Elizabeth Baker Lewis Attends Wheaton

In 1919, an African-American student named Elizabeth Baker Lewis attended Wheaton for one year. Elizabeth was the granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of the first African-American Assistant Attorney General of the United States, William Henry Lewis, a man personally responsible for amending Massachusetts’ public accommodations law to prohibit racial discrimination. The following year, she transferred to Radcliffe College, a move for which President Cole wrote her a letter of recommendation. Elizabeth also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris.  

Elizabeth’s enrollment at this time was atypical due to the color of her skin. Wheaton’s admissions policy at the time required applicants to submit a photo of themselves, a stipulation which changed in 1926 at the behest of Edith White, admissions secretary. White, in a letter to President J. Edgar Park, explained that the change was not made as a way to promote colorblindness in admissions. The photographs, she wrote,

might indicate the race of the applicant in cases where the student failed to be entirely frank. I can imagine, however, that there might be doubtful cases where I should be hesitant to make a decision as to traces of colored blood or Hebraic ancestry on the basis of a photograph.”

Helmreich, Paul. Wheaton College, 1834-1957: A Massachusetts Family Affair. New York : Cornwall Books, 2002, p. 303.

In the 1940s, before the College decided to formally end its policy of segregation, acting Admissions Director Dorothy Littlefield received a request for an application along with a photo. Littlefield and President Park, calculating that the request was a test of their policy, forwarded the application materials to the prospective student without comment. No completed application was returned

Helmreich, Paul. Wheaton College 1834-1957: A Massachusetts Family Affair. New York : Cornwall Books, 2002, p. 464.

Wellesley College. The Wellesley Alumnae Quarterly, 1920, p. 206. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/nyp.33433074841655?urlappend=%3Bseq=222