The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow A Century of Segregation
Jim Crow Stories
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Jim Crow Stories

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Fisk University Student Protests (1925-1927)
Fisk University

At the end of May in 1925, a deeply troubled W.E.B. Du Bois boarded a train to visit Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, his alma mater. He had been disturbed by reports that Fayette McKenzie, the autocratic white president of the university, had instituted a dictatorial rule on campus. Magazines were censored, dating and dancing forbidden, and conversations between male and female students restricted. McKenzie had been seeking a million-dollar endowment from Northern foundations that were sympathetic to his request -- provided that McKenzie suppress any militancy on campus. The foundation wanted black schools to teach their students to accommodate to Jim Crow as Booker T. Washington had preached, and not to challenge it, as Du Bois was suggesting. On June 2, with the president of the university, the trustees, students, and alumni packing the chapel, Du Bois attacked McKenzie. "I have never known an institution whose alumni are more bitter and disgusted with the present situation in this university.

Whites wanted black schools to teach their students to accommodate to Jim Crow as Booker T. Washington had preached and not challenge it, as Du Bois was suggesting.

In Fisk today, discipline is choking freedom, threats are replacing inspiration, iron clad rules, suspicion, tale bearing are almost universal." Du Bois' speech added fuel to the fires of protest that had been burning on campus. In November 1924, the board trustees arrived on campus and were immediately greeted by students chanting anti-McKenzie and pro-Du Bois statements: "Away with the Tsar" and "Down with the Tyrant." The trustees recommended to McKenzie that he make a few minor concessions. McKenzie seemingly agreed then reneged on his promises. Students responded with a brief, but noisy demonstration. The students overturned chapel seats, broke windows all the while keeping up a steady shouting of "Du Bois, Du Bois" and singing "Before I'll be a slave I'll be buried in my grave." McKenzie immediately retaliated by summoning the Nashville police to campus. Eighty policemen armed with riot guns broke down the doors to the men's dormitory, smashed windows, beat and arrested six of the seven students on the list. The students were charged with a
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felony, a crime for which they could be sent to prison. The students were eventually released and left the school. In response the students called a strike that polarized the Nashville community. Du Bois supported the strike. They held fast for eight weeks despite the pressure. When local white banks and the post office no longer would cash their checks, the black community stepped in to the rescue. Despite having the trustees' support, McKenzie's rule was over and he resigned. The victory had repercussions on other black campuses. At Howard University, a confrontation between the white president and the school's black faculty and student body lead to the president's resignation and the appointment of the first black president of Howard.

-- Richard Wormser

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Did you Know ...

Notable Fisk graduates include historian John Hope Franklin, painter Aaron Douglas, and poet Nikki Giovanni.
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