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Smith Libraries Exhibits

Carrie Lee

Carrie E. Lee, Smith College Class of 1917, c1917.


One of the darker moments in the history of Smith College was the treatment of Carrie Lee, a member of the Class of 1917. Lee applied for admission to Smith for the fall 1913 semester and, like all new students, she sought housing on campus. Lee corresponded with Ada Comstock, the new Dean of the College, in July to secure a room. Never mentioning that she was an African American (and why should she?), Lee accepted housing in Tyler House Annex, Room 3.

When Lee arrived on campus in mid-September she was not permitted to room in Tyler House Annex. Her roommate, a young white woman from Tennessee, complained about sharing a room with an African American student. Efforts to secure housing off-campus proved unfruitful.

Lee's father wrote an impassioned letter to President Marion LeRoy Burton, the second president of the College, asking for an explanation:

"Sir--After my daughter Carrie E.S. Lee had been assigned to a room on the campus at Smith she was not permitted to occupy it on account of her color. The College is in Massachusetts but its policy is dictated by the Southland! I am not disposed to submit to injustice without a protest. You and your Trustees can right the wrong done to my daughter in the only way it should be righted by living up to your part of the contract as she is willing to live up to hers. She can only secure board near to school in the capacity of servant. When Smith sets the example can you wonder if house matrons follow suit? Carrie is at Miss Caverno's now [Julia Caverno, Professor of Greek] but cannot expect to remain there. Will Smith College live up to its contract, or are you willling the world should know that a Negro girl cannot get justice there and that policy, not justice, is the College motto. Very respectfully yours, Charles Cranston Lee."

By the end of September, Otelia Cromwell, Class of 1900, entered the discussion with a letter to President Burton. In that letter she also asked that the College, through Burton, live up to the obligation to house Lee.

Burton's response to both Lee's father and Cromwell were far from encouraging. He absolved himself from making any decision and firmly placed the burden on the Board of Trustees.

After her rebuff by the College in mid-September, Carrie Lee's case came to the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In mid-October members of the NAACP visited campus in order to persuade Burton and the Trustees to admit Lee and house her on campus. Burton remained steadfast that this was a matter for the Trustees to decide upon at their October meeting. At that meeting the Board held "a protracted to the 'negro problem' in our College; and the trustees declined to pass any vote excluding colored students." Carrie Lee was assigned a room in Albright House where she lived her entire four years at Smith.

Despite her inauspicious welcome to Smith, Lee describes Smith, in a 1915 letter to a family friend, as "the biggest, freshest, freest and most inspiring place I have yet known, and she could never do anything to me that would make me forget what she has made me think, feel and observe in the past two years."