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Choosing Our History: Changing the Name of Thomas Hall

thomas 2 diallo

College Hall, Photo Courtesy of Carol Lee Diallo ’19. 

As a Haverford student who just started getting used to maneuvering my way around Bryn Mawr’s campus, I was concerned (to say the least) when I learned that there had been a change to one of the building’s names. On the surface, the new name change to “College Hall” from the former name “Thomas Hall” seemed more convenient solely because of how much easier it is to remember. Had the reason behind the name change not been questioned in one of my classes at Bryn Mawr (revolving around capitalism and slavery), it is highly possible I would have graduated two years from now with no awareness of the deep history rooted behind this decision.

The story is alarming on all cylinders; not only because of the reason for the name change in itself, but also because of the information provided regarding the actions taken to enact this change. The original name of “Thomas Hall” was a dedication to Martha Carey Thomas, President of Bryn Mawr College from 1894 to 1922. We must not forget how crucial of a component Thomas was for the development of the college; with high standards of academic rigor and entrance exams as hard as those of Harvard University, and as the President of the National College Women’s Equal Suffrage League, she is considered by many as the school’s most influential president. With that being said, Thomas was very outspoken about her negative views towards Jewish and African American people; she worked to bar Jewish people from entering Bryn Mawr – students and faculty alike. “She went as far as paying for Jessie Redmon Fauset’s – an African American Bryn Mawr applicant – tuition to Cornell to ensure she did not accept the scholarship offered to her at Bryn Mawr” (Azalia Hildago BMC ‘18). While Thomas had a notable impact on opportunities for women in higher education, it is safe to conclude that she was an outspoken bigot and comfortably racist.

A key factor to remember here is that the aim was not to erase Thomas from history and ignore the momentous impact she had on the institution; the aim was to avoid choosing to hide important historical evidence solely in order to sugarcoat how societies are viewed today. Azalia Hildago (Bryn Mawr ‘18), was highly involved in the movement to shed light on the reality of this part of Bryn Mawr’s history, and furthermore, the movement to bring to the spotlight the actual leaders of the mission. She stated the importance of remembering that “when History writes it, it is remembered in a different way…let’s not forget all the steps we have taken to get here”. She went on to explain – with corroboration from many other sources – that it is the students who spearheaded this investigative movement. I find trouble with the fact that although the project had been brewing for awhile, the voice of the students was not enough; it took a weekend of violence in Charlottesville by white supremacists who sought to defend a confederate statue for there to be a realization of the urgency of the subject.

Prior to Charlottesville, two students – Emma Kioko and Grace Pusey – spearheaded the ‘Black at Bryn Mawr’ project. Part of the project included an interactive tour on campus: the tour started at Thomas Hall, explained it’s history, and moved throughout the campus. This was open to the public and a great way to inform people from outside of the community. This action was prompted by students who investigated histories of ‘black help’ at Bryn Mawr, students who started to investigate the history of black students at the institution, and in turn, decided to investigate members of staff and the administration.

Despite generating a large following and instilling the informative dialogue we have today, students have never quite been fully acknowledged for their work with the project. This is not the first time the reputable liberal arts college has been faced with a controversial decision regarding racial prejudices. In 2014, two students living in Radnor, one of the college’s dorms, put up a Confederate flag and drew a Mason-Dixie line; and were said to be “very vocal about their points of view with little to no regard of the community which surrounded them” (Hildago, ‘18). Although they were no longer allowed to live on campus, they were allowed to stay enrolled in classes. The lightheartedness of this ‘punishment’ seems to have prompted a lot of student response and kick-started the movement described above which I see as the driving force behind the name change of Thomas Hall.

Though the Bi-Co’s institutions are considered to be among the most liberal colleges in the country this is not reason to overlook the controversial realities of its history; on the contrary, it should serve as a pivotal example of the importance of knowing an establishment’s foundations to avoid repeating history’s mistakes. The mere fact that something like this could go unnoticed (or more accurately, unaddressed) for so long speaks volumes; it is a clear example of the history we choose to share in the interest of our own comfort, rather than in the interest of transparency. This incident should raise awareness and teach us not only to avoid waiting for a reality check to respond to calls for help, but also to listen closely to the calls for help no matter who they come from.  

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