National Institute on Aging

Bryn Mawr College Removes the Name of Its Racist Former President From Its Library Facade

Martha Carey Thomas was the second president of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She was a graduate of Cornell University and earned a Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Dr. Thomas was named chair of the department of English and dean of the college at Bryn Mawr in 1884. She served as the college’s president from 1894 to 1922.

In a 1916 address to the student body, Dr. Thomas stated that “if the present intellectual supremacy of the white races is maintained, as I hope that it will be for centuries to come, I believe that it will be because they are the only races that have seriously begun to educate their women.” Bryn Mawr did not admit its first Black student until 1927.

In 1935, the college’s Old Library was designated the M. Carey Thomas Library and the name was inscribed over the library’s main entrance. In 2017, Bryn Mawr President Kim Cassidy announced a moratorium on the use of the name “Thomas Library” in all official representations and formed a working group to recommend whether the name of the library should be changed. A year later, the working group recommended – and the college administration agreed – to change the name to “Old Library” but retain the inscription on the facade of the building.

Now, the board of trustees has voted to remove the inscription. In a statement to the campus community, the board said “we have concluded that the fraught legacy of M. Carey Thomas continues to impede our progress in becoming the community we aspire to be. Even as M. Carey Thomas was steadfast in her drive to build a first-rate academic institution for the education of women, the limitation of her vision to the education of wealthy white women, her embrace of eugenics, and her outspoken racist and antisemitic beliefs have caused pain for generations of students, staff, and faculty. We believe that Thomas’ social beliefs are irreconcilably in conflict with Bryn Mawr’s mission, values, and aspirations today. The inscription over the Old Library entrance, initially intended to honor Thomas’ contributions, now sends an unwelcoming message too powerfully placed to be offset or clarified by countering narratives elsewhere.”

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