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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, July 22, 1974. Interview B-0007-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Being fired from Vanderbilt for helping to organize an interracial student meeting

Kester discusses what led to Chancellor James Kirkland's decision to fire Kester from Vanderbilt University during the late 1920s. Around 1928, Kester was working as the associate secretary of the student YMCA at Vanderbilt. Kester helped to organize a meeting of students regarding the Western invasion of China. Negative media attention to the fact that both white and African American students were in attendance provoked Chancellor Kirkland to dismiss Kester for fear that Vanderbilt's reputation would be tarnished in the process.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, July 22, 1974. Interview B-0007-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Chancellor Kirkland ruled Vanderbilt with an iron hand. I got fired from Vanderbilt.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When you were Associate Secretary at the "Y".
HOWARD KESTER:
And the Secretary got fired along with me.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I wondered. I read about that incident and I guess it was John Egerton who said that you were censured?
HOWARD KESTER:
Um hum.
JACQUELYN HALL:
By all the presidents of various universities, but was it Dr. Kirkland who was most upset?
HOWARD KESTER:
They all met together . . . here is what happened.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Including the President here?
HOWARD KESTER:
It was around 1928-29 when the western powers, France, England, Germany invaded China, with a view to carving it up. I decided we ought to have a meeting about it. We had no business in China, and I went to the Dean, Dean Brown, O. E. Brown, and asked him if I could call a meeting of all the students in Nashville to talk about this situation. We had a Missionary, the name I don't recall at the moment who was in Nanking when it was bombed. We had Mathews from Scarritt, and we had a student, a very brilliant student from Fisk from Trinidad, British West Indies, whose father occupied a position of some importance and Malcolm Nurse this Negro student from Fisk, was a brilliant person . . . really brilliant, and the three of them spoke, and in those days students didn't have automobiles. They had to use street cars, and we had no intention of segregating anybody, but they came in by schools because of the street cars. It was a problem with transportation, and they sat together, and I think my wife and a girl by the name of Catherine Butler, who came from Binghamton, New York were the only white women sitting next to Negroes . . . I am interested in these names coming back to me . . . (laughing.)
JACQUELYN HALL:
You have an incredible memory. I am interested in all the names you can think of because I'm trying to locate as many of these people as I can.
HOWARD KESTER:
Catherine Butler, she may not be here. I think she had to leave the YW at least for a while because of tuberculosis, or something of this sort. Anyway, they . . . Catherine and Alice, were the only two people, girls, white girls, who were sitting next to Negroes. I'm sure of that, and the Curator of the Museum at Vanderbilt, he lived in Wesley Hall, which was the School of Religion, he came by and saw all of these Negro and white folks, you know, and he called the papers . . . that it was a white and black meeting, and there were quotations. I think it's in The Tennesseean "that big buck Negroes . . . niggers were sitting next to white women."
JACQUELYN HALL:
Front page news.
HOWARD KESTER:
Front page, and Chancellor Kirkland called all the Presidents of the Colleges, including Scarritt, Peabody, Fisk, eight or nine were included, and they held a meeting, and the Chancellor said, one of the professors later told him, he said, "I don't mind the jackasses braying, I just don't want them braying on my campus." So the Dean called a meeting, he was forced by the Chancellor, as I understood it, of the student body of the School of Religion the next day . . . he had been a Missionary in China, and he talked about the improvements that the English and others had brought into China, and we were quite wrong in our condemnation, and when he got ready to close he said "I want to see Mr. Kester in my office immediately." Alice was sitting right by me, we were married then. We were married in February and this was in March, I reckon.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What did she think she had gotten herself into!
HOWARD KESTER:
She never protested, never protested. She felt that I did what I had to and it had to be. And she sat right beside me, and I went in and talked to the Dean, and he was quite angry. His face was flushed, he said, "You did not tell me you were going to invite Negroes," I said, "Dean Brown, I said all the students, and that's what I meant." And I said, "You've known me long enough to know that I wasn't going to exclude the Negroes." He said, "In any case, you are fired." So I was.