By Brian Williams
In 1941, budding student activist Jean Emily Fairfax (pictured above) responded to the war in Europe by chairing “Starvation Day” on the University of Michigan campus. She encouraged fellow students to donate the cost of a meal to aid international refugees.
At U-M’s two-day Spring Parley, Fairfax presented a pacifist perspective under the theme “The Student Looks at War and Peace.” The event, according to The Michigan Daily, was designed to “stimulate individual thought” and featured faculty and student panel discussions.
Even as a first-year student in 1937, the young scholar distinguished herself when she earned membership in the national freshman honor society, Alpha Lambda Delta.
But despite her contributions to academics and student life, Fairfax encountered a system of segregated housing that required her to live off campus. Exclusion did not deter her, however, and Fairfax’s lived experience at U-M is more than a narrative about discrimination.
The personal and academic success of Fairfax and many others are documented in stories and documents at the Bentley Historical Library—all as part of the library’s long-term project on the history of African Americans at the University of Michigan.
“This project begins, as it should, with the lives of African American students at the University, and we are calling this website, appropriately, the African American Student Project,” says Angela Dillard, the Richard A. Meisler Collegiate Professor of Afroamerican & African Studies and a member of the executive committee of the Bentley Historical Library.
The website’s centerpiece is a database that lists the names and years of attendance of every African American student who enrolled at the University between 1853-1956. The database features more than 3,295 entries, which may include each student’s hometown, local addresses, and membership in fraternities and sororities, as well as relatives who attended U-M, revealing some significant family legacies. Researchers consider this a first installment of the database and intend to supplement the content as more information becomes available.
“For most of the University’s history, African American students’ experiences were a combination of institutional barriers and the determination to overcome them,” says Dillard. “The website gives context for this by providing data while also showing photos, stories, maps, and more.”
The site includes an interactive map that basically illustrates the history of housing segregation. It shows the off-campus residential pattern for students like Fairfax (who secured off-campus housing with some distinctive hosts). First, she lived at 622 S. Ashley St. in the home of Savonia L. Carson, former executive secretary of the Dunbar Center, a social services organization for Ann Arbor’s African American community. As a sophomore, she lived in a boarding house at 132 Hill St., managed by African American musician Levi Bates and his wife, Lena. And the following year, she moved to the University-owned house for “colored women” at 1102 E. Ann St.
The Bentley site also features stories, autobiographies, and biographies about some of the remarkable African American students who attended the University and the diverse nature of their experiences. In Fairfax’s case, academic honors abounded. She was one of only 27 sophomores selected to the prestigious honors program. The scholastic honorary society Phi Kappa Phi selected her as a junior, capped by membership in Phi Beta Kappa.
Outside the classroom, Fairfax pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, a sorority established in 1908 by African American women at Howard University. She joined the Congregational Student Fellowship and was active in the Student Religious Association. A talented singer, she also joined the Choral Union.
But the alumna’s longest-lasting legacy came in direct response to the housing discrimination she encountered. Fairfax was intrigued by the cooperative housing movement emerging on campus in the 1930s. She was instrumental in establishing the Lester House cooperative at 909 E. University Ave. Named for British pacifist Muriel Lester, the residence was the first interracial house for women on campus.
“What we have discovered is that it was African American students, their organizations, the local community, and African American alumni who carved out lives for themselves on this campus, often with no help and with opposition from the University itself,” says Terrence McDonald, director of the Bentley Historical Library. “This was an important endeavor for the Bentley because historical records of African American students, their living situations, their organizations, and their overall experiences on this campus are sadly rare.”
The Bentley invites the public to use the database and to provide more complete information or correct errors through a web form. “This is a long-term project that is still in an early phase,” McDonald says. “We will need help from the public to make this data as robust as possible, and to add additional archival sources on the African American experience to our holdings.”
As for the legacy of Jean Emily Fairfax, Lester House continues within the Inter-Cooperative Council (now located at 900 Oakland Ave.). In September 2020, Professor Celeste Watkins-Hayes honored Fairfax’s social justice career by naming her collegiate professorship the Jean E. Fairfax Collegiate Professorship of Public Policy.