor to the interracial Negro Education Club, seized the opportunity to stir the college's growing melting pot of Southern whites and Blacks and international students who flocked to the campus, especially during the summer sessions.
While the notion of equal access to higher education remained but a pipe dream where many African American students hailed from, in Carney's eyes, education at Teachers College was a means of unifying the races.
"...Southern white and Southern colored meet here for the first time on common ground and with equal rank," Carney wrote in a lengthy, 1942 report to the dean, administrators and faculty at the college titled "Negro Education and Race Relations."
"So great still, it may be noted in passing, are the barriers between colored and white in the South that it is not uncommon for classroom contacts and student activities in Teachers College to bring together Negro and white residents of the same locality working in the same profession, both supposedly for the common good, yet leaders who have never met nor even heard of each other in their home community! …