Opening the Door
Sherry Bellamy '74
As I write this essay, the U.S. Supreme Court has just issued its landmark decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, affirming the permissible use of race as a factor when making decisions in admission to educational institutions. For the past few days, I have been engaged in an ongoing friendly debate with my boss and mentor about the meaning of affirmative action and its continuing validity. He objected to my statement that I was a beneficiary of affirmative action-stating unequivocally that my degrees from Swarthmore and Yale Law School made me as well qualified as my peers in our corporation's legal department. I struggled to explain to him that Justice Clarence Thomas' bizarre concern about the purported "stigma" of affirmative action was a reflection of the justice's flawed psyche, and not a reason to abandon a program that works. I feel neither stigma nor concern about benefiting from the only privilege that American society has ever bestowed upon the descendants of African slaves. I recognize that without the affirmative action practiced by Swarthmore College in 1969, I would never have been in a position to achieve what I have been fortunate enough to have achieved.
Swarthmore sought me out. It aggressively looked for students of color and ability who could succeed and thrive in a rigorous academic atmosphere. To the College's great credit, however, it undertook its affirmative action in the same manner as it approaches all major efforts-with care and vigor in equal measure. Swarthmore sought to admit black students in numbers large enough to create a critical mass-not just to give us an opportunity to attend the institution but to ensure that we became a part of the institution. In contrast to so many colleges at which African American students felt alienated and discouraged, I felt at home at Swarthmore from the very first moment I stepped off the train and walked up Magill Walk. I know that my experience was not universal, but neither was it unique among my black classmates and those who followed us.
I did not come from the privileged backgrounds of so many of my classmates. My parents were low-level civil servants, and I was one of seven children reared in a small apartment in Harlem. I had attended an elementary school that I later learned was the poorest funded in the entire New York Archdiocese. I then attended a blue-collar Catholic high school in the Bronx, from which I was the first student to have the audacity to think that I could apply to Swarthmore, much less gain admission. When I told my guidance counselor that my first choice was Swarthmore, she laughed out loud. She advised me that I could "possibly" get into City College and if I truly wanted to go away to school, she would recommend Lincoln University because it was also in Pennsylvania. She made clear to me that-as the anti-affirmative action activists would say-I was not "traditionally" qualified to attend Swarthmore, and I should adjust my sights to something more attainable.
My reaction to that conference was to ignore her and to present to Swarthmore an application that I thought was unassailable. I knew that my high school education was challenging enough and my test scores were high enough, and thus my ambition recognized no boundaries. My application essay discussed the need to revise American-history curricula so that "black history" would not be relegated to the shortest, dreariest month of the year but would be integrated into the whole. I argued that one could not tell the story of America without including the story of the Africans who helped to shape it. In the spring of 1970, I received a letter advising that I had been admitted-early. I delivered that letter to my guidance counselor with no comment but with a very satisfied smirk.
So, when asked to write about the meaning of Swarthmore, I can only say that Swarthmore opened the doors to the rest of my life in ways in which the admissions officer who took a chance on my application could never have envisioned. Without any real understanding of what I was being given, I gained access to an education once reserved for only the privileged few-many of whom, although not all, were already in the upper class of American society. Before the late 1960s, very, very few Swarthmore students were persons of color.
I like to think that I took advantage of the opportunity. Certainly, I devoured information and ideas that had never been discussed in the rigid confines of my elementary and secondary education. I embraced the other activists within S.A.S.S. (the Swarthmore Afro-American Students Society), and I learned as much from my peers as from my professors. In some ways, I was not as engaged with the wider Swarthmore community as I should have been because I was still intimidated by many aspects of that environment. Although I took what Swarthmore offered in smaller bites than I now wish I had, I was well fed nonetheless.
My memories of Swarthmore are almost all positive. Even the challenges had positive outcomes, and the painful experiences were infrequent but invaluable. Some of the memories are universal to my era at the school: the leather chairs at McCabe Library that were the ideal places to curl up and read assigned texts; the spring days on "Parrish Beach," watching Frisbee games; the Clothier Tower chimes, which were the gentlest reminder to hasten to your next class that one could imagine; the joy of reaching into the little brass mailboxes to find letters from home or from friends.
Some of my memories are uniquely from "Black at Swarthmore" and are equally cherished: time spent in the Black Cultural Center library, which was our own special trove of books that really mattered; performing with the Black Dance Ensemble and listening to the Gospel Choir, the two means of artistic expression started by our classes; sitting at the "black tables" at Sharples, which were our odd segregationist stance in the middle of an integrated community; tutoring my little sister, "Peaches," from the Ville, who was part of the black students' Big Sister Program; thriving on the endless friction caused by debates at S.A.S.S. meetings (the details of which I can never recall); and planning the "Ladies Tea" some of us hosted for the Swarthmore housemaids, which was one of the very first integrated events at the Black Cultural Center because not all of the cleaning ladies were black.
That tea caused its own source of friction among two of my more affluent-and thus more "cultured"-black classmates: They debated about the propriety of open finger sandwiches at the hour of 4 o'clock. The result was the closing of the sandwiches, followed by the angry reopening of the sandwiches-followed by my laughing so hysterically that I had to leave the kitchen. In the meantime, our guests, the maids who usually spent their time cleaning up after us, were waiting to be served. I don't remember now whether their sandwiches were served with or without tops, but I do remember that the guests were pleased to be treated as the ladies they were.
I owe much to Swarthmore that I can never repay. It taught me about myself and about the world community in which we all live. It taught me to appreciate the joy of learning and provided me with the tools to succeed. It taught me how to be a leader among my peers and how to advocate for our interests.
I must admit, however, that I still have no idea of the appropriate time of day after which one's sandwiches must be closed.
Sherry Bellamy, a vice president and associate general counsel of Verizon, is responsible for state regulatory matters.