April 17, 1945
When Roosevelt College was founded in 1945, segregation dominated higher education. Many private universities limited the number of Jewish, Catholic and black students they accepted. To screen out “undesirable” applicants, they required photos, personal interviews or the names of all four grandparents on applications.
One exception was the Central YMCA College in Chicago. The school enrolled a diverse group of 2,240 men and women and called itself “liberal in spirit.” By the 1940s, however, college president Edward Sparling began to clash with the Y over admissions quotas and discrimination.
When the board told Sparling to prepare a racial and religious census of the student body, he refused, saying, “We don’t count that way.” The board demanded Sparling’s resignation and, in April 1945, 62 faculty members resigned with him in a historic walkout. Students also voted 448 to 2 in favor of separation.
Sparling and his supporters planned a new school — initially called Thomas Jefferson College — that would offer admission and equal rights to any qualified student. President Franklin Roosevelt had died on April 12 and two weeks later the school was renamed Roosevelt College.
At a time when most American professors were white male Protestants, Roosevelt assembled one of the most diverse faculties in the country. About 1,200 students began classes at Roosevelt College in September 1945. The next year, Roosevelt acquired the famed Auditorium Building on Michigan Avenue. Five thousand students, from military veterans to new high school graduates, registered for classes in the fall of 1947.
An act of courage had created, as one journalist wrote, “a model of democracy in higher education.”