After naming dorms for the Parker sisters, Purdue installs a reminder about why
New installation tells the story about Frieda and Winifred Parker, the first Black students to live on Purdue’s campus.
Mari Faines, a granddaughter of Winifred Parker White, took in the packed study space Friday afternoon in the residence hall named for her great aunt, Frieda Parker Jefferson, and figured her grandmother would have enjoyed the scene but would have had one request.
“I know right now she’s looking down and going, ‘Please, stop talking about me – it’s not about me,’” Faines said, moments before Purdue residence hall and academic leaders unveiled a mural that was, in fact, about the Parker sisters and what they did to integrate a key part of the West Lafayette campus in 1947.
A year after Purdue renamed side-by-side residence halls to honor Frieda and Winifred Parker, the university commissioned the mural that puts the story about why, front and center for students heading to and from their rooms each day.
It tells, in pictures and copy blocks pulled together by Indianapolis design firm RLR Associates and unveiled Friday, about how the Parker sisters and their family didn’t accept the university’s insistence that Black students simply didn’t live on campus – or in West Lafayette, for that matter. It tells about how they got the governor involved and before their first year on campus was over had integrated the residence halls at Purdue.
“We recognize that these first two buildings on Purdue's campus that were named for Black alumni are part of our housing system – the system that many years ago would not allow them to stay,” Beth McCuskey, vice provost for student life, said during the dedication ceremony.
“The display you’re about to see shines a light on this dark part of our history, but more importantly recognizes the courage of the Parker family to push through these barriers,” McCuskey said. “Frieda and Winifred’s legacy is evident in the lives they touched in their careers and in their own families. Their legacy enabled thousands of Boilermakers to take full advantage of all residential education. Their legacy made Purdue better.”
Faines told the overflow crowd in Frieda Parker Hall on Friday that what they did at Purdue was one step in a legacy that continued in acts, personal and public, during lives that revolved around community, education and civil rights in the decades after their college years.
“She accepted the responsibilities that come with access to opportunity and taught us all to do the same,” Faines said. “When the doors open for you, swing it off its hinges so that other people can enter, too.”
The two dorms were named for the Parker sisters in 2021, when Renee Thomas, longtime director of the Purdue Black Cultural Center, took the idea to Purdue administrators. The campus had two dorms that had opened for the fall 2020 semester, assigned Griffin North and Griffin South names as placeholders waiting for a donor for other naming opportunities. Thomas, now associate vice provost for diversity, inclusion and belonging suggested, as the university was ramping up its equity task force efforts, recognizing a key moment in Purdue’s history by naming the dorms for the Parkers as a permanent reminder of the story.
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This is how that story was recounted in “Ever True,” a history of the university published in 2019 for Purdue’s 150th anniversary. The following section, one included in Based in Lafayette reporting project accounts from the halls’ rededication in fall 2021, is boiled down from author John Norberg’s reporting, based on university records and interviews with Frieda Parker Jefferson and others. (Frieda Parker Jefferson died in 2020. Winifred Parker White died in 2003.)
The Parker sisters, who were born 10 months apart and were No. 1 and 2 in their high school classes in Indianapolis, were admitted to Purdue ahead of the fall 1946 semester. But when they applied to live on campus, as all freshman women were required to, Purdue rejected them.
Purdue had housed Black men in the military in Cary Hall, given a federal mandate during World War II. But once the war was over, Purdue rescinded that practice, going back to whites-only admission in residence halls. West Lafayette neighborhoods also had covenants that restricted renting or selling homes to anyone who wasn’t white. So, Black Purdue students typically were forced to find rooms in the neighborhoods near Lincoln School, then Lafayette’s elementary for Black grade-schoolers at the corner of 14th and Union streets.
In 1944, a Black freshman named A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., who came to Purdue to study engineering, was assigned to a cold-air room upstairs in a house for international students. Higginbotham – who went on to a career as a U.S. Court of Appeals judge that warranted a New York Times obituary in 1998 – had challenged then-President Edward Elliott about the lack of places for Black students to get a haircut, including in a segregated barbershop in the Purdue Memorial Union. Elliott offered to buy clippers and put them in the campus barbershop, so Black students could cut each other’s hair.
When Higginbotham later asked Elliott for space in a dorm, so he could have a heated room among other Purdue freshmen, Elliott told him that Purdue was under no mandate to do that. According to the New York Times, Higginbotham told crowds in public speeches later in life that Elliott told him that if he didn’t like that rule, he could go somewhere else for school. (Higginbotham did, winding up at Antioch College and then at Yale Law School.)
That was the backdrop facing the Parker sisters two years later. They first were told there wasn’t room in a campus dorm. Later, they were told the Purdue trustees had decided against allowing Black students in residence halls. Their father, Frederick Parker, the head of the math department at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, pressed university officials, who admitted there was no formal policy against Black students living in the dorms, just a custom.
