How the Whitney M. Young, Jr. papers came to Columbia

The finding aid to the Whitney M. Young, Jr. papers, 1960-1977 was recently updated and improved. Fittingly, Columbia acquired this civil rights leader’s papers thanks to student activists protesting at the President’s House in the early 1970s.

Margaret B. Young and President William J. McGill at the announcement of the gift to Columbia of her late husband’s papers, February 1975. Photo by Manny Warman, University Photographer. Scan #4960. Office of Public Affairs photograph collection, University Archives.

In the 1979 Columbia magazine article “A ghost in the library and a shout in the street,” University President William J. McGill looked back at his ten years at Columbia and, more specifically, at his time at 60 Morningside Drive or the President’s House. In Nicholas Murray Butler’s days, student protesters marched to the President’s House chanting slogans and some of those students were later expelled from the College. In McGill’s 1970s New York, the political issues were different but the student groups also made their way to the same address. Instead of protesting against Nazi Germany, these activists were fighting for “free day care, opposition to nuclear power, and hostility to the deposed and exiled Shah of Iran.” (12) McGill admitted that his family was so often “serenaded” by protestors that they learned to “switch off the doorbell, pull down the shades, and turn up the stereo.” (12)

One fateful day, McGill had invited Margaret B. Young to lunch at the President’s House, “trying to impress her and to persuade her to give the papers of her late husband, the great civil rights leader, to Columbia.” (13) This is how McGill described how the Young papers came to the Libraries:

“Unexpectedly, a large group of protesting students arrived at the front door following a noon hour peace rally at the Sundial. I was nearly overcome with embarrassment, but Mrs. Young laughingly implored me to forget it. Later she confessed that she made up her mind then and there to deposit Whitney Young’s papers with us because ‘Columbia seemed to be so alive!’”

That lunch at the President’s House was not the first time President McGill and Mrs. Young had met. On March 1, 1971, McGill wrote to Whitney M. Young, Jr. inviting him to accept an honorary degree. Young replied March 8 that he would attend commencement exercises to accept the degree. Unfortunately, Young died the next day in Lagos, Nigeria. And so, at 1971 Commencement, for the first time ever Columbia granted an honorary degree posthumously, which was accepted by Mrs. Young.

The Whitney M. Young, Jr. papers were presented to the University in February 1975. The RBML also holds the Margaret B. Young papers, the National Urban League records and the Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Foundation records.

“The Papers of the late Whitney M. Young Jr. have been presented to Columbia University by his widow, Mrs. Margaret Young; they include this photograph of Mr. Young (shown at the far right) with Jackie Robinson (left) and Chief Justice Earl Warren (center).” Press release, February 25, 1975. Scan 4959. Office of Public Affairs photograph collection, University Archives.

McGill, William J. “A ghost in the library and a shout in the street.” Columbia, Winter 1979, 9-15.