Being Black at Penn before Du Bois, image overload, memories of an Annenberg usher, and more.
The Burden Fell on the Students
Dave Zeitlin’s article on Du Bois College House [“House of Resiliency,” Nov|Dec 2022] evoked many memories, including of its predecessor, “The Black House.” Having graduated a year before Du Bois House became a reality, I’d like to reflect on the need for such a space at a university trying to overcome its legacy of racial separation. I came to Penn in 1967 as a naïve southern teenager raised under the rule of Jim Crow. I had never known a white person on a personal basis, only in commercial settings.
I entered Penn as a Negro teenager and left as a Black woman. During those years, the assassination of Dr. King shook the integration-oriented goals of the southern Black freedom movement and Black Power gained immense popularity. The latter inspired many of us to stop trying to accommodate to a white institution with little understanding or respect for who we were, or our lived and historical experiences. It was too much to expect Penn’s all-white, nearly all-male faculty/administration to step up to the awesome challenge of embracing our presence. The burden fell on the students—white and Black teenagers—also products of America’s color line.
My experience at Penn was that white students were okay. They were as awkward and unfamiliar in interracial socializing as I was. Without hostility, we just drew a blank in knowing how to enter into each other’s experiences and find common ground for genuine friendship. Adults were absent. I don’t recall activities or programs designed to guide or even encourage students in this endeavor. So, we mostly stuck to our own tribes.
In his book The Professor and the Pupil, Murali Balaji shares the profoundly simple question Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois put to the NAACP regarding legal efforts to bring about school integration: “What will happen to our children?” What happens when Black children are taught by uncaring white teachers with low expectations for them? There were no white teachers/administrators in my Jim Crow education, so I never experienced the dissonance raised by Robeson and Du Bois until I came to Penn.
I appreciate the two professors, both female and foreign born, who graciously mentored me. But I disappreciate the crude academic racism of two professors, both white and male, that made me feel unwelcome—William Kephart, who lectured that Negroes were responsible for syphilis and Jews for homosexuality; and Igor Kopytoff, who riffed on “the mating habits of Africans.” Without Black faculty to rebuff their crass misconstructions of academic scholarship, all students were disaffirmed.
Chaz Howard’s story of his Du Bois housemates rallying in support when his dad died contrasts with my experience when my grandmother died during my sophomore year. In 1968, there was no space for me to carry my grief to. My closest Black friends had all left town for the weekend, so I just sat alone in the common area of our suite and wept. A Jewish suitemate came and silently sat with me. Then she came up with what she thought was a brilliant solution to my grief: “Hey, let’s smoke a joint together. I’ve got plenty of weed!” I howl today at her offer and still appreciate the sincerity.
On another occasion, this same student reached out from her Jewish faith to connect to me as a Black person. She proudly shared that during their family meal commemorating the Holocaust her father related Black suffering to the Jewish experience. That was a place of common ground, but on our own we teenagers could not build upon that.
What was missing? University administration/faculty and a Philadelphia Black community at great odds with the institution that had stiff-armed it in myriad ways. However, 50-plus years later, I still wonder why Black adults and organizations including churches failed to reach out to Black students at Penn. To be sure, there were some kind and caring individuals, but I more remember the one who taunted us as “Penn n****rs.”
I came from the HBCU-rich territory of Atlanta where education was viewed (perhaps naïvely) as the great equalizer. Southern Black adults were supportive of any Black person, especially youth, striving for education—whether at a local HBCU or a white school. Every Black person I knew of who had studied at Ivy League schools told how the local Black community had been supportive of them. I’m not trying to generalize my Philly experience beyond myself, but other Black students were present when those slurs were given, and we talked about it. I felt alienated not only from Penn but also from the very community that should have been my safe haven. We were teenagers away from home in what sometimes felt like a barren land. No wonder we banded together to form the Black House that morphed into the Du Bois College House.