Parker took the situation to Gov. Ralph Gates, who contacted trustees. In December 1946, Frederick Hovde, the new Purdue president, wrote a five-page letter to Parker, essentially saying that if it had been up to him, the Parker sisters would have been allowed to stay on campus. He wrote that the situation wasn’t because Purdue “wished to be discriminate.” Instead, he wrote, the university didn’t want to “jeopardize the successful operation of the halls” because white students and their parents weren’t “ready yet for true social democracy in living.”
John Gates, Purdue’s vice provost for diversity and inclusion, during the dedication of the halls in 2021 described the place the Parkers resorted to in Lafayette was one room that served as a pass-through to other rooms in a house with no shower or bathroom inside. The Parker sisters shared a single desk. Getting to campus involved rides on two city buses.
Hovde reversed course in time for the Parker sisters’ second semester, admitting them to Bunker Hill Residence Hall, which is gone now but stood a short distance from the dorms that now bear their names.
On Friday, Lauren Jefferson, a granddaughter of Frieda Parker Jefferson, thanked Purdue “for facing the difficulties of their past” to highlight the persistence and ability of the Parker family to press forward to ask the right questions of the right people to get the right thing done.
“It’s not always easy to appreciate the work that was done by people who came before you – the people whose shoulders we all stand on,” Jefferson said. “But this is something that will serve as a reminder of the work that has been done to get us where we are now, as well as a reminder that there's so much more that we can achieve. I hope that these stories serve as inspiration to Purdue students of the past, present and future the way that I'm inspired by my grandmother and great aunt every day.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO: The installation telling the stories of Winifred and Frieda Parker at Purdue is on the first floor of Frieda Parker Hall, 401 N. Russell St. in West Lafayette.
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THIS AND THAT …
POSTING UP AFTER A TOUGH LOSS IN BLOOMINGTON
IU had Purdue’s number early and then hung on for a 79-74 win Saturday at Assembly Hall. Minutes after IU students flooded the court – can’t blame them, they just beat No. 1 – this scene was playing out in a media room, where freshman Braden Smith was asked about a critical turnover in the final minute of the game and center Zach Edey, the odds-on favorite to win National Player of the Year, took the mic and made sure his teammate wasn’t left hanging. As captured by WLFI reporter Kelly Hallinan:
J&C reporter Sam King wrote more about the moment, too. Here’s a way in to his report:
‘CONVERSION THERAPY’ BILL IN THE SENATE
One of the most contentious local fights in the past year was a West Lafayette City Council member’s proposed ordinance that would have imposed $1,000-a-day fines on unlicensed therapists who worked in conversion therapy tactics – ones attempting to get a gay or lesbian teen to reject that identity – on those younger than 18. The debate dragged out for months, with religious leaders – led by those at Faith Church – who said the effort was a First Amendment broadside aimed at church counseling services. Lawsuits were threatened. The mayor promised a veto. And the city council eventually took a step back in February 2022, instead passing a resolution that asked state lawmakers to consider a statewide ban on conversion therapy. (A look back: “Lawsuit looming, choice words flowing, WL City Council withdraws conversion therapy ordinance.”) This week, IndyStar reporter Erika Herron covered a Senate committee hearing on Senate Bill 350, a proposal meant to protect religious-based counseling from local bans. According to Herron’s report, Sen. Jeff Raatz, a Richmond Republican, said he was carrying the bill at the request of Rev. Steve Viars, pastor at Faith Church who testified at a hearing where the bill did not get a vote. Here’s more about the bill in Herron’s report: “Bill to protect churches offering 'conversion therapy' stalls in Indiana Senate.”
A SCOOP ON MUNG CHIANG’S FIRST MONTH
Seems that new Purdue President Mung Chiang’s penchant for ice cream is starting to get the best of him. Chiang mentions his love for ice cream often, rolling out a line that his presidency, following one of motorcycle-riding Mitch Daniels, would be going from Harley Davidson to Häagen Dazs. (The day in June when Purdue trustees announced that he would succeed Daniels in 2023, the former dean of the College of Engineering confessed his favorite order at his “secret spot,” Greyhouse in the West Lafayette Village area, was affogato, which is a shot or two of espresso drowning a serving of gelato, which in his case is vanilla.) On Friday, trustees welcomed Chiang to his first formal, public trustees meeting. Trustee Chairman Mike Berghoff said of his expectations after Daniels’ 10 years as president: “We’re going to just continue to rocket launch.” Chiang promised he was ready. He followed that with this: “I just want to say for the record that for all the events I go to, not all of them need to have ice cream at the end. If we only do that every time we win a basketball game, I would be happy enough.”
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