COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – John W. Bricker had only been Ohio’s attorney general for weeks when he defended Ohio State University’s segregated housing policy to the state Supreme Court.
A Black student wanted to live in an on-campus home economics laboratory with her white peers. But the university did not permit “racial intermingling” in on-campus residences. At the time, it didn’t allow Black students to live on campus at all.
“The University does not believe, rightly or wrongly, that we are ready yet in the present social order in Ohio to approve complete social equality whereby the colored and white girls will live together 24 hours a day in the most intimate personal fashion,” then-Ohio State Vice President Lewis Morrill wrote in a letter in January 1933.
Ohio State began desegregating residence halls in 1946, more than a decade after it refused to allow a Black student to share quarters with white students. Bricker, who went on to become a university trustee and chair of the board, would be honored by trustees in 1983 for his service to his “alma mater, his community, his state, and his country” by renaming the top administrative building on campus after him.
In 2021, after pushes by Ohio State’s Undergraduate Student Government and University Senate, the Board of Trustees crafted a procedure to rename buildings and spaces and established a standing committee to review renaming requests.
Nearly two years after its creation, the committee has received one renaming request, which is currently under review. That request is not to rename Bricker Hall.
For now, 90 years after Bricker defended the university’s segregated housing policy and 40 years after his name first adorned the administrative building, his name remains set into the brick façade, topping the letterhead of the university president’s correspondence.
Two Black students and a ‘troublesome’ lawmaker on a mission
Doris Weaver was a senior home economics student at Ohio State in 1933 — the only Black senior home economics student — when she stood before the Ohio Supreme Court, asking the state to compel Ohio State to integrate its on-campus housing.
Weaver wanted to live in the Home Management House while she took her last course for her degree. The house served as the laboratory where senior home economics students lived together as a family, applying the skills they learned in class to a six-week stint in homestyle living.
She was initially accepted into the house for the fall 1932 quarter before the School of Home Economics informed her she was admitted by mistake — it had never allowed Black and white students to live together, and it wouldn’t start with Weaver.
Instead, Ohio State offered Weaver what it considered an equitable alternative: She could live in the house, but separately. She would prepare her food, clean her living quarters and “manage” her section of the house alone. She would complete the same coursework in the same building as her white peers, the university argued, just out of those white peers’ sight.
A year before Weaver applied to live in the Home Management House, Wilhelmina Styles was rejected from living in it because she was Black. A senior from Cleveland, Styles reached out to her soon-to-be state representative: Chester Gillespie, an attorney who was campaigning to be the only Black lawmaker in the Ohio House of Representatives at the time.
In a September 1932 letter, Styles wrote to Gillespie that the head of the Department of Home Management told her “that as long as she stayed at Ohio State University there shall never be a colored girl live in the Home Management House.”
After he was elected, Gillespie reached out to then-Ohio State President George Washington Rightmire about both Styles’ and Weaver’s cases, imploring Rightmire to immediately grant Weaver admittance to the Home Management House – or else he would bring it to the legislature’s attention. Instead, Rightmire invited Gillespie to visit Ohio State.
Gillespie sent a similar letter to George Hagenbuch, an influential alum and Cleveland attorney, who forwarded it to Rightmire within days. In his letter, Hagenbuch cautioned Rightmire about Gillespie.
“This man Gillespie is the type who always has a chip on his shoulder and insists upon causing troublesome situations at every opportunity,” Hagenbuch wrote.
Rightmire didn’t know his opponent – not even, at first, that he was Black, his correspondence with Hagenbuch shows. But he learned quickly from Hagenbuch that Gillespie was a “professional agitator,” looking to forward his cause of social equality.
You can swipe through Rightmire’s correspondence with Hagenbuch below.
Rightmire and the university wouldn’t back down from its segregation policy, and neither would Gillespie, who repeatedly brought up the issue at alumni events and legislative sessions. In January 1933, Gillespie unsuccessfully attempted to block state funding to Ohio State until the legislature investigated the university and it changed its housing policy. He attended protests and spoke at forums about Weaver’s case. He continued to elicit support for integration from students and civil organizations.
But Rightmire and Morrill, Ohio State’s first vice president, had been corresponding with state legislators to prevent Gillespie’s resolution from moving forward. By the end of January, the resolution was tabled indefinitely by the House’s Universities and Colleges Committee.
“After the meeting I went to Miss Weaver and told her I was sorry to vote against the motion but would use what little influence that I might have to see that she will have a fair chance to complete her course,” a lawmaker wrote to Rightmire.
