July 30, 2014

Daughter of Webster University’s first black student shares mother’s story

In the 1940’s the Catholic community faced the issue of integrating African-American students into their schools. Around the same time, African-American woman Mary Aloyse Foster sought an education at Webster College, formerly a Catholic institution. She was denied.
After being denied, Foster claimed racial bias against Webster. Archbishop John P. Glennon said he would not approve or disapprove integration regarding Foster’s case.
Three years later, another African-American, Janet Irene Thomas, proved him wrong.
She attended Webster College in 1946 and fought her way through racial discrimination, becoming the first African-American to graduate from Webster.

COURTESY OF RUTH-MIRIAM GARNETT

At the time, African-Americans couldn’t serve in combat in the armed forces. They were barred from movie theaters or popular restaurants on Grand and Lindell streets. Those who opposed ending segregation said it was not yet time to change the law. Thomas did not agree.
Thomas attended Fredrick Douglas High School and continued her education at Stowe Teachers College in 1944, studying music. Her instructor, Kenneth Phillips, taught Thomas for two years and decided he had given her all he could. He suggested she take classes at Webster to refine her skills.
Thomas spent the next four years tackling the issue of integration — integration that could not wait.
Ruth-Miriam Garnett, Thomas’ daughter, describes her mother’s first day in 1946 at an assembly at Webster, and her reaction to the new challenge.
“Irene and her grandparents entered the auditorium and sat down, and then half the people walked out in protest her first day on campus,” Garnett said. “After my mother’s first day, she said, ‘I knew I had a fight on my hands and I dug in my heels.’ ”
Though Thomas had a good education from Webster, she had some unpleasant experiences in the music department.

“She had to take piano and violin lessons with whomever the nun was,” Garnett said. “The students would be sitting in a circle and she would demonstrate and pass it around for students to do the same passage to the music. Before she would pass it to my mother, the nun would put a handkerchief over the bow for the violin for her to use.”
When the boundaries of segregation were pushed against Thomas, she pushed back. Garnett said her mother was a fierce and courageous woman, despite her tiny 5-foot-1, 99-pound frame. Thomas grew up in The Ville, a neighborhood for the black community in north St. Louis, before moving to Elm Street where she lived for her duration at Webster.
Growing up in a home with successful role models, she was from an aspiring family who didn’t believe skin color defined their place in the world. Also, Thomas’ family managed to place all nine children in college. Thomas became an accomplished vocalist and pianist. Garnett remembers her mother singing an aria to her in French, Spanish and Italian.
Peggy Czufin, another student who enrolled at Webster in 1943, recalls struggle of integration into her neighborhood at the time.
“I grew up right behind Ashland Avenue and the integration there to whites felt like the end of the world,” Czufin said. “They just weren’t prepared for it and their hearts weren’t prepared for it either.”

Though the nation wasn’t ready to acknowledge equal rights for all black citizens, Thomas became an activist after her years at Webster.
Garnett remembers her mother standing outside of a movie theater in Webster Groves behind a picket line, protesting with her young daughters standing beside her, demanding access to the facilities.
As a turn for the better, in 1969, Mother Edwards of the university said in a statement that Webster recognized the rights of blacks, and the institution became open to all people of color.

  • Michelle Sanders

    Being an African-American student at Webster University, I would like to say thank you for women like Mary and Janet for making it possible for other African-American students like me to attend this university.

    • Ruth-Miriam Garnett

      I was delighted to meet Ashley last week and augment her research findings on my mother, Irene Thomas Garnett. My mother was remarkable, the most profound person I will ever know, I believe. Two corrections to the story: 1) The nun in Mother’s violin class placed a handkerchief over the chin piece before my mother could take her turn in class demonstrating a passage; 2) My great grandfather Andrew bought land in Webster Groves in 1915 and migrated there from the Ville Neighborhood in 1915. My mother was born in the house the family moved to in 1925. My aunt Ruth Banks has resided in the house on Thornton Avenue for over 50 years. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places.

  • Carter Whitson

    Irene’s mark on Webster University’s history is permanent. Equally as indelible are the values and expectations she instilled in her own children and their friends. I will miss her forever!

  • Tyrone Walker

    Wow, very powerful article, I praise Irene for her spirit and dedication. Surely must have been the toughest battle of her life.

  • http://facebook GrACE DAVIS

    Thanks so much for the article Mimi. There is a lot of information I didn’t know about your Mom. I knew she was a excellent singer, but I didnt know about her problems goint to Webster College. She was a beautiful, talented person. Thanks for putting this on facebook. Grace

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