Monday, December 28, 2015

Rudolph Renfrow: A Black Life That Mattered

Back in the 1920s, the phrase "black lives matter" had not yet been invented, but Rudolph Renfrow (1907-72) and his fellow students at Hampton Institute might well have applied it to their 1927 protests and strike: although their complaints were not directed at white police officers who killed unarmed black men as the phrase today emphasizes, Hampton's African American students accused the school's white administrators of caving to segregationist sentiments, of tolerating ineffective teachers (many of whom were white and some even members of the KKK), and of demanding from students blind obedience instead of reasoning with them like adults—as though black lives did not matter.  Later, while living in the District of Columbia, Rudolph joined with another group of protesters intent on expanding work opportunities for African Americans.  The New Negro Alliance aimed its protests at white-owned businesses in black neighborhoods that refused to hire black employees.  Here, too, racism had decided that black lives did not matter. Neither of Rudolph's efforts was immediately successful, but he and his collaborators had importantly pioneered a course that their more well-known successors followed decades later to try to bring economic and social equality to African Americans. In these ways, Rudolph Renfrow, like his sisters, lived a life that mattered.
Rudolph Renfrow (3d row, 3d from left), 1927 Hampton Normal Student Protest Committee  (The Crisis 35[Jan 1928]).
Like Alice and Evanel Renfrow, Rudolph Renfrow was born in Red Wing, MN, but grew up and went to school in Grinnell, following his older sisters into South School, then on to Center School and Grinnell High School. But for reasons unknown, at this point Rudolph's schooling took a sharp turn that distinguished him from his siblings: in 1923 he enrolled at the Hampton Institute Academy where he seems to have done very well, completing his studies by specializing in brick-laying, one of the trades that represented well the original ambitions of the school and its founder.
Francis Benjamin Johnston, "Students in a Bricklaying Class, Hampton Institute, Hampton, VA," Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, Lot 11051
It was, therefore, somewhat ironic that Rudolph became part of the committee of students responsible for the 1927 student strike at Hampton. Several of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities  experienced student turmoil in the 1920s, a reflection in part of the coming of age of a new generation of African Americans. According to Raymond Wolters, the difficulties at Hampton arose because "Hampton was no longer a school for docile elementary students but for young men and women who could think for themselves." Protests at Hampton challenged the paternalistic presumptions of the school, the authority of the institution's mostly white officers and trustees, and the way in which Hampton's officials colluded with Virginia's segregationist policies and politics. In this way, Rudolph Renfrow and his fellow protest committee members anticipated the protests and political change of the 1960s.
Robert G. Ogden Auditorium, Hampton Institute (ca. 1923)
The difficulties at Hampton began in February, 1925 with a performance of the Denishawn Dance Troupe at Hampton's Ogden Hall. The two-thousand-seat auditorium was packed, with the result that some late arrivals had to take any seat that was free, without regard to the implicitly segregated seating that had long prevailed for events at Ogden. One late-comer, Mrs. Grace Copeland, wife of the editor of the Newport News Daily Press, was obliged to sit in the "Colored section." Afterwards she complained to her husband, Walter Scott Copeland, and he soon published an editorial condemning Hampton for practicing "social equality between the White and negro race." More than that, Copeland, contextualizing the dance performance, worried about "Beautiful White women in the nude [the dancers, presumably] with nigger youths gazing at them...[while] the flower of our [white] womanhood [was] seated next to Blacks." The inevitable result, Copeland wrote, was "racial amalgamation."

Copeland's editorial obliged the Hampton Principal, Dr. James E. Gregg, to respond. A white man like his predecessors at Hampton, Gregg had done much to transform what had been little more than a boarding school into a genuine college.  Nevertheless, Gregg proved unequal to the challenges that Copeland raised. Attempting to stem Copeland's outrage, Gregg sent the paper a mealy-mouthed reply in which he rejected Copeland's worries about racial amalgamation. But, rather than rebuke Copeland, Gregg attempted to side-step criticism without directly confronting the basic issue. "Hampton's policies," Gregg wrote, "certainly do not encourage social mingling of the races...," although implicitly they did: Hampton had long mixed black and white instructors, and the school's few white students occupied no special place distinct from their African American parallels. In any case, Gregg's remarks were insufficient to appease racists like Copeland and his growing entourage of racial purists. Worse, Gregg's reply had simultaneously offended Hampton students who saw in his comments evidence of caving to racial prejudice.

