by Bill Carey
Forty years ago this week, a referendum brought the issue of racial integration to the forefront on the Vanderbilt campus. Many students who played key roles in that spring's events went on to remarkable careers, but remember the referendum as if it were last week.
One alum recalls getting an unexpected call from Chancellor Harvie Branscomb's office sometime in March, 1962. The Chancellor would like to see you, the secretary said. But I'm on my way home, the student said. It won't take long, she said. But I'm wearing blue jeans, he said. He won't mind, she said. Just come the way you are.
The student walked to Kirkland Hall and into the Chancellor's Office, where two men were waiting to see him. One was Branscomb, whom the Vanderbilt senior had met before. The other was a tall, distinguished-looking man he had never met.
"I would like you to meet Mr. Harold Sterling Vanderbilt," Branscomb said to the student. "He is the chairman of the Board of Trust. I want you to tell him about how students are reacting to the idea of integration on campus, because I think he needs to know."
The student was a young man from Maryville, Tenn., named Lamar Alexander. At that time, he was the editor of The Vanderbilt Hustler.
From 1953 until 1962, Vanderbilt University had a policy related to admitting African Americans that at the time seemed to Branscomb like a middle-of-the-road approach. In those days, most Southern colleges admitted whites or blacks, but not both. Under Vanderbilt policy, divisions of the University that were unique to the Nashville community (such as the Divinity School and the Law School) would consider blacks for admission. However, programs of the school that had counterparts at other institutions (such as the School of Medicine and the undergraduate schools) would not.
Under the policy, as explained by Branscomb in his 1978 autobiography Purely Academic, "Vanderbilt need not feel obligated to admit Negro students into degree programs already available to them in Nashville, namely at Fisk, Tennessee State and Meharry. Thus we would be able to say with some satisfaction that no Negro youth in our community had been denied because of his race or color an education for which he was qualified."
During his tenure as Chancellor (1946-1963), Branscomb took several steps to transform Vanderbilt from a regional into a national university. Among them were building more dormitories, moving fraternities and sororities on campus and improving the school's graduate programs.
Integrating every division of the school was also something Branscomb wanted to do, but he did not want to disrupt the peace of the campus or alienate alumni, most of which wanted the University to remain all white. Prior to 1962, Branscomb's main claim to fame in terms of race relations was his controversial decision in 1960 to expel divinity student James Lawson for being a leader in Nashville's highly important (but technically illegal) sit-in movement.
In 1962, Branscomb did not want the Lawson affair to be his sole legacy related to race relations. He also knew that he would retire the next year, and he did not want his successor to have to deal with the Board of Trust over the issue of integration. Meanwhile, colleges and universities across the country were beginning to admit blacks, making the issue of Vanderbilt's integration more of a question of when than a question of whether.
In a column in the Jan. 5, 1962, issue of The Hustler, editor Alexander wrote in his weekly column that racial integration was something that the school needed to deal with soon. Calling the current policy of admitting blacks into only certain parts of the school "cowardly," he wrote that it would be "a blot on the university's reputation if the administration continues to avoid this subject."
At about the same time, a student senator from Frankfort, Ky., named John Sergent proposed a measure to the Student Senate that called on the Board of Trust to initiate a program of integrating the undergraduate schools. Whether Alexander's column or Sergent's proposal came first is difficult to determine 40 years later.
"Vanderbilt should realize that the world is in a state of change," Sergent said at the time. "Thirty years from now, it will look back in shame [at its segregationist policy.]"
Today, Sergent says that neither Alexander, Branscomb nor anyone else asked him to make the proposal or talked him into it. He also says he had no idea at the time how significant an action he had taken.
"That may sound strange today, but keep in mind that times were different," he said. "We were generally an apathetic student body when it came to most things, and I didn't realize what a big deal it was."
In the next issue of The Hustler, news editor Roy Blount Jr. praised Sergent's proposal and said it should be passed.
"He [speaking of the American black man] has a right to become a member of the family -- loosely speaking," Blount said in a column. "White supremacy is an outmoded doctrine that deserves to be cast aside."
