A People’s History of Middlebury College

old chapel rebels

Last J-Term, students taught a class called A People’s History of Middlebury College in an effort to construct a history of this school centered on marginalized voices, social/political mobilizations, and periods of struggle. Here’s a brief summary of their research.

  1. Emma Willard is “unbecoming”
    In 1812, Emma Willard opened a Female Seminary in her home, writing around that time, “My neighborhood to Middlebury College made me bitterly feel the disparity in educational facilities between the two sexes; and hoped that, if the matter was once set before the men as legislators, they would be ready to correct the error” (quoted in Stameshkin Vol. 1; 117). When she asked President of the College Henry Davis if she might learn the school’s methods by observing classes and if her students might be able to audit classes he told her that such a request was “unbecoming.” Undeterred by such condescension and growing increasingly aware of sexism within education in the US, Willard left Middlebury and went on to establish a school in New York and write her famous ‘Plan for Improving Female Education.’
  2. Alexander Twilight is black?!
    In 1823, Alexander Twilight, the namesake of Twilight Hall, graduated from Middlebury. Though he is often touted by the Middlebury administration as the first Black student in US history to receive a college degree, was likely admitted to Middlebury College because he “passed” as white. Given the fuss that occurred in the 1840s over the school’s admittance of Black student (and its subsequent rejection of a group of Black students from Philadelphia due to its one-Black-student-at-a-time quota), it is likely that the school accidentally graduated a Black scholar and has since revised history. Twilight went on to be the first African American elected to a state legislature.
  3. Secret Frats
    In 1844, when the first fraternity chapter was formed at Middlebury — the Alpha Mu chapter of Chi Psi — the college administration officially banned such organizations. But Chi Psi was allowed to continue to meet underground because “its early members included men who were known for their academic excellence and outstanding Christian character.” So a group of students organized a student meeting to condemn the existence of secret fraternities at Middlebury.
  4. The only black student in 20 years
    In 1845, Martin Freeman, the only black student at Middlebury between 1840 and 1880, enrolled at Middlebury. Given the fact that Alexander Twilight (’23) apparently “passed” as white during his time at Middlebury, Freeman was considered to be the first black student to attend Middlebury College. He was selected to give a salutatorian speech at his commencement and went on to be the first Black president of an American college before moving to Liberia and continuing his work in higher education.
  5. The entire student body goes on strike
    In 1879, after years of discontent with the demerit system introduced in 1878, students rallied to protest the suspension of the popular sophomore Clarence G. Leavenworth ’82 whose rowdy antics had left him with over 50 demerits.
  6. Chellis is 1st woman to graduate and 1st in her class
    In 1886, May Belle Chellis (namesake of Chellis House), graduated as the first woman to receive a Middlebury College degree. She was the winner of a Waldo Prize for academic excellence and graduated first in her class. Despite the sexism prevalent both on and off campus at the time, when the women students pushed to be able to speak publicly with the male students, the male editors of the campus newspaper (then called The Undergraduate) publicly offered their support.
  7. Students burn down benches in Old Chapel
    In an act that came “not from motives of devilry and distinction, but for improvement,” students broke into Old Chapel, ripped out the old wooden benches, and burned them (quoted in Stameshkin Vol. 1; 208). When the administration found out they punished the students and, in a rare moment of administrative transparency, admitted that the students “were warranted in making these thorough repairs.”
  8. KDR is founded as a critique of fraternity system
    In 1905, ten “neutrals” (students who were not part of the dominating fraternity system) formed the Kappa Delta Rho (KDR) fraternity in the hopes that it “would not condone the pranks, drunkenness, and elitism allowed by the other fraternities” (Vol. 1; 263).
  9. Female Students Vote Sororities Out
    Of the 194 female students at Middlebury in 1934, 158 petition the President to abolish sororities. Sororities were forced onto the women as a justification for the existence of fraternities; in order to prove that there was ‘equality’ amongst the sexes, women were forced to continue their own Greek life against their desires up to this point of resistance.
