Equality by Degrees: Abolitionist Colleges and the Throes of Integration, 1833-1895
John Bell

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



Harvard University

Primary Discipline

My dissertation examines early experiments in racial coeducation undertaken by abolitionists in the mid-nineteenth century. I focus on the first colleges to admit significant numbers of African Americans alongside whites and ask whether the principle of educational equality led to the practice of social equality among members of different races and sexes. Scholars of American social reform have previously shown how revolutionary ideas about racial and gender equality emerged from within the abolitionist movement. And historians of education have demonstrated how segregated schooling provided marginalized groups in this period the tools necessary for engaging in public life and articulating their rights. Yet few have considered the integrated, residential institutions where ideas of social equality were carried out in community. The first comparative study of these schools, my dissertation argues that while college founders enacted open admissions policies, it was students who most fully realized their egalitarian implications.Living and working in biracial environments inspired black and white youth to imagine new possibilities for camaraderie across the color line, yet putting these ideas into practice brought them into conflict with school leaders. Trustees and faculty tended to view impartial education as a means of racial uplift more so than as a vehicle for interracial bonding. Specific disagreements arose over the integration of public spaces, the propriety of interracial relationships, and the hiring of black faculty. Through case studies of representative institutions, I trace the evolution of the social equality issue on campus from its origins in the 1830s through the 1890s. With the passing of the abolitionist generation, I argue, prejudice became more prevalent among white students and faculty. Not until the 1960s would college campuses reemerge as laboratories of racial egalitarianism.
About John Bell
John Frederick Bell is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Harvard University. He received a B.A. in History and Religious Studies from the College of William and Mary in 2007 and an A.M. in U.S. History from Harvard in 2013. He specializes in nineteenth-century cultural, social, and religious history. His work has appeared in The Journal of the Civil War Era, Education’s Histories, and the History of Education Quarterly (forthcoming). Before beginning graduate study, he worked as an analyst at the National Archives and as a high school social studies teacher with Teach For America.

Pin It on Pinterest