I spent my undergraduate years at Harvard University living in a building named after a man who tried to block black students from freshman dorms, to limit the number of Jews admitted, and who secretly persecuted and expelled gays, even driving several to suicide.
A. Lawrence Lowell, a legal scholar and education reformer, was president of Harvard from 1909 to 1933. Among other accomplishments, he thought up the model for Harvard’s current housing system, where freshmen are randomly sorted into one of 12 houses for the next three years, and where housing is not dependent on socioeconomic status. A variant on it became the college system at Yale, and it was later adopted by Princeton—where controversy currently rages about whether to rename a college named for Woodrow Wilson.
When I ran into Diana Eck and Dorothy Austin, the co-masters of Lowell House, at a religion conference last weekend, I mentioned that I was thinking about writing a piece about Lowell in light of recent student protests around the country. They’re the first gay couple appointed to head a Harvard house.
“Well, you know his sister...” Diana began. I knew, because she’d told her students time and time again: the poet Amy Lowell had a “Boston marriage.”
Each house under Lowell’s system is headed by a couple—typically both professors, or a professor and a spouse—who are tasked with making it an intellectually and socially vibrant space. The exact character of that relationship varies. Nicholas and Erika Christakis, who are at the center of controversy over an email at Yale’s Calhoun College, previously headed Pforzheimer House at Harvard.
I didn’t know much about Lowell when I was sorted into it on a chilly March morning. The night before, I’d dutifully gone around to nearly every house along the Charles to take a shot of cheap booze. In the middle of Lowell’s dark main courtyard, I only knew that I wanted to live in the house across the street.
That wasn’t meant to be. And studying religion, it turned out, was better in a house headed by Diana—a professor of the subject—and Dorothy, then a minister at the campus church.
I don’t remember exactly when I found out about the dark side of Lowell’s legacy, but it must have been at one of the welcome events held for students just sorted into the house. Dorothy and Diana made it a custom: Talk about the irony of all the black, Jewish, and queer students living in a house named after a man who tried to keep them out. If Lowell knew that, for nearly 20 years, the couple in charge of running his house was made up of two women, he’d probably roll over in his grave.
“I think it’s good to bear in mind the legacies of people who have buildings and scholarships and institutions named after them, and to make sure that those things are kept as part of the present,” Diana told me over the phone this week. “I think erasing them deletes the possibility of talking frankly about them.”
Lowell’s legacy, good and bad, isn’t forgotten. Diana is adamant about emphasizing that he “virtually built the Harvard environment that exists today. ...And it was Lowell who had the instinct that we had to do something about student housing,” she added, noting that it had been segregated “literally by socioeconomic class.”
During annual house dinners and special events, Diana highlights the irony of how far the house, and the college, have come. Lowell’s antics, after all, are not even a century old—In terms of limiting Jewish students and racially integrating freshman dorms, he may have actually been behind his time.
To be sure, Lowell’s legacy is less violent than many of the people whose names adorn college campuses. In our conversation, Diana and I both acknowledge that we know less about many of the other names being discussed than about Lowell. His effort to block the integration of black students into freshman dorms after several had already lived in the yard, for instance, was thwarted by other figures in the university. Lowell’s proposal to trim back the school’s Jewish population to 15 percent—alleged over concerns about inspiring anti-semitism—was softened from a strict quota to a commitment to geographic diversity, which colleges still strive for today. A “secret court” Lowell sat on that expelled gay students drove several to suicide, an irony not lost on Diana when she convenes meetings from below his portrait.
“There were people who, when the secret court documents came out, said why do we have his portrait hanging in our dining hall,” Diana recalled. But she also knows that confronting that legacy is one way of moving forward.
“That’s why we leave him there, to acknowledge the history,” she said.
“And we also need to supplement the legacy of our colleges and universities with the legacies of all the people who contributed and have been forgotten,” Diana said. “We have to keep all of these people and add more, add the dissenting voices.”
Diana and Dorothy host a tea for members of the house community every Thursday in their home, and a “Queer Tea” every October for National Coming Out Day, when they post an old newspaper article about their appointment as masters on their front door. “Middle America Suspects a Plot as Harvard Embraces Lesbianism,” the headline reads.
Harvard Hillel is now nestled into a small plot of land right in front of the house, its rabbi serves as a house affiliate. For many years, the most prominent on-campus member of Lowell’s community was the Reverend Peter J. Gomes, the campus minister who happened to be a gay black man. Across the street, Ronald Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson serve as the first black housemasters ever appointed at Harvard.
Lowell’s portrait still hangs over the dining hall, along with those of Amy and Percival, his siblings. Amy, Diana tells students, would probably be considered gay today, while Percival was eccentric and hung out with “bohemians.” Lowell’s bust sits in the house courtyard, where, during my sophomore year, it was outfitted with a kippah and a rainbow pin.