  10. Intentional recruitment of wealthy students begins
    In a move that David Stameshkin considers to be the start of the making of Middlebury as the ‘elite’ institution that it is today, Middlebury administrator and recruitment officer Stanley Wright begins to recruit under-performing, wealthy students from preparatory schools who before would not have been admitted to the school (1947).
  11. Staff lead a successful union campaign
    In 1947, 68 college employees (in buildings, grounds, and maintenance) who formed a local with the United Mine Workers union walked off their jobs to protest poor working conditions and pay. (Don’t be fooled though, the staff are no longer unionized and the College has worked hard to keep it that way)
  12. Student College Radio in Founded
    In 1949, WRMC starts operating out of a converted chicken coop
  13. An ‘abortion underground’ is founded
    In 1967, Torie Osborn (founder of the future Middlebury College Women’s Union– the first feminist group at Middlebury) begin an “abortion underground,” driving students seeking abortions across the border into Canada for affordable and safe care.
  14. SGA votes to dissolve itself
    In 1967, the student government dissolves itself to bring attention to the fact that it was rendered powerless by the administration.
  15. Students occupy the ROTC building
    In 1972, Students involved with the Radical Education Action Project occupy part of Adirondack House where the ROTC offices were and turned it into a “Peace Center’ after the Nixon Administration bombed North Vietnam.
  16. The Gay People at Middlebury
    In 1975, the first LGBTQ student organization forms, calling itself The Gay People at Middlebury.
  17. Middlebury Divests from South African Apartheid
    From 1981-1986, students and faculty protest South African Apartheid by building a symbolic rock wall on campus, staging a sit-in in the presidents office, and joining forces with the national campaign. Middlebury’s board of Trustees finally divests, as many other universities had done before them.
  18. Students protest the rise in tuition
    In 1990, Students form STARTUP (Students Against the Rise in Tuition and Unjust Policies) and half the student body boycott classes and stage a sit-in on the Old Chapel steps to protest the immense rise in tuition from the year before.
  19. Students launch divestment campaign against fossil fuels and arms manufacturers.
    A student group that called themselves the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee (DLWC) released a satirical email announcing that the college had divested from fossil fuels and war manufacturers in honor of the Dalai Lama coming to speak on campus. In the wake of this statement being revealed as untrue, students organized a campaign with members of the Socially Responsible Investing Club that became “Divest Midd.” The work of these students led to Ron Liebowitz revealing how much of our endowment is invested in these industries, got the Board of Trustees and the Finance Committee to reevaluate their relationship with Investure, but eventually the college decided not to divest. The struggle for divestment continues today, as momentum has picked up nation wide!
  20. Students for Justice for Palestine stirs up campus
    In 2012, a club that includes Palestinians, Israelis, and students of other nationalities formed to call attention to the injustices suffered by Palestinians under apartheid-like conditions. Along with similar organizations at universities across the country, SJP launched an educational campaign to expose how the U.S. is implicated in the displacement and widespread oppression of Palestinians. One example of their activism is a street theatre piece in which students built a symbolic checkpoint outside a dining hall.
  21. A student collective launches the Beyond the Green Publication
    In 2014, after years of feeling marginalized by mainstream platforms for news and dialogue, a collective formed to give voice to those pursuing cultural and structural change within this institution. Beyond the Green is “a student-run publication that seeks to provide space for voices that are not being heard on our campus. we are grounded by politics that are radical, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-homophobic and anti-ableist (against all forms of oppression) and that reject the structural neo-liberal paradigm that characterizes middlebury college and its official publications.” In one semester, they have already become a hugely important resource on campus. Check out the publication at go/btg.

For a more complete people’s history, check out: http://www.timetoast.com/timelines/a-people-s-history-of-middlebury-college


So there’s a lot in Midd’s past to be inspired by. But what’s going on now?


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