Reflecting on the Du Bois House of today, I understand those students who may feel dismay at the growing multi-racial presence there. But I strongly encourage them to embrace the change and grow with it. See it as an opportunity for finding common ground that will enrich their university experience and life journey. As my joint-toting friend assured me in 1968, Black suffering is not the only suffering. Likewise, racial alienation is not the only alienation. How apropos that what began as an underfunded outpost of safe gathering for Black students should morph into a statue of liberty for the entire university, a safe haven for others seeking a place to call home. Du Bois House should always carry the banner of the Black experience, but let it also be a gathering place for finding common ground with people outside one’s tribe. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes full participation of all villages and all tribes to raise a university.
Paula Whatley Matabane CW’71, Atlanta
Enough cover photos of M. Elizabeth “Liz” Magill [Sep|Oct and Nov|Dec 2022]! Let’s wait and see what she does with her office.
Michael Brown C’69, Houston
It’s been a long time (18 years) between leadership transitions at Penn, but the magazine’s treatment of President Magill is similar to that given to Amy Gutmann Hon’22, president from 2004–2022; and Judith Rodin CW’66 Hon’04, 1994–2004; as well as the late Sheldon Hackney Hon’93, who served from 1981 to 1993: two cover stories each, one focusing on the new presidents’ biographies and the other on inaugural festivities.
It’s necessary to go back to Martin Meyerson Hon’70 for a truly low-key launch. The Gazette’s story in October 1970 introducing the University’s president from 1970 to 1981 begins, “It was 8:15 on the morning of September 1 when Martin Meyerson arrived at College Hall for the first day of his new job … unlocking the door himself.” Yet he was still on the cover.—Ed.
I Have Been to a Marvelous Party
The article about the Annenberg Center addition [“Gazetteer,” Nov|Dec 2022] and a recent email referring to the Center’s 50th anniversary reminded me of the four years I spent as part of the house staff there during the late 1970s.
The staff was a collection of theater-loving undergrads and grad students who took tickets, escorted patrons to their seats, manned the doors during performances, distributed programs, and made sure the theater emptied effectively. We also stood guard at the stage entrance during intermission, brought handicapped patrons in through the backstage doors, and helped during special events.
We donned black-tie and evening dress to usher at fundraising benefits and galas. I learned to do the Bump and the Hustle backstage at one gala while patrons were dining in the main lobby. Imagine two dozen college kids in all their finery performing the Time Warp from The Rocky Horror Picture Show!
We saw a wide range of theatrical performances, from Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s play Hold Me! to Peter Brook’s avant-garde production of The Ik. I’d grown up with the idea that a play began when the house lights went down, and the curtain rose. But with The Ik, as soon as the house opened an actor stepped out on stage with a conch shell and sat there contemplating it until the house filled and other actors joined him on stage.
When Fernando Arrabal’s play The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria ran in the Zellerbach Theatre, there were two rotating casts. The two-man play was about colonialism, and one cast featured a Black actor and a white one, while the other cast were identical twins. The meaning of the play changed from one cast to the other, though everything else was the same. And only the ushers, who often saw the same play many times, understood the differences.
One year a traveling production of Noel Coward’s Oh, Coward! arrived during spring break, and many of the ushers were gone, so my friend Iris Small C’76 and I worked nearly every performance. By the end of the show we had memorized every song and delighted our returning coworkers with our efforts.
The house staff at Annenberg were mostly unseen and seem to be little remembered in Penn publications. But ushering introduced me to close friends, excellent theater, and the funds to travel. In the words of Noel Coward, “I have been to a marvelous party!”
Neil Plakcy C’79, Hollywood, FL
Civil Discussion Is What’s Needed
The article on “Combatting Abortion Stigma” [“Gazetteer,” Nov|Dec 2022] rightly identifies “the need for ‘a true culture change.’” Space probably did not permit elaboration on what the nature of that change might look like, but I suspect that in keeping with human nature it means many more people sharing the speaker’s viewpoint. To say the nation is seriously divided on abortion is to state the obvious, so simply wishing for more folks on your side just fuels the fire. The “culture” that is needed is one in which, despite the irreconcilable worldview differences that underlie the controversy, people can discuss their positions with civility and look for common grounds on which agreement can be reached and action taken. I am convinced that what can be gained by honest, civil discourse, even without compromising strongly held values, will produce far better outcomes than can be achieved by further escalation of the current acrimony. But that may be more than we are capable of achieving.
