Built in 1913, Furnald Hall celebrates the life of Royal B. Furnald, CC class of 1901, who died during his spring semester of sophomore year. By the will of Francis Furnald, Royal’s father, Columbia College received $300,000 to erect a dormitory in the student’s name.
On March 5, 1924—25 years after the death of Royal B. Furnald—Frederick William Wells, a twenty-four-year old Black law student from Tennessee, stepped into Furnald Hall, his new university residence.
Wells’ pursuit of quality education did not begin with Columbia. Born in Union City, he attended public schools in his birthplace and enrolled at Wilberforce University, the first private HBCU in America. After two years at Wilberforce, Wells transferred to Ohio State University and graduated in 1919 with a bachelor’s degree. In 1921, he enrolled at Yale, where he held a YMCA scholarship, until he matriculated at Columbia Law School in 1924.
Wells was determined to achieve even though access was limited to Black students. Although he was no amateur at navigating predominantly white spaces, Wells walked into Furnald in the spring of 1924 without foreseeing the gravity of what lay ahead. His time at Columbia, though brief, would leave a permanent mark on a courageous man and a university that neglected his courage.
During his first few weeks in Furnald, Wells went unnoticed by its white residents, because many assumed he was an employee. His initial invisibility illuminates several anti-Black facets of Columbia. First, it highlights the extant culture of students’ neglect of University employees, who were and are predominantly people of color. Second, it speaks to the extent of Black students’ presence at Columbia. During the 1920s, most non-white students were international students. The population of foreign scholars hovered above five percent in 1919 and began to increase sharply with the continued expansion of Columbia. As an article from The New York Times reports in 1921, most international students came from East Asia and exceeded 200 in total. Black American students in 1921 numbered in the single digits. Third, owing to the anti-Black administration and atmosphere of the University, most Black students did not, voluntarily or involuntarily, live on-campus; Frederick W. Wells was the only Black student living on-campus in 1921. Lastly, white students’ failure to see Wells as a resident of Furnald mirrors the invisibility of Black people in history, especially in historical records. The University archives, like its students and administrators, did not care to preserve anything Black.
This invisibility, however, did not last. Toward the end of March, his peers finally realized that Wells was a resident, not a porter. Upon this realization, a group of white students in Furnald, most of them Southerners, began to plan the removal of Wells from the dorm. John B. Rucker, a white law student from North Carolina, took the lead. As chairman of the student-run Hall Committee that oversaw the dormitory, Rucker called a meeting to discuss how to evict Wells. While students from the South, the majority, sided with Rucker, Northerners who opposed discriminatory action, like students Lawrence Goldberg and Charles Mantell, resigned from the Committee in protest.
On April 1, ignoring Goldberg and Mantell, Rucker visited Herbert Hawkes, then Dean of Columbia College and head of University Committee on Residence Halls. He demanded the removal of Wells and threatened Hawkes that the students of Furnald would move out of Furnald if the University ignored the situation. Hawkes refused Rucker’s demand and the student retorted: “Well, I will give you some publicity and see how you like that.”
On April 2, several newspapers in the city ran stories about the situation in Furnald. Most stories, surprisingly, remained an air of objectivity. While none interviewed Wells for comments, the newspapers effectively reiterated the message that a group of Southern students were upset about the presence of Wells in their residence hall, which the University administration refused to see as a problem. Just after midnight on April 3, hours after the stories were published, a seven-foot-tall cross lit up the night sky.
The cross burning of April 3 mostly survive through the stories that exploded across the nation. Articles published on April 3 varied by publication and the location of publication, with those published in New York City maintaining consistency and accuracy, probably owing to their proximity to Columbia.
According to accounts by The New York World, a group of men in white robes marched in formation to the center of South Field, carrying a seven-foot-tall wooden cross, wrapped in cloth drenched in kerosene. Just north of the College’s baseball diamond, a few yards from the statue of Thomas Jefferson, the hooded men planted the cross and set it aflame.
As the fire engulfed the cross, concerned students banged on Room 528 of Furnald to warn Wells, while other students ran through the halls of the dorm screaming, “Put the nigger out,” and “Down with the Negro.” In the days following, Wells received two anonymous death threats signed by those who claimed to be the Klan.
The cross burning was national news, as articles about it were printed in newspapers in almost every state of the nation. However, contrasting the publicity it received, the event is effectively nonexistent in the Columbia archives. As such, the details of the events that unfolded in April of 1924 remain in the haze of institutional memory. What remains clear is that Wells resisted with composure and courage, before he left to Cornell to finish his legal education. The New York Times quotes Wells:
“I came here to get an education and went through the customary procedure in obtaining my room… I was at the bottom of the waiting list and waited until a room was assigned to me in Furnald Hall. I shall remain in it as long as I have the money to pay for it. That is final. I will not be bullied in any way. If anyone attempts violence he may be sorry for it. But if I can be shown why I am undesirable, I shall be glad to go elsewhere. I shall always obey the university officials, and if they ask me to leave the university or the dormitory I shall do so.”