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March 22, 2023

Bryn Mawr College to remove former president's name from library over history of racism

M. Carey Thomas preached white supremacy and blocked Black applicants from attending the historic women's school

Education Colleges
Bryn Mawr College Thom Carroll/For PhillyVoice

Bryn Mawr College will remove the name of its second president, M. Carey Thomas, from its library after denouncing her legacy of racism and antisemitism. The library was renamed in her honor after her death in 1935, but has been reinstated to its original name.

As part of Bryn Mawr College's ongoing effort to denounce the racist and antisemitic legacy of its second president, M. Carey Thomas, the Montgomery County women's college will remove her name from an inscription on its campus library. 

The decision to remove her name from the Old Library, which had been renamed in Thomas' honor in 1935, is part of a larger effort by Bryn Mawr to address "institutional histories shaped by racism and antisemitism." The removal comes nearly six years after President Kim Cassidy first issued a moratorium on using Thomas' name to refer to the library.

"Even as M. Carey Thomas was steadfast in her drive to build a first-rate academic institution for the education of women, the limitation of her vision to the education of wealthy white women, her embrace of eugenics, and her outspoken racist and antisemitic beliefs have caused pain for generations of students, staff and faculty," the Board of Trustees wrote in a letter to the school's community on Tuesday. "We believe that Thomas' social beliefs are irreconcilably in conflict with Bryn Mawr's mission, values and aspirations today." 

Thomas served as Bryn Mawr College's president from 1894 until 1922. During her tenure, she made Bryn Mawr a hub for the suffrage movement and sought to make the college's entrance exams comparable to institutions that did not admit women applicants. At the same time, Thomas blocked and rescinded admission from qualified Black applicants and refused to hire Jewish faculty. 

During an opening address at the college in 1916, Thomas publicly stated: "If the present intellectual supremacy of the white races is maintained, as I hope it will be for centuries to come, I believe it will be because they are the only races that have seriously begun to educate their women." 

Jessie Redmon Fauset, a Philadelphia High School for Girls graduate and Harlem Renaissance poet, won a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College in 1901. Thomas, who'd previously said that no Black students had ever applied to Bryn Mawr, paid a portion of her tuition to attend Cornell University instead

Even though Bryn Mawr leadership sought to acknowledge Thomas' "objectionable beliefs" by reducing the college's references to one of its earliest leaders, the school opted to keep the inscription at the Old Library and search for ways to address Thomas' prejudice while also recognizing her impacts on women's education. 

In 2019, the school updated its mission statement to recognize equity and focus on inclusion. Shortly after that change, a historical group installed a veil over the National Historic Register plaque honoring Thomas inside the library and installed an explanation about the building's renaming. 

A group of Bryn Mawr College students went on strike in 2020 to demand, among other things, the removal of Thomas' name from all campus buildings, including the library and the Great Hall. Following the strike, an advisory board was formed to confront Thomas' legacy and find ways to solve the naming issues. After hosting a series of listening sessions last year, the Board of Trustees approved the inscription's removal on Tuesday. 

"We acknowledge the harm and hurt Thomas' legacy of exclusion, racism, and antisemitism has caused for so many, and understand that the removal of an inscription does not alone redress that pain," the letter reads. "We do believe that the removal of the inscription will open a door to healing and encourage the continuing work we do together to make Bryn Mawr a community of welcome and belonging." 

Once removed from the library, the inscription bearing Thomas' name will be moved to the college's archives. Thomas' ashes, which are on campus along with the remains of three other people from the college's early history, will stay on school grounds.