Authored by anon in “In the Shadow of the Church: Black Study in the Town of Davidson“
last updated 02.09.2021
In 1942, Davidson College elected to make its annual philanthropic gift in the form of a grant to the local YMCA, to support the education of Black children in Mecklenburg County. According to the Davidsonian at the time, many students were upset or unhappy with the decision to raise funds for Black children, having grown up as white men in an openly racist Jim Crow culture. While numerous articles at the time urge students and faculty to contribute to the fundraiser, few mention the contribution of Dining Services staff to the cause.
This photo from the College Archives depicts Chef Isaacs (far right) handing a check to the President of the College, Walter Cunningham. Behind him are other members of the Dining Services staff, gathered with their hands clasped in front. While President Cunningham is smiling, Chef Isaacs’ and the other College employees’ faces are stoic, demonstrating the friction between the narrative of Davidson exceptionalism (a school where students, staff, and administration come together for a common cause!) and the shameful behavior of an institution soliciting money from its Black employees living in poverty, whose labor it has aggressively exploited, to bolster its own philanthropic self-image. While for Davidson College, the gift fund is an act of charity –an ideal inextricably linked to Presbyterian noblesse oblige(Ritterhouse, 2006, p. 14)– for the employees writing this check, it is an act of mutual aid, of providing materially for children in their community. In this image, we can see a Black community going the distance, where respectable white liberalism always falls short.
I argue that in handing over this check, Chef Isaacs and the kitchen staff are practicing an insurgent Black study. Here, we go back to the root of “study” as examining, assessing, looking a subject up and down in the way that the Black people in this picture look at Cunningham. They don’t smile or look away; they see this man for what he is.