Not everyone agreed. At the Feb. 7, 1962, meeting of the Student Senate in Alumni Hall, Sergent's measure was rejected 14-13 after a three-hour debate.
"The room was not the only thing hot on a sticky Wednesday night," the account of the meeting in The Hustler said. "Several times during the debate, tempers flared."
However, the senate also passed a measure that put Sergent's proposal before a campus-wide referendum.
One week later, on Feb. 14, 1962, Vanderbilt students voted 862 to 661 to reject Sergent's proposal and not recommend a policy of integration to the board. The turnout -- more than 60 percent of students -- was high given the amount of notice that students had about the election. Students in the College of Arts and Science voted in favor of integration. But by a vote of 239 to 93, engineering students voted against it.
The Hustler lamented the results of the referendum, saying students had taken the position that admission was more about "social standards" than "academic standards." Another person who was distraught by the result was a student senator named Lionel Barrett, who voted for the integration proposal and was quoted in that week's issue of The Hustler as saying, "I'm afraid people just couldn't put aside their personal prejudices."
Sergent, meanwhile, said that the matter was not dead.
"[Integration] will become an increasingly uncomfortable thorn in the flesh of the board members until Vanderbilt's unfair admissions policy is declared incompatible with the institution's expressed devotion to academic excellence," he said.
Students who voted against the measure cited several reasons for their actions. One was a feeling that its passage would disrupt a major fund-raising drive that was then under way.
"This bill will have an effect on alumni giving, and I personally am morally in favor of it, but I am practically against it," said Student Senator Judy Wimberly, who cast the 27th and decisive vote in the senate.
Some students had other reasons.
"I voted against it because I'm a nonconformist," one student said. "I mean, it's just the fad to integrate everywhere else."
Another student, identified only as a freshman, gave a statement that may have summarized the attitudes of thousands of Southern whites at that time. "Oh, I'm for integration all right," the person said. "I just don't want to go to school with them [meaning blacks]."
Many students who voted against integration came to regret doing so, and one such person was a student senator named Martha (Cissy) Kerkow.
"Few of us would relish being asked to explain or defend what we did in college 40 years ago," Kerkow, whose married name is Martha Daughtrey, said recently. "It would be nice to think that, at that time, we were all as progressive and forward-thinking as Johnny Sergent or Lamar Alexander and that we could have grasped the moral issue and taken the high ground.
"The truth is that we were, most of us, mere post-adolescents who were playing at campus politics and, in the end, were the product of our times. I suspect that everyone who voted against the resolution, thinking that we were acting in the University's best interest, would have taken exactly the contrary position had we been asked to vote again five years later."
At first glance, it would appear as if the race referendum thwarted the idea of integrating the campus, but just the opposite was actually true. The referendum had gotten the debate going, and there was no turning back. A few weeks after the referendum, the Graduate Student Council voted 16-0 to recommend open admissions to all divisions of the Graduate School. A few weeks later, the faculty voted 79-27 to recommend a policy of racial integration to the Board of Trust.
On May 6, 1962, a proposal to allow qualified African Americans into all areas of the University came before the Vanderbilt Board of Trust. It was officially proposed by trustee (and Eastman Kodak president) William Vaughn and seconded by trustee (and Nashville attorney) Cecil Sims. The measure was approved, with six of the 34 trustees recording negative votes.
Branscomb announced his retirement a few months later. By the fall of 1964, when nine African-American undergraduates entered the school, Vanderbilt had a new Chancellor named Alexander Heard.
Many of the students who played an active role in the race referendum of 1962 went on to prominent careers. John Sergent is now a professor of medicine and chief medical officer of the Vanderbilt Medical Group. Roy Blount Jr. is a nationally prominent author who resides in New York. Lionel Barrett became one of Nashville's most prominent criminal defense attorneys. Martha "Cissy" Daughtrey is a federal judge in the Sixth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. And Lamar Alexander, of course, served as governor of Tennessee from 1978 until 1986 and U.S. Secretary of Education from 1991 until 1993.