The university wanted to stay segregated, but did its students?
By the time Gillespie’s resolution failed, Ohio State and Weaver were poised to battle head-to-head in court. Rightmire and other administrators hoped to avoid court by modifying the university’s housing policy: It would reserve half of the Home Management House for Black students for one quarter each academic year. But the change didn’t satisfy Weaver or her attorneys – she didn’t want segregation as part of the solution.
In letters to various legislators, alumni and other university officials, the administration doubled down on its commitment to preventing white and Black students from living together on campus. On the one hand, administrators dismissed Gillespie’s call for integration, with Rightmire writing to a state lawmaker that Gillespie’s complaint was about a “tiny detail of regulations.” On the other hand, administrators sought to justify their policy by emphasizing the importance of keeping students segregated – especially in living quarters as “intimate” and familial as the Home Management House.
“There is nothing unfair in our opposition to social intermingling of the races. In the light of experience, it just will not work,” wrote John Cunningham, dean of the College of Agriculture, to Rightmire. “Furthermore, it would be quite unfair to accede to the demands of one and at the same time go counter to the wishes of the five remaining members of the group which would comprise the Home Management House family of six.”
Ohio wasn’t ready – and neither were Ohio State’s students – to integrate housing, Rightmire and other administrators repeatedly claimed. But letters to the university in support of Weaver and her predecessor, Styles, suggest quite the opposite.
It was something Styles herself confirmed; after she was rejected from the Home Management House, she surveyed the white seniors in her class – all of whom said they had no issue living with her. After Weaver’s case gained media attention, the Liberal Club at Ohio State and about three dozen signatories sent a letter to Rightmire, calling Weaver’s housing rejection an “outrageous invasion” of tolerance and justice.
“We condemn this policy as part of the propaganda of white superiority by means of which conservative interests are protected from a union of black and white in building a society free of class and race discrimination and inequality,” the letter read.
Other organizations on campus – many of which were made up mainly of white students – submitted their disapproval of the university’s policies to Rightmire, even before Weaver herself complained. The university received letters from alumni and a slew of civil organizations across the country, from the Hilltop Civil League in Columbus to the NAACP in Washington. Later letters called for immediate acceptance of Weaver into the Home Management House, with most demanding Ohio State fully integrate its housing.
Rightmire forwarded those letters to the attorney general’s office in February 1933, as Bricker was preparing to submit Ohio State’s reply to Weaver’s complaint. Rightmire had previously sent along the university’s official points of argument in the case.
“We here are most kindly disposed towards colored students,” Rightmire wrote. “There is an insignificant number of white students advocating this living in the same apartment and so far as I know they are not taking Home Economics and hence are not likely to have the experience which they are zealously advocating for other white girl students.”
In Ohio State’s reply to Weaver’s complaint, Bricker wrote that the university was endowed with the right to establish policies to “not only protect the health but also the welfare and peace of the students.” In March 1933, months after Weaver opted into another course to graduate, the Ohio Supreme Court agreed.
Decades before the Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka struck down the constitutionality of “separate but equal” treatment based on race, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Ohio State had the “full authority to prescribe regulations that will prove most beneficial to the university.”
“The purely social relations of our citizens cannot be enforced by law; nor were they intended to be regulated by our own laws or by the state,” the court’s ruling read.
What’s in a name?
Aside from a few articles published by Ohio State’s Library, Weaver’s and Styles’ names are nowhere to be seen on campus. Students in Ohio State’s Undergraduate Student Government tried for several years to change that, working since 2019 to call officially on the university to rename Bricker Hall after Weaver herself.
The committee to review requests for renaming university spaces cannot propose the review of a particular building or space name; students, faculty, staff or alumni must submit a request, detailing reasons to consider a name change and providing the committee with research. The committee also cannot further investigate a building name’s history or the person behind it, according to the renaming procedure website – it must take submitted reviews at face value.
After the provost approves an initial review of the request, the committee then can send to the president its recommendation to change the name or not. The president makes the final determination – unless the decision is to rename the building or space, in which case the Board of Trustees must also approve.
“Removing a naming designation is a serious step that will only occur under exceptional and narrow circumstances,” the renaming procedure website reads.
NBC4 reached out to the co-chairs of the committee, Senior Associate General Counsel Brandon Lester and Interim Vice Provost of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion Yolanda Zepeda, but they referred NBC4 to an Ohio State spokesperson.
Representatives from student government told NBC4 that members were drafting a request to rename Bricker Hall but did not say when it would be submitted.