In October of 1941, three members of the Interracial Commission visited President Snyder to ask his advice about the problems black students faced in finding adequate housing close to campus. They came with a petition[i] they had circulated demanding racial equality on campus, gathering nearly 800 signatures[ii] and winning the support of Ruth McCarn.[iii] President Snyder suggested that the Commission investigate the problem and submit to him a report on the problem and a recommendation on what could be done about it. They took his advice. On November 6th, the commission sent President Snyder a letter detailing the severity of the problem.[iv]
It was by no means minor. At the time, there were 29 black students in attendance, thirteen male and sixteen female. Of the men, 4 lived at a YMCA on Emerson Street where they lived entirely with working men. The rest of the men lived in apartments on the far west side of Evanston, quite a distance from campus in a neighborhood that is still mostly black. The women had it considerably worse. While 3 came from Evanston families and lived at home, 5 commuted daily from the South Side of Chicago. The letter mentions that those girls “would much rather live on campus if they could find places to stay because school activities such as concerts and theater crews keep them here until late at night and necessitate long trips back to Chicago by elevated and early starts to get back…in the morning.”[v] The 8 additional women lived in various rooming houses in Evanston. One lived at a community center, and the remaining seven were split between two houses 3 blocks apart on Emerson. The only two establishments where these girls were allowed to eat were the student grill in Scott Hall and Hoos’ drug store at Clark and Sherman. According to the letter, most of the girls that boarded in Evanston were too ashamed to show their parents where they were living.[vi]
The Interracial Commission made three proposals on how to rectify the problem. The university could open a residential hall on campus open to female black students that met the same criteria as other residences, they could open a co-operative for women of all races to which any female student could be admitted with parental permission, or they could draw up a list of off-campus housing for black students that the university deems acceptable for students, “as it does for white women.”[vii][viii]
President Snyder forwarded this letter to J.W. Miller, Director of Student Affairs, and Fred Fagg, Dean of Facilities, to investigate the feasibility of these options. Within a week, on November 13th, Miller responded. He said that his staff met on the issue, and found none of the three options feasible. Providing university housing was dismissed as “very difficult” and “not practical,” and Miller says that the University was “not in a position” to assume the financial burden of providing black women with housing. The creation of a list of off-campus housing was deemed difficult because they only knew of one such building, a residence at 816 Emerson where black students already lived. This conclusion appears to be based solely on the meeting on the morning of the 13th, with no further research apparently conducted. Miller goes on to say that the University should talk to the YWCA about some kind of arrangement, as the housing at the YMCA was “satisfactory for Negro men.”[ix] While a letter from two days letter mentions that McCarn was present at the meeting on the 13th[x], it seems unlikely she played much of a role in Miller’s recommendations, based on what we know about her opinions.
Fagg’s office came to a different conclusion. While there are no letters between Snyder and Fagg that have survived, an intraoffice memo from within Fagg’s office lists several residences for black women near campus.[xi] There is no indication that this list was ever released to the public.
[i] The timeline on the petition is unclear. The petition itself is undated, and no mention is made of it in Snyder’s papers on the meeting. However, based on the nature of the petition and the characterization of McCarn in Williamson and Wild’s Northwestern University, evidence points to the petitions as contemporary with the meeting.