Byrd, Uncaged

Mabel Byrd meets with Arnold Bennett Hall in New York

Mabel Byrd (fourth from the right) met with UO president Arnold Bennett Hall (head of table) and fellow UO alumni in 1926 to establish an alumni chapter in New York City. Photo from Old Oregana, December 1926.

Mabel Byrd counted W.E.B. DuBois among her friends and once had Langston Hughes read poetry to her. An important advocate in the early days of the civil rights movement and a popular figure during the Harlem Renaissance, Byrd devoted her life to fighting for equal rights and access to education for African Americans. But before she made her mark on the nation she made history in the Pacific Northwest—"Byrdie" was the first African American student to ever enroll at the University of Oregon.

Born in Pennsylvania on July 3, 1895, Mabel Janet Byrd moved with her family to Oregon around the turn of the century, during an era when the state’s Exclusion Laws made it illegal for African Americans to vote or own real estate. The Byrd family nevertheless settled in Portland, where Mabel was the only black student at Washington High School. She earned her high school diploma in 1914, less than a decade removed from Oregon’s only recorded lynching and the same year the Rose City’s chapter of the NAACP was founded.

In 1917, the population of Eugene, then a small lumber town, was just 3,200; the University of Oregon was a handful of buildings with a total enrollment of 330. The few African Americans within the town’s borders lived in abject poverty in a small shanty near present-day Alton Baker Park. Though it was an unwelcoming environment, Byrd was undeterred and determined to get an education, and enrolled at the UO.

While the university opened its classroom doors to her, the residence hall doors remained firmly closed; she lived off campus with a history professor, Joseph Schafer, and worked for his family as a domestic servant. Joining a sorority was off-limits, and the economics student did not appear in any edition of the Oregana. In fact, very little is known of Byrd’s days as a UO student, other than that they were brief: two years after arriving in Eugene she left, and transferred to the University of Washington where she graduated in 1921 with a liberal arts degree.

As an African American in Washington in the 1920s, Byrd had more opportunities available to her than she did back in Oregon. However, in 1921, while the Ku Klux Klan was establishing itself in Oregon and holding marches and meetings statewide, she returned home.

Byrd began working as an English teacher in Portland’s segregated YWCA, and in her spare time served as the vice president of the local NAACP chapter. Despite not graduating from the UO she remained fond of her former school, and in 1923 invited sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois to speak on campus—an invitation he accepted, traveling to Eugene at a time when the KKK was regularly burning crosses on top of Skinner Butte.

Byrd and DuBois formed a close friendship, and when she moved to New York during the early days of the Harlem Renaissance to undergo training with the city’s YWCA, she organized speaking engagements for DuBois and wrote for his NAACP journal, The Crisis.

Not even moving to the other side of the country could take Byrd away from the UO though. She befriended fellow alumni on the East Coast, and when new UO president Arnold Bennett Hall traveled to New York in 1926, Byrd was one of several former students who dined with him at the St. George Hotel. There was only one topic of conversation on the agenda: the alumni wanted to talk to Hall about establishing an alumni chapter in the city. At the luncheon alumni agreed to continue meeting on a regular basis, and the precursor to the UO Alumni Association’s New York Ducks chapter was born.

By the mid-1920s, Byrd had firmly established herself as a popular figure in the African American community. Still heavily involved with New York's YWCA, Byrd was also the president of the Alpha Beta Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and helped organize a gathering of college educated African American women. In 1927, she was selected to travel to England to study settlement housing; a farewell tea was thrown in her honor on Easter Sunday, and the 200 guests in attendance included Countee Cullen, Aaron Douglas, and Langston Hughes, the latter of whom read poetry to Byrd and the assembled crowd.

While in Europe, Byrd grew more confrontational in her views on how racial issues needed to be addressed. She worked with the League of Nations, and railed against racism during a speech in Prague before the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Espousing ideas that did not fully take hold in the United States for several more decades, she criticized whites for demanding African Americans protest passively, stated that society favored whites over blacks, and argued little would change until whites understood they had no right to rule over other races. She also challenged fellow African Americans, demanding equal rights for women from men who still believed a woman’s role was to look good and raise future activists.

An ardent supporter of educational opportunities for African Americans, Byrd returned to America in 1929 to work for historically black Fisk University's sociology department, and traveled throughout the South conducting research on the quality and availability of educational opportunities for blacks. Not even Fisk was immune from racial issues though, and Byrd almost lost her job when, during a faculty meeting, she accused the university president of discrimination, pointing out that white faculty members were allowed to live in new houses while black professors were asked to share dorm rooms with students.

In 1933, DuBois gathered a select group of African Americans together in New York to discuss strategies to combat racism. One of DuBois' "Talented Tenth"—so called because he believed one in ten black men could become leaders through a classical education—was Byrd, who served on the findings committee. Inspired by the conference and motivated to continue making a difference for African Americans, Byrd headed to Washington to help Franklin D. Roosevelt implement the New Deal. The first African American hired by the National Recovery Administration (NRA), Byrd supervised the implementation of rules designed to ensure fair working conditions and equal pay. Called at the time a "shrewd economist" by the New York Daily News and an "efficient, able Negro woman" by the Washington Herald, Byrd stated, "Colored men robbed of their livelihoods mean colored families on relief. It seems we have a perfect right to ask the Administration: 'What are you going to do about it?'"

However, Byrd was let go after just four months when the NRA decided it was not safe for an African American woman to travel to the South to oversee implementation of the project. In response, Byrd joined the Joint Committee for National Recovery, a group that investigated lynchings and unsafe labor conditions in the South and testified before Congress that the Roosevelt administration was not living up to its promise of treating all Americans equally.

During a trip to DC to attend hearings for an anti-lynching bill in 1934, Byrd attempted to eat at the House of Representatives' restaurant. The former NRA employee who had once worked alongside the President of the United States to ensure blacks were treated fairly was forcibly removed from the restaurant though, due to its "Whites Only" policy. The Afro-American newspaper called it "the most sensational incident connected with Representative Warren's Jim Crow regulations," and nationwide protests by African Americans followed. Byrd asked for assistance from elected officials, and elicited responses ranging from senator Royal Copeland (D-NY) telling her she had a "good case" to Senate Majority Leader Joseph Robinson (D-AR) replying that whites did not want to eat with blacks. Copeland ultimately came up with a compromise, and arranged for a table in the restaurant to be set aside for black customers.

By the time figures such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis began making headlines in the civil rights movement, Mabel Byrd—then Mabel Curtis, after marrying L.S. Curtis—had largely retreated from public life. She made an exception though to serve as the executive director of St. Louis' People's Art Center, a center that had been formed to serve everyone, regardless of skin color. But a quiet Byrd was not a passive one, and she eventually resigned from her position after being censured by the board due to speaking out against the racist practices of the organizations funding the center.

Byrd died in St. Louis on May 20, 1988, at the age of 92. The University of Oregon's first African American student, co-founder of the UO's New York alumni chapter, contemporary of such prominent historic figures as W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes, and an ardent advocate for equal rights for both African Americans and women, Byrd was a supporter of education until the end. Her final wishes? In lieu of a memoriam, she asked people to donate to a scholarship fund.

—Naomi Arthur, UO student; Damian Foley, UO communications. Produced with assistance from Jennifer O’Neal, UO historian and archivist; Joseph Foley, student research assistant; and Herman L. Brame, BS ’68.

For further information, read: Untold Stories: Black History at the University of Oregon.