Evelyn Witkin on Racial Segregation at NYU—Columbia University
  Evelyn Witkin     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2000

Well, I was an undergraduate at New York University. And in my senior year I got involved in an effort to get the university to stop doing something terrible that they were doing in athletics. They were making gentlemen’s agreements with the universities in the south that whenever any of our black athletes played—whenever we had a game scheduled to be played in the south—New York University agreed to keep our black players at home. And some of us didn’t like that. We were paying athletic fees and we couldn’t help what the southern schools were doing, but we felt that New York University should not go along with this kind of discrimination. So we started circulating a petition to protest this.

This was 1940 or 1941. I graduated from NYU in ’41. It started in the fall and this thing went on the whole year. Anyway they were not going to do anything about it because it was big money. If they walked out on these agreements they would lose millions of dollars actually, contracts would be broken. So they weren’t going to give in. The effort was supported by almost all the students and most of the faculty. Everyone signed this petition and it got to be a little much for them to deal with. It went on through the year; the same thing happened after the football season, it happened in basketball and then in track. By March of my senior year, I guess the administration decided that they had to put a stop to this somehow because there was beginning to be articles in the newspapers about it. And what they did was suspend seven students who they considered leaders of the effort. Protest in the ’40s was very polite. It was nothing like the ’60s. I mean, we circulated petitions and held little meetings. Nobody would have dreamed of having a sit-in or taking over a building—none of that. It was very, very polite. So they suspended seven of us, including me, for three months, which meant I couldn’t graduate with my class because of the marks.

I came back to summer school and got my degree in September, but I had planned to stay at NYU for graduate work. I had been offered an assistantship in the biology department and I was planning to stay there. And of course after this, I didn’t want to have anything to do with NYU and I’m sure that the job was not available for me anymore anyway. So that’s why I went to Columbia. And everything good that has happened to me professionally since then is a result of having being bounced out of college in my senior year. New York University had absolutely no genetics. It was a second rate department. I think I’m sure I would have gone straight down the drain if I stayed there. And Columbia had the Cold Spring Harbor connection and that’s where it happened. So I think this was a reward for good behavior. It seemed like a tragedy at the time. But we actually sued New York University. We were all underage. But our parents sued for our reinstatement and of course we lost, because of their big and powerful lawyers. It was a quite a to-do. But actually it was, for me, such a blessing. I wouldn’t have brought this up only you asked how come I came to Columbia. That’s why.

Evelyn Witkin is a leading bacterial geneticist. She earned her Ph.D. in 1947 with Theodosius Dobzhansky at Columbia University for her Drosophila research. Her interests evolved from Drosophila genetics to bacterial genetics, and she spent the summer of 1944 at Cold Spring Harbor, where she isolated a radiation-resistant mutant of E. coli. Witkin remained at the Carnegie Institution Department of Genetics at Cold Spring Harbor until 1955.

In 1971, she was appointed Professor of Biological Sciences at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and was named Barbara McClintock Professor of Genetics in 1979. Witkin moved to the Wakeman Institute at Rutgers University in 1983. Among her many honors are membership in the National Academy of Sciences (1977), Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1980), American Women of Science Award for Outstanding Research, and Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology.