Wednesday, December 12, 2018
The Profile

The Problematic History that Haunts Agnes Scott

Ginny Hudgins

Beyond Agnes News Editor

If Agnes Scott College’s mission statement reflected the college’s past, the new mission would be “Committed to educating women to think deeply, live honorably, and engage the intellectual and social challenges of our time…if you are White, Christian, and straight.”

The history of the institution would give those prospective students ogling the diversity of the admissions pamphlets and student organizations something to stop and think about. With the help of History 290 and McCain library, the history of Agnes Scott College unfolds, revealing what some would call problematic historical practices.

In respect to queerness and sexual diversity on campus, Agnes Scott historically was a very hostile place toward students who did not identify as heterosexual. When the college discovered Katherine Killingworth, a student of the class of 1968, was in a romantic relationship with another female student, the college demanded that she leave the school. Refusing to leave campus, she compromised with the college and agreed to attend therapy sessions for the rest of her time there. She was institutionalized after graduation on request from the college.

Discrimination against Black students is endemic to the history of Agnes Scott as well, clear through the resistance of the community to finally accept the first Black student in 1965.

Agnes Scott College did not even receive an application from a Black student until late 1961 and the first Black student did not graduate until Edna Lowe in 1971. Official integration was not proclaimed until 1965 by the college, coming after the peaceful example of Georgia Tech’s admittance to three Black applicants.

While a Black student did apply in 1961, the admission committee alleged the necessity of preparing the community for the decision. It was said by the president of the college at the time, Dr. Wallace Alston, that it was the faculty’s obligation to inform the student and alumni community on their decision, therefore Black applicants would not be accepted for the 1962-1963 school year. This student was officially denied admission for an “incomplete application.”

It was argued by Ethel Gilmour in the Agnes Scott News of 1962 that denying institutional integration would directly conflict with the college’s mission to educate their students honorably if their practices upheld racism and prejudice. This was only one of many perspectives given by students and alumnae at the time. Many believed that integration would lead to an economic downturn for the college with the potential loss of their conservative Southern backers, while others firmly believed that integration paralleled the welcoming, Christian morals of the college.

In 1965, the first Black student admitted, Gay Johnson, came to Agnes Scott as a part of a civil rights campaign aiming to integrating Atlanta and other Southern colleges. It was clear from before she stepped foot on campus that she would not be a welcome member of the community. She received hate mail weeks before she arrived, as well as a letter from Alston stating that she would not have a roommate because they could not allow the White students to have a Black roommate. Johnson describes her two years at Agnes Scott to be a “profoundly lonely experience,” and negative feelings coming from both students and faculty affected her time at the college.

Religious discrimination has also played a major role in the college’s history. A strong Protestant background was assumed amongst the faculty and student body.

Agnes Scott’s affiliation with the Presbyterian Church has had much historical importance, especially with the integration of the college heavily influenced by the inspiration of Christian morals. Yet with this strong religious background came an exclusion of those from other religious backgrounds.

Until 1967 the college held a discriminatory hiring policy in stating that any faculty in the running could be refused a job if they were not Protestant Christians. Agnes Scott students protested for the change of the hiring policy to become more accepting of applicants regardless of their religious creed or sect.   

It was not until the mid-1970s that the policy officially changed, yet even into the 1980s, there was residual tension regarding faculty with a background in Judaism.

The history of an institution, especially of higher-education, creates an important context to understand the current innerworkings. This history of Agnes Scott’s discrimination is not exhaustive, and your own research into the college in encouraged. Visit History 290’s website at http://agnesscott.omeka.net/ to learn more.

Edna Lowe ’71 sits for her senior portrait as the first Black student to graduate from Agnes Scott College. Image courtesy Vol. 68, Year 1971 Silhouette yearbook.

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