Tag Archives: Columbia University

New Collection | Morningside resident’s papers document her fight against CU’s 1960s gentrification

On October 7, 2018 Marie Runyon passed away at 103. Rachel Klepper, a summer intern with RBML’s archives, shares what she’s found through processing the Marie Runyon collection.

In the early 1960s, Marie Runyon received notice that she and her young daughter would have to leave their Morningside Drive apartment building just a few years after moving to the neighborhood. Columbia College of Pharmacy, the owner of the building until it was later sold to Columbia University, planned to move its campus from Lincoln Center to Morningside Heights and would be evicting the tenants.  Runyon quickly began what would become an intense, decades-long legal battle to keep her apartment and those of her neighbors, which would bring her to the forefront of conflict over real estate and gentrification in Morningside Heights.

A collection of Marie Runyon’s papers, newly available in the Columbia University Archives, documents her life and her fight against Columbia through court records and through letters, articles, and flyers documenting the work of neighborhood and student activists. These papers reflect Runyon’s outspokenness and the tenacity she brought to her personal life and her organizing work. They also demonstrate her commitment to highlighting critical questions about the impact of Columbia University’s expansion in Morningside Heights and Harlem on individual residents and on the racial and economic makeup of the neighborhood. Continue reading

Columbia and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

It’s been nearly 100 years since the infamous 1918 influenza epidemic swept the globe. As we’re in the middle of our own flu season you might be wondering how Columbia fared during that time.

The answer: really well.

While millions of people were dying around the world from this relentless scourge, the students at Columbia University (most of whom were involved in the Student Army Training Corps which essentially took over the campus in the autumn of 1918) were kept remarkably healthy.

Dr. William H. McCastline was Columbia’s Medical Director. He was faced with a reported 200 cases of flu and 48 cases of pneumonia.

A Report of the University Medical Director, Dr. William H. McCastline, in 1919 stated: “We had 200 cases of influenza, 48 cases of pneumonia, with but two deaths. Our health record is among the best thus far reported in S.A.T.C. camps throughout the country.” A Report of the Administrative Board of the Student Army Training Corps in that same year, submitted by Dean Herbert E. Hawkes addressed the epidemic by stating: “The Board gave serious thought to the question raised by the epidemic of influenza, but finally decided, on the advice of competent medical advisory board, to proceed with the S.A.T.C. induction on October 1 as originally planned. The measures adopted by the post surgeon met the influenza epidemic very successfully keeping the death rate at the remarkable figure of 0.8 per cent. per thousand men.” On January 6, 1919 there was a resolution passed by the Trustees thanking Dr. William H. McCastline and Dr. George L. Meylan for “their devoted and remarkably successful efforts for the care and protection of students of the S.A.T.C. [Student Army Training Corps] in the recent epidemic of influenza.”

– Jocelyn Wilk, University Archivist for Columbia University

LGBTQ+ alumni oral histories from Columbia’s Center for Oral History Research

Columbia statue with "gay dance" poster in lap

Cover of Pride of Lions, vol. 1, no. 1, April 1972

Jamie Beckenstein, Project Coordinator for LGBTQ+ Columbia Oral Histories, shared a few of the themes that emerged from interviewing Columbia alums for the Columbia LGBTQ Oral History Project: 

We were correct to assume that Columbia’s location in Manhattan allowed narrators potential access to public queer worlds, but the ways that the narrators choose to access these worlds were different than we guessed in our blueprint..What was most significant in terms of linking the interviews, however, were themes of community and its inverse, isolation. Narrators spoke with such great care and love about their mentors, their peers, and their friends. They were often in awe and pride of the people that they met during their Columbia years who led them into careers, relationships, and full and fulfilling lives.

Continue reading

A Narrative in the Documents: The Gibbs Affair

Interesting narratives that are interwoven into Columbia University’s history can unravel simply by creating an online inventory for a collection. Recently, a series of letters was discovered within the Columbia College Papers that elucidate past events involving administrative prejudice, academic politics, and the Civil War.

After James Renwick, Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Chemistry, retired from his professorship at Columbia College in 1853, Free Academy professor Oliver Wolcott Gibbs was nominated for the position in 1854. Gibbs, a Unitarian, faced the prejudice against the denomination that several Columbia College Trustees, unlike many New Yorkers at the time, held. Although there were some members of the Board of Trustees that supported Gibbs’ nomination the predominately Episcopalian board, which included six clergymen, chose to reject Gibbs based on his religious affiliation. The decision fueled bitterness amongst trustees and alumni that led to a postponement of centennial celebrations in what became known as the “Gibbs affair.”

One of the letters in this series of correspondence came from a special committee of the
United States Senate that was investigating whether or not Columbia’s Board of Trustees violated anti-discriminatory terms within the charter. The Senate committee asked a broad series of questions regarding the hiring practices of the Board of Trustees, one of which asked if the board has ever rejected a candidate “on account of his peculiar tenets in matters of religion?”.

Senate Questionnaire

The Board of Trustees invoked their Fifth Amendment rights for this question and the committee concluded that although individual board members may have violated charter’s terms, the Board of Trustees as a whole was not guilty.

Gibbs eventually became a distinguished researcher at Harvard following the affair, but the professor chosen instead of Gibbs, Richard Sears McCulloh, forged a very different reputation. On September 25, 1863, McCulloh submitted his letter of resignation to the Board of Trustees, stating “that one, born and reared a Southerner, prefers to cast his lot with that of the South.”

McCulloh Resignation Letter

McCulloh left New York for Richmond, Virginia where he became a consulting chemist for the Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau.

The Board of Trustees initially acknowledged his resignation in correspondence with colleagues, but McCulloh’s decision to join the Confederacy prompted them to expel him from the faculty, as noted in the Board Minutes, rather than officially accepting the resignation. McCulloh went on to develop a lethal chemical gas for the Confederate Army, which was never used in combat. After his subsequent imprisonment he became a Professor of Mechanics and Thermodynamics at Washington College, where Robert E. Lee served as President, until 1878.

This rich story, spanning the course of a decade, was unearthed in a collection that holds countless narratives waiting to be told. An inventory of the Columbia College Papers will be made available online in the near future.

-Ian Post, Pratt SILS Intern