Exclusion did not deter her
In 1941, budding student activist Jean Emily Fairfax responded to the war in Europe by chairing “Starvation Day” on the University of Michigan campus. She encouraged fellow students to donate the cost of a meal to aid international refugees.
At U-M’s two-day Spring Parley, Fairfax presented a pacifist perspective under the theme “The Student Looks at War and Peace.” The event, according to The Michigan Daily, was designed to “stimulate individual thought” and featured faculty and student panel discussions.
Even as a first-year student in 1937, the young scholar distinguished herself when she earned membership in the national freshman honor society, Alpha Lambda Delta.
But despite her contributions to academics and student life at Michigan, Fairfax encountered a system of segregated housing that required her to live off campus. Exclusion did not deter her, however, and Fairfax’s lived experience at U-M is more than a narrative about discrimination.
The personal and academic success of Fairfax and many others are chronicled in stories and documents at the Bentley Historical Library — all as part of the library’s long-term project on the history of African Americans at the University of Michigan.
“This project begins, as it should, with the lives of African American students at the University, and we are calling this website, appropriately, the African American Student Project,” says Angela Dillard, the Richard A. Meisler Collegiate Professor of Afroamerican & African Studies and a member of the executive committee of the Bentley Historical Library.
The website’s centerpiece is a database that lists the names and years of attendance of every African American student who enrolled at the University between 1853-1956. The database features more than 3,295 entries, which may include each student’s hometown, local addresses, and membership in fraternities and sororities, as well as relatives who attended U-M, revealing some significant family legacies. Researchers consider this a first installment of the database and intend to supplement the content as more information becomes available.
“For most of the University’s history, African American students’ experiences were a combination of institutional barriers and the determination to overcome them,” says Dillard. “The website gives context for this by providing data while also showing photos, stories, maps, and more.”
The site includes an interactive map that basically illustrates the history of housing segregation. It shows the off-campus residential pattern for students like Fairfax (who secured lodging with some notably distinctive hosts). First, she lived at 622 S. Ashley St. in the home of Savonia L. Carson, former executive secretary of the Dunbar Center, a social services organization for Ann Arbor’s African American community. As a sophomore, she lived in a boarding house at 132 Hill St., managed by African American musician Levi Bates and his wife, Lena. And the following year, she moved to the University-owned house for “colored women” at 1102 E. Ann St.
The Bentley site also features stories, autobiographies, and biographies about some of the remarkable African American students who attended the University and the diverse nature of their experiences. In Fairfax’s case, academic honors abounded. She was one of only 27 sophomores selected to the prestigious honors program. The scholastic honorary society Phi Kappa Phi selected her as a junior, capped by membership in Phi Beta Kappa.
Outside the classroom, Fairfax pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, a sorority established in 1908 by African American women at Howard University. She joined the Congregational Student Fellowship and was active in the Student Religious Association. A talented singer, she also joined the Choral Union.
But the alumna’s longest-lasting legacy came in direct response to the housing discrimination she encountered. Fairfax was intrigued by the cooperative housing movement emerging on campus in the 1930s. She was instrumental in establishing the Lester House cooperative at 909 E. University Ave. Named for British pacifist Muriel Lester, the residence was the first interracial house for women on campus.
Historical records are ‘sadly rare’
“What we have discovered is that it was African American students, their organizations, the local community, and African American alumni who carved out lives for themselves on this campus, often with no help and with opposition from the University itself,” says Terrence McDonald, director of the Bentley Historical Library. “This was an important endeavor for the Bentley because historical records of African American students, their living situations, their organizations, and their overall experiences on this campus are sadly rare.”
The Bentley invites the public to use the database and to provide more complete information or correct errors through a web form. “This is a long-term project that is still in an early phase,” McDonald says. “We will need help from the public to make this data as robust as possible, and to add additional archival sources on the African American experience to our holdings.”
