From the Archives
The year was 1942, and World War II was in full swing. Troops were fighting abroad, and changes were brewing on the home front. The government employed millions during the war-in airfields, shipyards, supply centers, and ammunition plants-and a year prior, President Roosevelt had created the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), which stated that "there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin." Equal rights figured prominently in the country's collective consciousness, and the president was encouraging public dialogue around all issues relating to the war. And in Bronxville, Sarah Lawrence College was doing its part.
Beginning in April of 1942, Sarah Lawrence hosted the United Nationalities Roundtables, a series of seven public conversations about "issues of minorities during wartime." Held over the course of two months, the aim of the roundtables was to bring together people of different nationalities and promote better understanding around issues of ethnic prejudice, particularly "discrimination against Germans, Italians, and other Mediterranean nationalities." The events were attended by community members from across Southern Westchester County as well as SLC students, faculty, and staff.
The idea for the series came from students in a community field work course, who had been discussing the works of Louis Adamic, an American writer with Slavic roots. Like many, Adamic felt that wartime was a time for Americans of all backgrounds to unify, especially in light of Nazi Germany's extremist campaign of racial superiority. Inspired by Adamic's ideas, the students suggested that Sarah Lawrence take this idea out of the classroom and into the community.
The roundtables were facilitated by distinguished academics and political figures, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; Alain Locke, professor of philosophy at Howard University; Ruth Benedict, professor of anthropology at Columbia University and a protégé of Franz Boas; and Alvin Johnson, director of the New School for Social Research.
By all accounts, the roundtables were very successful. About a hundred people attended each session-except the one that featured Mrs. Roosevelt, which drew more than three hundred individuals from across the country. Community members, including representatives of the Italian, Jewish, Russian, Polish, and African American communities, made up about two-thirds of each discussion group.
According to Abby Lester, the College archivist, "The roundtables demonstrate the active role faculty, administrators and students played in issues of diversity and equality for minority groups in the United States, especially in the local community, as early as the 1940s."
The transcripts of the discussions, which are available in the College Archives, reveal an open dialogue on human equality. "The only thing that troubles us and separates us from the rest of the country is fear," said a participant in a discussion on Jews in America, while Dr. Benedict declared, "Democracy's point is: I am a citizen. You do not give it to me. I am born to it, by birthright or citizenship. Nobody in any democracy should fail to analyze this problem to the end."
As a result of the roundtables, the Southern Westchester United Nationalities Coordinating Committee was formed, which put ideas generated at the roundtables into action, including cultural festivals and educational initiatives. Sarah Lawrence faculty conducted further discussion groups on topics proposed by community members, such as American backgrounds, social history, and American literature.
Most importantly, though, the roundtables did exactly what they set out to do: promote discussion among diverse groups within the local community. As one student who attended said, "Through these discussions, we can bring the problems forward, whereas if they are put undercover there is no way in which we can solve them."
-Suzie Guillette MFA '05