Jay Doering ME’65, Royersford, PA
A Small Price to Pay
In “The Texas Tax” [“Expert Opinion,” Nov|Dec 2022], Daniel Garrett and Ivan Ivanov reach the unremarkable conclusion that when the supply of a service decreases, its price increases. According to their studies, new Texas laws increase municipalities’ borrowing costs by excluding banks that follow ESG (environmental, social, and governance) policies from underwriting Texas municipal bonds. The authors conclude this forces municipalities into less-than-optimal bond placement strategies that harm taxpayers.
ESG-friendly research rests not just upon methodology, but upon what one decides to study. This is a case in point. The authors could have studied the financial impact to the excluded banks and explain why bank boards sign off on ESG policies they are not legally required to follow to the detriment of their businesses. It is not just ESG funds that facilitate board adherence to business policies that harm investors. Index funds acquiesce and even embrace these policies. Or perhaps banks cling to their positions because state municipal bond finance is not a core business. This business is more clubby than transactional, which means the bankers who once did this work will land elsewhere. And this raises another question: whether the impact will last or whether it is merely a one-time market disruption.
Texas taxpayers are much more likely to be concerned with forced deindustrialization arising from misguided attacks on the fossil fuel industry. For residents of states where fossil fuels are mission critical, the added interest cost is a small price to pay. And this won’t end with fossil fuels and firearms. Utilities, agriculture, and transportation are next. Wharton, which dances exclusively to the tune of globalist finance, would do well to consider other views.
Creighton Meland W’78, Hinsdale, IL
Alumni Outreach Missing
The article about the appointment of James Husson to head Development and Alumni Relations [“Gazetteer,” Nov|Dec 2022] struck a nerve.
Of course fundraising is a critical element of the University’s activities, and the article recognized this by leading with Mr. Husson’s successful fundraising efforts at Boston College. What was missing, however, and has been missing as far back as I recall, is any kind of outreach to alumni for any reason other than fundraising. Yes, there are reunions, but they too have a fundraising basis. My offers over the years to volunteer my services have been met with courteous lip service, but no follow up. Until Penn wants genuine alumni relationships that do not involve fundraising, please rename the office: Alumni Donations.
Glenn Jacobs W’67, Glen Mills, PA
The Penn Alumni homepage at www.alumni.upenn.edu is a good resource for alumni interested in becoming more involved with Penn (in addition to reading the Gazette!) and offers a range of virtual content and information on volunteer opportunities.—Ed.
I was dismayed to see a typographical error in the second sentence of the article “Sea Stewards” [“Arts,” Nov|Dec 2022]. There is no such word as “devasted.”
Proofreading is a neglected discipline in much web publication. To see this failure in expensive print is fairly appalling.
James Backstrom L’76, Wayne, PA
We apologize for the error.—Ed.
War Crimes Question
I read “The Final Hunt” with interest [“Alumni Profiles,” Nov|Dec 2022]. We must indeed help Ukraine prosecute Russian perpetrators of war crimes against both Ukrainian civilians and soldiers. And if Congress passes the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act this too would be welcome, although one wonders how broad its sweep would be. For example, could Israeli soldiers who participated in the massacres of such Palestinian villages as Tantura and Deir Yassin in 1948 be arrested if they came to the US? Some of them are still alive and living in Israel. See the recent award-winning film Tantura by the Israeli filmmaker Alon Schwarz.
Gary Leiser Gr’76, Sisters, OR
No Mention of Jewish Portraits
I read with interest the article entitled “Fresh Faces” [“Gazetteer,” Sep|Oct 2022]. I think it’s a great idea to have a more diverse set of portraits around Penn’s campus. One of the beautiful things about Penn is the different populations that have and continue to be part of it.
