Wheaton Denies Admission to Portia Washington

In 1902, Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute and the most prominent African-American leader in the country at that time, requested that his daughter, Portia, be admitted to Wheaton. This forced Wheaton to consider its de facto policy barring the admittance of African-American students for the first time.

While Wheaton had yet to consciously integrate its student body, other larger women’s colleges, such as Smith, Wellesley and Mount Holyoke had already opened their doors to African-American students by this time. In fact, Portia had attended Wellesley for a year before applying to transfer to Wheaton.

Wheaton’s administrators were concerned that Portia’s attendance would involve “some practical difficulties, and might seriously disturb a portion of the patronage of this school,” as President Samuel Valentine Cole phrased it in a letter to the Wheaton trustees. The “practical difficulties” probably referred to finding a segregated residence for Portia off-campus, so that white students would not have to share living quarters with her.

President Cole wrote a letter to the secretary of Wellesley, asking, “the race question aside, was she a desirable student?” Cole then wrote a letter to Booker T. Washington, asking to meet with him in Boston so “that we might talk the matter over” in depth. The proposed meeting never took place.

The reply from Wellesley does not survive, but Cole mentions it in a letter to Portia’s mother, where he also reported that the seminary had received a record number of applications that year, and “we are obliged at this season to give preference to students of good scholarship who apply for the regular courses” and not to the smaller college preparatory program, to which Portia had applied.

The same day he told Portia of her rejection, Cole accepted another girl on scholarship who would have placed only at the beginning of the college preparatory program, which was equivalent to ninth or tenth grade in a modern high school, below the level that Portia would have entered.

It would be another 44 years before Wheaton consciously integrated the student body.