The increasingly loud public conversation (fueled in part by Copeland's allies, including the "Anglo-Saxon Club" of Virginia) led the Virginia legislature in 1926 to approve the Public Assemblages Act (so-called Massenburg bill), which demanded racial segregation at all public events in the state of Virginia. Gregg and the trustees, noting that the law pertained only to public events, opted to make all performances at Hampton private, admission being limited to Hampton personnel and invited guests. This decision spared Hampton from public debate and its unwanted consequences on white donations, and might, the authorities reasoned, allow the controversy to die down. Gregg and the mostly-white board of trustees saw this course as a middle road, but to many Hampton alumni and students,  Gregg's decision reeked of defeat and concession to racism.
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
W. E. B. Du Bois, who was monitoring developments at Hampton and reporting on them in The Crisis, also took issue with Gregg's approach. Instead of trying to avoid answering Copeland about whether or not Hampton practiced equality among the races, as Gregg had, Du Bois argued that Gregg should have taken the challenge head-on: "Yes, we do practice social equality at Hampton," Du Bois suggested that Gregg should have said. "We always have and we always shall. How else can teacher and taught meet but as equals?" Du Bois contended that the result of such equality was not intermarriage, as Copeland and his Virginia supporters feared, but rather "fine friendships, real knowledge of human souls, high living and high thinking." Du Bois concluded by reminding readers that what he wrote was "what James E. Gregg ought to say to the Daily Press. We are waiting for him to say it," Du Bois wrote, "and, to be perfectly frank, we expect to wait a long, long time." In other words, Du Bois, too, thought that Gregg had lost currency with his constituency, both within and outside the institution.

Consequently, when on October 8, 1927 a seemingly small disagreement broke out on the Hampton campus, the controversy almost immediately exploded into a full-scale student strike. Like many other institutions at the time, including many Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hampton had in place very restrictive rules that implied that Hampton's students were more like children than college-age adults. Regulations allowed school officials to enter student rooms at any time of day or night; required that students "bathe at least twice a week"; prohibited "rowing, sailing, and bicycle riding on Sundays," and so on. Other rules pertained to dating, in the main restricting occasions when men and women students might be alone.  Increasingly, students found these rules demeaning. Therefore, when the projectionists refused to turn off the lights for the October 8 showing of a film on campus—presumably fearing what young men and women might do in the dark—students responded angrily.
Two of the dormitories at Hampton Institute (photo ca. 1922)
The next day was Sunday, and tradition at Hampton had long demanded that at the Sunday evening chapel service students would sing the spirituals that their slave ancestors had sung. But on this Sunday, October 9, 1927, the day after the movie fiasco, the "singing of plantation songs" stopped—not a single student joined the song leader, silently demonstrating student dissatisfaction with campus governance. The song boycott incensed Principal Gregg, who had brought to chapel guests specially for the songs. In retaliation, therefore, Gregg convened a meeting of all students Monday morning, and excoriated them for their misbehavior, demanding that students immediately give evidence of "loyalty and cooperation."

The result was the opposite of what Gregg had hoped. Immediately after being dismissed by Gregg, students gathered in an impromptu mass meeting, elected a committee of student leaders (one of whom was Rudolph Renfrow, recently graduated from the academy), authorized an immediate strike, and prepared a petition to the administration. Most items in the petition repeated earlier complaints about the failings of instructors at Hampton, some of whom had not even graduated from high school, much less college, and many of whom were white and in some cases apparently even members of the Ku Klux Klan. More than that, however, the petition sought for students more of a say in their own lives—about how late they might be permitted to study, for instance—as well as having the administration pay attention to student complaints and recommendations.  To that end, the petition demanded that the administration recognize and consult with the Student Council, and, when denying student requests, "give students reasons why their requests are not granted."
Hampton Strike Committee (The Crisis 34[1927]:346. Check mark indicates Rudolph Renfrow.
Gregg met with the student committee, but refused to take any actions until the strike was ended. Students understood him to say that no students would be punished, but as soon as the strike was called off, Gregg once again summoned all students to a meeting, announced a temporary closing of the school and a series of punishments. According to Edward Graham's study of the strike, all students who had been absent from class on Monday were put on probation (to be removed only after giving evidence "of satisfactory conduct and right spirit"); four members of the strike committee were judged "guilty of insubordination or inciting others to insubordination," and were dismissed immediately; the remaining members of the student committee were suspended for the rest of the year. Furthermore, once school reopened, all returning students were required to sign a pledge: "I hereby promise to do my part to carry on the work of the Institute in loyalty, obedience and cooperation."
Pittsburgh Courier, October 29, 1927
When school resumed on October 25—missing some two hundred students who had begun the year at Hampton—Gregg felt vindicated in his handling of the dispute. In comments to trustees and the public, he emphasized the petty, everyday character of student complaints and behaviors he found disproportionate to the case. In fact, however, race was certainly part of the strike subtext, even if little in the student demands specifically identified race as an issue. As at other HBUCs at the time, African American students increasingly saw in the white leadership of these schools evidence of the same mentality that had created and sustained slavery—an expectation of unquestioning obedience.  At Hampton, for instance, Principal Gregg—a white man who in the events of 1925 had kowtowed to bigots like Walter Copeland—demanded of student activists loyalty and obedience, without any attempt to treat his African American students as equals, like some of the instructors against whom students had lodged protest.
Grinnell Herald, May 24, 1927
Rudolph Renfrow was evidently not among the students most seriously affected by Gregg's penalties—lists of those expelled or suspended do not mention him, even though his name and photograph appeared in The Crisis with the others credited with organizing the strike. Having graduated from the academy as valedictorian in spring 1927, Renfrow might have been immune to Gregg's punishments. Or perhaps there was some other explanation for his name being left off the list of students who were dismissed or suspended. Even without this dramatic punishment, Rudolph's experience at Hampton had clearly primed him for further agitation in behalf of equality for African Americans.