One group that wasn’t mentioned that should be included in these portraits are Jewish men and women. Besides having two Jewish women as past presidents of Penn, we Jews have contributed in so many ways to the institution despite the fact that we are only two percent of the US population. I hope the committee includes this important group of the Penn community.
Judy Lobel C’88, New York
The DP’s First Woman
The Gazette’s obituary for my friend and classmate Sharon Ribner Schlegel CW’64 [“Obituaries,” Nov|Dec 2022] overlooked her landmark contribution to gender equality at Penn. When we entered Penn in 1960, women were barred from participating in many campus activities, including the Daily Pennsylvanian, WXPN, and even the cheerleading squad. Sharon, as a freshman, boldly submitted a movie review to the DP (of Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks), which was published in the spring of 1961—the first female byline in the DP’s 76-year history. When the DP continued to publish her submissions the following year, Sharon was summoned before the student affairs deans and threatened with expulsion from the University if she persisted—an ordeal she recounted in a public letter to the DP, since she had been forbidden to write any more articles.
In our junior year, over the deans’ objections, Sharon became the first female member of the DP staff, and the following year the DP fully integrated women students into its operations.
This transition benefitted not only Penn’s women students but the DP as well. At that time, Penn’s male undergraduates outnumbered the women by more than four to one. In practical terms, this meant that women had to be smarter than men to gain admission. I recall sensing that the DP’s first women were not only smarter than their male colleagues but also tougher and more resourceful as well.
One small example: In 1963, the legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, then serving as director of the US Information Agency, came to Philadelphia to speak first at Convention Hall and then at Penn. After his first speech, Murrow was shielded from reporters by a retinue of aides, but Sharon gained access to the great man by playing the damsel in distress, batting her eyelashes and beseeching Murrow for a ride to Penn. He gallantly assented, and in those few minutes in his limo Sharon got an exclusive interview, a prize that was denied even to grizzled veterans from the Inquirer and Bulletin.
Sharon subsequently became a mainstay of the Trenton Times features staff. Other early DP women also went into journalism and writing—most notably Mary Selman Hadar CW’65, who became editor of the Washington Post’s “Style” section. By contrast, virtually all my male contemporaries viewed the DP not as professional preparation but as a stepping-stone to other careers. (I was the exception.)
Dan Rottenberg C’64, Philadelphia
Ironically, the day after I received the Sep|Oct 2022 Gazette featuring the article “Professional Contrarian” about journalist Dan Rottenberg’s experiences “testing the limits of free speech,” the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) ranked Penn 202nd of 203 colleges in their third annual College Free Speech Rankings. (The University of Chicago ranked first.)
Comparing Dan’s quote, “I get very uncomfortable whenever I’m around people who think they own the truth—because nobody owns the truth” and Penn’s near dead-last ranking under FIRE’s criteria (defending freedom of speech and freedom of association rights of students and faculty members) shows how far the University has veered from Dan’s philosophy.
Richard Conway W’68 WG’77, Gladwyne, PA
The Very Definition of Theocracy
I am writing in response to the letter from Charles G. Kels in the Sep|Oct 2022 Gazette. It is sad that Kels cannot see the major flaw in his defense against evangelical conservatives being considered a “theocratic bogeyman.” To rearrange his own words, a group of like-minded individuals wishing to impose their own religious values and belief systems into the governance of a community is the very definition of a theocracy. Evangelicals are free to exercise local self-governance of their like-minded church community in matters of religion. They are not free to demand that the broader community adhere to their beliefs.
George S.F. Stephans C’76 Gr’82, Arlington, MA
A well developed trans man swimming on the women’s swim team, Biden made a “professor” and coincidently the Penn president made ambassador to Germany and then Biden given a think (Biden think?) tank in D.C. and now a revelation of excessive Communist Chinese donations to Penn.
What’s next? I can’t wait.