HMRC Thursday: In Which I Am Utterly Astonished

Gobsmacked, really. By this photograph of Rice Provost Carey Croneis with the 1960 Rice commencement speaker, Chancellor Harvie Branscomb of Vanderbilt University:

Some of you may recall that I’ve written a book about the desegregation of the major private universities in the South, including Vanderbilt. So when I looked at the date–June 3, 1960–I understood immediately what was going on in Harvie Branscomb’s world at that particular moment. By any measure it was pretty bad. That spring the Vanderbilt board had insisted that a black graduate student in the Divinity School, James Lawson, be expelled for his role in the Nashville sit-in movement. Lawson was a serious pacifist who had been sentenced to a prison term for refusing induction into the army. That spring he was also serving as the regional director of the Fellowship for Reconciliation. He worked closely with the students who had begun sitting in at lunch counters, advising them on non-violent techniques and generally encouraging their work. His expulsion set off an explosive controversy at Vanderbilt, all of it covered by the national press, which escalated rapidly over the month of May. Only three days before Branscomb spoke at Rice nearly the entire faculty of the Divinity School resigned, and Branscomb was in the midst of intense negotiations with multiple enraged parties while he was in Houston. If you want to know what happened (in excruciating detail) get a copy of my book.

Under the circumstances I’m less surprised that his speech was boring than that he managed to give it at all:


Bonus: Reverend James Lawson’s papers are now at Vanderbilt and there is a scholarship named in his honor.

Extra Bonus: Fresh grass, sprinklers functional. We’ll see.


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8 Responses to HMRC Thursday: In Which I Am Utterly Astonished

  1. marmer01 says:

    Nice to see that the story of the Rev. Mr. Lawson had a happy ending.

  2. Lynne (WRC ‘88) says:

    “The eggheads have come out of hiding and have begun to shed their yolks”? That’s an… unusual turn of phrase.

  3. Galloway Hudson - Wiess '60 says:

    I was among the graduates (the last to graduate from The Rice Institute) in hot and humid Autrey Court that evening and can honestly say that I did not remember who spoke, much less what he said. The next year, when I received my B. S. from Rice U., the ceremony was thankfully back outside. I seem to remember that the speaker was from Tulane and had an odd surname. I suppose Tulane is also in your book, Melissa.

    • Melissa Kean says:

      Yes, indeed Tulane is in my book. Your 1961 commencement speaker would have been Herbert Longenecker, who had only just become president of Tulane. He was a Yankee, a chemist, and the product of an enormous state university (Penn State). He took the reins at Tulane from one of the greatest college presidents I’ve ever come across, Rufus C. Harris. Harris was hobbled by one of the worst university boards I’ve ever seen (and that is truly saying a lot).

      • Galloway Hudson - Wiess '60 says:

        It was indeed an odd surname, but obviously not unforgettable. Please provide details about your book. I have been unable to locate it online.

        • Melissa Kean says:

          Thanks for asking! It’s called “Desegregating Private Higher Education in the South: Duke, Emory, Rice, Tulane and Vanderbilt.” Not the catchiest title but it’s still selling. You can get it in paperback on Amazon.

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