When his name next appears in the records, Rudolph was resident in Washington, D. C. The 1936 city directory identifies him as a salesman for Investors Syndicate (since absorbed by Ameriprise Financial) and living at 143 W Street NW. Sometime before the 1937 directory was published, Rudolph evidently married Lillianette, a beautician (I have not succeeded yet in finding a record of this marriage or of their apparent divorce; Lillianette died in Philadelphia in December, 1991) and moved to 654 Girard Street NW with his bride; the 1940 census had the pair living at 1413 Half Street, an area now under development because of its proximity to the Washington Nationals stadium.

Well before that, Rudolph had cast his lot with another attempt to rectify racial injustice.  In 1934 Addison Scurlock photographed Rudolph with the other young men and women who comprised the New Negro Alliance.  The Alliance had its beginning in 1933 when John Aubrey Davis boycotted a white-owned hamburger shop in a DC black neighborhood. Picketing and boycotting the place, Davis complained about the shop having fired black employees, replacing them with whites. Davis contended that if the business made money off black consumers, it ought to hire black employees. His pickets and protest signs worked, and within two days the black employees were rehired.
Addison Scurlock, "New Negro Alliance" (1934), Archives Center, National Museum of American History, 0618.1/0201 (Rudolph Renfrow in 2nd row, fourth from left)
The success of Davis's actions led to the organization of the New Negro Alliance, headed by a group of mostly middle class African Americans, including the black attorney, Belford Lawson. Using slogans like "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" and "Jobs for Negroes," the alliance mounted campaigns against some of the district's biggest employers, including several grocery chains with numerous outlets throughout the District. But after some early victories, the alliance encountered more resistance, losing campaigns against People's Drug Stores and the Safeway grocery chain. When President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 established the Fair Employment Practices Committee to investigate employment discrimination, the alliance lost its original mandate, and the organization disappeared.
How Rudolph Renfrow became involved with the New Negro Alliance or exactly what role he played there is not clear; careful examination of the Alliance's newspaper, New Negro Opinion, which was not available to me for this blog post, might shed more light on the details. We may imagine that Rudolph's experience at Hampton had encouraged him to see the black-white divide more clearly, and to sense the inequality implicit in white-dominated organizations. But this is little more than a guess. What is clear is that, by working for Investors Syndicate, a business that permitted the poorest Americans to accumulate financial resources through small weekly or monthly investments (instead of demanding large deposits), Rudolph was able to work within and for the black community. Apparently the arrangement proved satisfactory on all sides. Even during the Great Depression, Investors Syndicate did not fail a single client. Meanwhile, Rudolph also seems to have prospered.

After a brief spell in the U.S. Army at the close of World War II (Rudolph enlisted in 1943), Rudolph resumed work for Investors Syndicate, but relocated to New York. In 1960 he married again, this time taking as his wife a 38-year-old Canadian, Evelyn Theobalds. The pair settled in a seaside district (3 Outer Drive) of South Norwalk, CT and there raised a son, Lee, who was still only a boy when Rudolph died suddenly at home, April 27, 1972: he was only 64. A service in his memory was held in Norwalk, but Rudolph's body was then sent back to Grinnell where on May 3, 1972, he was buried next to his parents in Hazelwood Cemetery. His wife and son remained in Norwalk for a couple of years before Evelyn decided to return to British Columbia with her son, taking up residence in Summerland, about 230 miles east of Vancouver.  There she died and was buried late in 1988 in Oliver, B. C.
Rudolph Renfrow's gravestone, Hazelwood Cemetery, Grinnell, IA (2015 photo)
Rudolph Renfrow seems not to have left behind such an obviously outstanding memory as his sisters'. Unlike Helen, he is not remembered by a school named after him, nor does a scholarship bear his name as one bears Evanel's. And, although married and father of a son, he lies with his natal family, half a continent away from his wife and son.

Yet, as I have tried to show, in many ways Rudolph achieved no less than his sisters. As an African American man, he stood up when it was difficult, and resisted racial bigotry and white privilege.  Even while still a youth at Hampton, he opposed imperious white men who tried to bend him to obedience. As a young man in the District of Columbia, Rudolph again stood up with his fellow African Americans, demanding that they get fair treatment from the white men who controlled so many businesses in black neighborhoods. Perhaps like the unnamed correspondent whose report on the events at Hampton W. E. B. Du Bois published in The Crisis, Rudolph could say "Through my own observations and experiences...I have become keenly aware of the state of hypocrisy, racial prejudice, and backwardness into which Hampton has fallen. I myself have suffered keenly and racial antipathy has grown within me." But if Rudolph felt this way, he did not rest content with these feelings, but instead committed himself to trying to change the world he found, and all of us are therefore in his debt.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this piece. It's great to know a bit more of this history. I have to ask, what prompted you to write about my father? - Lee Renfrow