In 1920, nine gay Harvard students were hunted down by a secret court, humiliated, expelled, and told to leave the city of Cambridge. This week, a group of current students and alumni held a rally aimed at persuading Harvard to award the nine posthumous honorary degrees. The group “Their Day In The Yard”, and their quest for justice, is On Our Radar.
On May 13, 1920 Harvard undergrad Cyril Wilcox came out to his brother George, a Harvard graduate. Cyril confessed he was having an affair with an older man from Boston. I suspect George did not take the news well, because that same night Cyril put his head in the oven. Nine days later, an angry and grieving George put into motion the events that led to a secret Harvard court on a witch-hunt for gay students.
After his brother’s suicide, George intercepted correspondence meant for Cyril looking for mentions of other gay students. He found his brother’s lover in Boston and beat him until he gave up the names of three additional gay men he knew at Harvard. Then George took his list of names to the Harvard Dean, insisting the school root out the network of homosexual activity he had uncovered.
Unfortunately for the gay students at Harvard, the president of the University at that time was Abbott Lowell. History remembers Lowell as an innovative and progressive educator, who expanded Harvard and introduced the concept of “community education” by offering classes to the local schoolteachers. To his credit, Lowell showed a glimmer of being a social liberal by decreeing rich students would no longer be housed separately from poor students. But then there’s the other Abbott Lowell; the Lowell who made it his mission to reduce the percentage of Jewish students at Harvard from 27% to 15% on the excuse the larger the Jewish population of the student body, the more anti-Semitism flourished. And though Harvard had been integrated since 1870, Lowell sought to eliminate black students at Harvard, saying, he thought it “impossible to compel men of different races to reside together.”
If you’re thinking Lowell’s record with minorities does not look promising for the gay students on George Wilcox’ list, you’re right. The day after he heard of his accusations, Lowell decided to circumvent the normal student disciplinary process and appointed a five-man panel with unlimited power to investigate and to punish. The panel referred to themselves as “The Court”.
There are no recordings of “Court” proceedings, only transcripts, so it’s hard to judge the demeanor of the questioners. Was it accusing? Threatening? Was it cajoling? Or was it artificially sympathetic? Hard to say. I do know no question was out-of-bounds, from masturbation to cross-dressing to the details of the men’s heterosexual encounters. We can further surmise that it was not a pleasant inquiry by the fact that one of the men left the court, reported to the Harvard Infirmary, and killed himself before a verdict was even reached.
At the end of its inquiry, the Court voted to expel nine students, admonishing them to immediately leave not only Harvard, but also the city of Cambridge. They sent letters of expulsion to each of the students’ parents detailing their son’s “offenses” and warning Harvard would send negative responses if the school were ever approached for a recommendation. And in a surprise move, the Court reached beyond the ivy walls of Harvard and brought pressure to bear on nearby restaurants to fire some local gay men whose names surfaced in the investigation.
In 2002, The Crimson, Harvard’s in-house newspaper, discovered the records of this long forgotten episode in a box marked “Secret Court”. Their weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes, reported the story in the November 2002 issue. Two weeks later, an editorial in The Crimson suggested awarding the expelled men posthumous degrees. But it was not until eight years after that initial suggestion, that a Harvard student began the current effort with a Facebook Page called “Their Day In The Yard”. The effort now has its own website and a growing number of champions.
Of course the more things change the more they stay the same. The week after the suggestion of posthumous degrees was published, the editor of the Harvard Salient, a campus conservative magazine, called the Court’s decision “a very appropriate disciplinary move.” In a letter to the editor of The Crimson, he urged Harvard to “reestablish (1920) standards of morality”. And our good friend Pat Buchanan had this to say: “Harvard appears to have quietly expelled a few deviates while avoiding a public scandal that would have ruined their reputations and damaged Harvard’s good name. What did Harvard do wrong?”
A former president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, has expressed regret for the 1920 incident, saying “These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing. They are part of a past that we have rightly left behind.” In other words, “Move along, nothing to see here.” That’s certainly the easiest route. With so many compelling issues that require our attention in the present, it’s tempting to let the past fade to black. Pat Buchanan and the editor of the Harvard Salient are two reminders of why we can’t.
The Harvard Motto is a single word: “Veritas”. Truth. Harvard needs to take that word to heart; face the truth of what was done, and make what reparations it can. “Veritas”. It’s more than a motto. It’s excellent advice.