Kaplan University Michigan

Oakley C. Johnson headshotIt began at the lunch hour one day in the fall of 1925, a time when there were perhaps 60 black students out of 10, 000 at the University of Michigan.

That day an African-American student named Lenoir Bertrice Smith had only a short break between classes near the Diag. There was no time to run home for lunch, and she hadn’t brought anything to eat. So she and a white friend, Edith Kaplan, went into a restaurant by Nickels Arcade and sat down for a quick bite.

They waited.

Finally a bus boy came to their table and set a pile of dirty dishes on the table between them.

Smith looked at the dishes, then rose from her seat.

Before arriving at U-M, Kaplan had never spent time with black people, so it took her a moment to understand what was happening. Then she looked at Smith, and “trembled with rage when I saw her face, ” Kaplan recalled long afterward, “and I knew that the dirty dishes had not been accidental.”

“Correct, cold, and unsympathetic”

Portrait of Lenoir Bertrice SmithThe two women went to see Oakley Johnson, a young instructor in the Department of Rhetoric. Smith was enrolled in Johnson’s class and knew he was sympathetic to the situation of black students. The women asked him what might be done.

Johnson took them to see John R. Effinger, dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. They hoped Effinger might bring the University’s influence to bear on Ann Arbor restaurant owners who refused service to African-American students.

According to Johnson, Effinger’s response was “correct, cold, and unsympathetic.”

“Why, I’m very sorry about this, ” Johnson recalled Effinger saying, “but, you know, the University has no control over the businessmen of the city. Our domain ends at the edge of the campus. We can’t do anything at all.”

“But can’t you express the University’s desire that its students be treated properly?” Johnson implored. “After all, they’re students here, regardless of color.”

“No, ” Effinger said. “My grandfather owned slaves in Virginia, but you mustn’t think I’m prejudiced. I would do something for you if I could.”

“He seemed to think we were demented, ” Johnson recalled.

So the students and Johnson decided to do something for themselves. They recruited other students — mostly African-Americans but also a number of whites – and declared themselves the Negro-Caucasian Club of the University of Michigan. It may have been the first such group on any American college campus.

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