Unite and Conquer

University of Minnesota exhibit displays the historical importance of student activism

Photographer: Laura Beier

Winding through the second and third floors of Anderson Library, I read poster after poster covered with documents, letters, and complaints detailing the racism and anti-Semitism displayed in the actions of multiple administrators at our university. Each was more appalling than the next—African American students being banned from student housing, Jewish students being tracked and spied on, and left-leaning students being called communists. How did we not know for years that this happened at our university?

“A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, and Anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942,” an exhibit on West Bank campus, shines a harsh light on the administrative oppression that clouded the University of Minnesota in the 1930s and 1940s. Our student union is quite literally named after former President Lotus Coffman, who fought for segregation of student housing tooth and nail and excluded African American students from participating in student groups. Nicholson Hall, where the Center for Jewish Studies is housed, is named after the first dean of student affairs, Edward Nicholson, who spied on anti-war student activists (especially those who were Jewish), prohibited liberal student groups, and meticulously kept track of Jewish students enrolled at the U. Hans Luther, an actual Nazi ambassador, visited the U in response to an Olympic boycott in 1935, and university administration was more concerned that year about Langston Hughes’ visit to the university due to his left-wing political affiliations.

Yet through all of these atrocities, student activists stayed strong and fought right back. Student groups held rallies and created petitions, using fact-finding reports and the Minnesota Daily for leverage. Alliances were made across the African American, Jewish, and Farmer-Labor Party communities on campus, and by holding protest after protest, students finally got former President Coffey to eradicate segregated student housing in 1942.

Photographer: Laura Beier

While these hidden aspects of our university’s shameful history are disconcerting and horrifying, it was necessary to reveal them not only to acknowledge our ancestors’ wrongdoings, but also so we can see how important and effective activism is. Through not having anywhere to live on campus, being outright discriminated against at a university that accepted their application but not their skin color or religion, and having their privacy infringed upon, excluded students at the University of Minnesota came together to challenge the oppression they faced. If they hadn’t, who knows how much longer the U would have been on the wrong side of history.

This perseverance and dedication to fighting for what one believes in has been and continues to be the most essential part in creating change. Progress towards equality doesn’t just happen with wishful thinking and the bypasser attitude that everything will turn out okay—it happens when those who care about the state of humanity come together to ensure justice for themselves and those around them.

“A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, and Anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942” is a collection of information that should have been shared a long time ago, and still rings true today. While countless episodes of activism have resulted in immense progress since the ‘30s and ‘40s, systemic inequality is still very much among us.