Digging for Higher Insights

February 15, 2021
Photo of author, Eddie R. Cole
Author, Eddie R. Cole

For Dr. Eddie R. Cole, the past can contribute to conversations in the present. In his new book, The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Struggle for Black Freedom (Princeton 2020), Cole maps the role of college presidents in shaping national conversations around racial equity in the mid-century. “As opposed to previous histories that have rightfully focused on the student activists, my book focuses on the messages these students regularly heard from college presidents,” Cole explains. This includes messages from UW-Madison administrators.

Cole found this work has meant asking difficult questions – not only of previous administrators but of current university administrators as well. The Campus Color Line’s focus on university presidents of the past touches on a number of issues still crucially important to the campus community today. Student protest movements, housing discrimination, controversial campus speakers, and efforts to diversify the student body were just as much of concern to students in the past as they are in 2021. Today, as universities face growing calls to fight for racial justice, amidst the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cole’s book highlights how society’s most pressing social issues are often intertwined with higher education. His work provides critical historical insights and asks us to reflect on how we can understand this history today. He says several university administrators have already reached out to him, hoping to discuss his book further – a trend he hopes will continue.

Cole made use of a research grant from the Friends of the Libraries to explore the UW Archives. Spending weeks on the fourth floor of Steenbock Library, Cole researched the University’s extensive administrative files, which include a trove of documents and correspondence. Weaving together bureaucratic papers, newspaper articles, press releases, and alumni correspondence, Cole situates a close examination of UW-Madison and other colleges and universities within the broader cultural context of civil rights efforts during the Black Freedom Movement. One of the takeaways? Wisconsin administrators often failed to ask themselves why they were implementing a program and how it would help students of color. Instead, hoping to garner positive press, the University went full steam ahead, announcing programs before they had worked out all the details.

Photo of Director of UW-Madison's Public History Project, Kacie Lucchini Butcher
Kacie Lucchini Butcher

These insights have been particularly useful for Kacie Lucchini Butcher, the Director of UW-Madison’s Public History Project, and her team of student researchers. The Project is a multi-year effort to uncover and give voice to histories of exclusion and resistance at the University. “Books like The Campus Color Line give us access to high-quality scholarly work focused on the University,” remarks Butcher, “which frees us up to broaden our research topics and make connections to other lesser researched histories across campus.”

UW-Madison Archives
Photo taken by Cole at UW-Madison Archives

Archival research is never easy, but this type of archival work can be particularly challenging. Administrative files are some of the most extensive, containing what can feel like an endless stream of information. University alumni were particularly verbose, providing an excess of written letters commenting on social issues pertaining to their college experiences. Beyond the immense number of archival materials, the archives can also be difficult to navigate as every institutional archive is organized differently. “It took me some time to understand UW’s system,” Cole recalls. But he believes the UW Archives were critical to his book: “Not many other universities have as many archival materials related to my study of college presidents and student civil rights unrest nationally.” Overall, Cole says he enjoyed his time in the UW Archives, particularly how intimate the archival space is, where patrons can be mere feet away from archival materials. “It made for some great photos,” he remarked with a smile.

The UW-Madison Public History Project and the Friends of the Libraries hosted Dr. Eddie R. Cole on March 4 to discuss his book, The Campus Color Line, in conversation with Kacie Lucchini Butcher, the UW-Madison Public History Project Director.

Article submitted by Kacie Lucchini Butcher, PHP Director

A recording of the event is available via YouTube.