Anniversaries at Dartmouth

by Sam Forstner | 10/2/14 8:05pm


When this article is published, the Class of 2018 will have been on campus for 25 days. To put that in broader historical perspective, if Dartmouth College’s span of existence was one day, the ’18s have been here not much more than 20 minutes.

With the relative insignificance of my tenure at the College in mind, I set out to look back on the “day,” and all that has happened on the very ground upon which we all stand.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Some of you might wonder why this matters when America wasn’t yet involved in the war. Students at the time seem to agree with you — 1914 issues of The Dartmouth devoted much more space to tobacco ads and football coverage than to any sort of international news. But the impact of the start of this horrific and global conflict was felt even here in the wilderness of Hanover.

Then-College President Ernest Fox Nichols spoke almost exactly 100 years ago at Webster Hall, opening a chapel service and sharing his thoughts on the Great War with the student body.

“It is indeed a dark and sobering day when several millions of young men not far from your own years and experience, those who are the world’s greatest hope for years to come, face each other in battle with no thought but to slay, to destroy, to bring to naught the richer promise of a brighter day,” he said. “Thank God our nation, from her position, can, through wisdom, guarded speech and act and righteousness toward all, escape ill-will and chance of future bloodshed — but other consequences of the storm we cannot, must not, shirk.”

Although the group of students in the audience that day didn’t look much like those here today (although judging by advertisements, flannel shirts were still just as hot of a commodity), it’s easy to imagine what it would feel like to be a college student during the war. Looking back now, neither President Nichols nor the students sitting in the room had any idea how close to home this “foreign” issue would soon become.

More than 1,000 Dartmouth students enlisted in 1917 when the U.S. entered the war, and drills commenced immediately in Alumni Gym. Students even built trenches outside Hanover to fight simulation battles, and professors taught war preparation classes.

Outwardly perhaps, the casual observer wouldn’t notice that many differences between Dartmouth then and now. Plenty of buildings from that era still stand today. In fact, the construction of Robinson Hall would have just been wrapping up 100 years ago today, making this the 100th anniversary of Robo. It’s safe to say Hanover hasn’t evolved into a gargantuan metropolis since then, and one can still see the presence of uncorrupted nature in the Upper Valley stepping outside of Dartmouth, to the rivers, brooks and trails that compose our pristine wilderness.

So next time you toss a Frisbee or just chill on the green outside Webster Hall, home of the Rauner Special Collections Library, take a moment to consider the history that has come before our time at the College.

Before Nichols gave his speech, 130 years before to be exact, one of the College’s most iconic buildings was constructed — Dartmouth Hall. This year would mark the 230th anniversary of the beautiful white colonial building, if the original hadn’t burned down in 1904. More recently, on the steps of the rebuilt hall in 1964, another large group gathered in response to the most pressing issue of the time.

This was not an organized, administrative event — it was a civil rights rally. Dartmouth came together to fight against injustice going on right then and there, both on this very campus and in the greater U.S.

“If you want to be a patriot today, you must be brave and love justice more than order,” keynote speaker Noel Day ’53 said.

The rally was a culmination of “Freedom Week,” a week to promote awareness sponsored by the Upper Valley chapter of the NAACP. With the passing of the Civil Rights Act later that year, Dartmouth solidified its place on the forefront of social issues during this momentous time for American society.

Despite the Dartmouth community’s attempt to correct the social wrongs of its past, 25 years later, all was not resolved — not even close. On the exact day that the Berlin Wall fell in Europe, it was clear walls of another sort were still intact at the College.

An article in The Dartmouth from November 9, 1989, titled “Ivy League Schools Face ‘Willful Segregation,’” detailed the continued presence of racial and ethnic sorting on college campuses.

“There are definitely tables where if a black person sat down he’d feel out of place and definitely tables where if a white person sat down he’d feel out of place,” then-Brown student Lilly Hayden said at the time.

In an interview I conducted to get a little perspective, Catherine Duwan ’89 articulated a similar sentiment about Dartmouth at the time, blaming the choices of students rather than the institution as a whole.

“I didn’t see [self-segregation] as a negative thing, I saw it as a positive thing,” she said. “If you choose to do so, the availability is there. The same way as if someone wanted to live somewhere where you only spoke French all the time or only cooked vegan food.”

And although the article offered various perspectives, some of which indicated that this separation was a non-issue, it was clear that the legal precedent set 25 years earlier was not a cure-all.

The other day I went to the Hood Museum of Art to see its latest featured exhibit, “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties.” It was impossible to look past the first room’s centerpiece, which appeared anything but welcoming: a wooden door, with a window marked “Admissions Office.” Below the words are two pitch-black handprints, a rough outline of a face and of a torso, conveying a person desperately pressing up against the door but being denied entry. This “greeter” sets the exhibit’s tone. Besides the fascinating display, the exhibit also inspires thought about current racist structures. And though 50 years have passed since the Civil Rights Act, and another 25 since the publication of “Willful Segregation,” nobody could argue that racism no longer impacts everyone in our country or on this campus.

“It’s a legacy that although the world as changed so much, we still have so many of the same problems, but the battle and the way of dealing with them has changed immensely,” Hood visitor services representative Christopher Warren said. “It’s very interesting to see how everyone sees it differently.”

One section of the exhibit asks guests to leave their thoughts on sticky notes labeled “What does your activism look like?” and “How is this History Reflected in Your Life.”

One such note read, in part, “I can’t believe we have to re-fight the ’60s struggle again. Privilege is invisible to those who have it. We white people who believed racism was conquered have to move more out of our comfort zone and realize that we still have work to do.”

Looking back through the lens of today on issues that seem so far in the past satisfies more than just a nostalgic need to connect to those who have come before us. The goal is not to point out specific issues or further an agenda. I know that all of these anniversaries are just numbers, a few that align with 2014, but it’s important to reflect on what happened at each of these times and make comparisons to where we are now. These reflections generate awareness and engagement with issues just as relevant today as they were then. We cannot undervalue the importance of being informed in making progress and inciting positive change.

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