As for the legacy of Jean Emily Fairfax, Lester House continues within the Inter-Cooperative Council (now located at 900 Oakland Ave.). In September 2020, Professor Celeste Watkins-Hayes honored Fairfax’s social justice career by naming her collegiate professorship the Jean E. Fairfax Collegiate Professorship of Public Policy.
Lead image: Residents of Lester House Co-op at 909 E. University, circa 1940. Jean Fairfax is front, far right. (Image: U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)
Julie Freedman Kliever - 1984
I lived in Stevens Co-op House at 816 S. Forest in the early 1980’s (which sadly burned to the ground in later years) and ate meals at Lester House. I am so proud of the Inter Cooperative Council’s heritage as the first interracial house for women on campus.
larry carter - August 1964 - May 1969 (BSME)
I would love to thank Carsello Doyle, my freshman roommate (East Quad – 1964-65), Carsello was an African American student from Birmingham AL and a senior that year. He graduated in 1965 (BSEE). Carsello was a wonderful friend that year and tremendously influential in my development and maturity. I would like to express my thanks to him.
Larry Carter, Colonel USAF, Ret.
Susan Wineberg - 1967,1971,1975
Can you provide a link to the website please. I’m looking and I can’t find it. Thanks! Great article..
Chris Campbell - 1972 Rackham, 1975 Law
The article notes that residential segregation and other discriminatory practices were regarded as perfectly normal and acceptable at the time, even at an intellectual center of learning. We should all remember this and bring it to mind when we observe current practices that are perfectly normal and acceptable but present an element of unfairness. We’re all beneficiaries when we remove irrational barriers.
Richard smith - 1973
I applaud the outstanding and diligent work of the UM Bentley Library Staff! I is important that we tell the story of these talented “leaders and best” who achieved against incredible odds.
For example: Born in bondage in Marion, North Carolina, after the Civil War, Martin and Harriet Carson with their 8 children, would promptly move north. He was employed at the University of Michigan as a skilled gardener in the 1890s;
Their son Dr. Simeon Carson (an early member of Alpha Phi Alpha) who in 1903 at age 21 was an Honors graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School; later he proudly stated: “My father was the first to develop fine green lawns, trees and gardens on the campus of the University of Michigan.”
In 1908 he would move to Washington DC as assistant Chief of Surgery at Howard University’s Freedmen Hospital, He would later established the Historic Private Carson Hospital. Dr. & Mrs. Carson’s daughter, Carol would graduate the University of Michigan with Phi Beta Kappa Honors in 1928, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority at UM.
– Richard E. Smith, MD UM 73
John Hardin - 1989, Ph.D. Rackham
Missing from this database is Henry Fitzbutler, the first black graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School in 1872. See “Henry Fitzbutler: Medical School’s First Black Graduate,” Michigan Alumnus (Ann Arbor, MI), vol. 80 (December 1973): 4, 29. For an additional discussion on Fitzbutler’s life see the entry “Henry Fitzbutler” in G. Smith, K. McDaniel and J. Hardin, eds. The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia (Lexington: 2015), p. 182. In 1886, Fitzbutler, along with five black and white physicians, opened the Louisville National Medical College. It provided medical education to 175 students in Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee until its closure in 1912. In 1879, he established the Ohio Falls Express, a weekly political activist newspaper. It ceased publication in 1904.
Brian Williams - 1990
Thank you for highlighting Dr. Fitzbutler and his significant legacy. Fitzbutler appears in the database as William Henry Fitzbutler. In 2016, U-M Medical students honored him by naming one of the houses in the M-Home learning community the Dr. William Henry Fitzbutler House.
John Hardin - 1989, Ph.D. Rackham
Thanks for your correction. Most of the sources here did not include the William in Dr. FitzButler’s name. Duly noted for the correction.
Pamela Davis - Date not handy.
My Father name was: Calvin Williams, MD
I believe the Calvin and Annette Williams Endowment is still alive and well there and my father felt strongly about leaving it behind for medical students. I will look forward to reading this article in it’s entirety.