‘Sworn to secrecy’: Professor Angela Davis’ Teaching at the 5Cs

Renowned activist and academic Angela Davis’s time in Claremont was shrouded in secrecy despite student efforts to call out admin’s treatment toward Davis (Courtesy: TSL Dec. 1975)

Some faculty, students and staff might recall Angela Davis’ recent visit in 2021 for a talk at Pomona College or her 2016 visit to Scripps College as a guest speaker for the interview series “Conversations.” What may be lesser known, however, is that Angela Davis was once a lecturer at the Claremont Colleges.

Davis is a Black political activist, prison abolitionist, Marxist, feminist and academic. Just four years before she joined the staff at the now defunct intercollegiate Black Studies Center (BSC) in 1975, she was at the center of a highly publicized trial that propelled her to national fame. 

In Nov. 1971, the Claremont Collegian reported that 5C students organized a protest against Davis’ trial. “Rally Speakers Decry Apathy, Support Davis,” the headline read. 

While acquitted of all charges, the California case established Davis as one of the faces of the Black Power Movement, intersectionality and prison abolition. Her open opposition to white supremacy and Black radicalism caught the attention of students and faculty at the 5Cs. 

In Oct. 1973, Dr. James Garrett assumed the role of Director at the BSC with plans to hire and recruit full-time professors. One of those professors was Angela Davis, who would join the faculty in Sept. 1975 to teach the history of Black women at the center. 

However, her arrival caused controversy. According to the New York Times, a concerted effort was made by the CMC and Scripps administration to resist her hiring at the Black Studies Center. 

Angered alumni and wealthy benefactors who had talked of canceling their bequest to the richly endowed schools have received letters explaining that [all thought] Miss Davis’s $3,000 contract with the Claremont Black Studies Center was ‘unauthorized and regrettable,’” the New York Times reported.

In May 1975, shortly before Davis’s arrival, the MC Board of Trustees Chairman Jon B. Lovelace Jr. threatened to revoke CMC’s support of the Black and Chicano Studies Center in a letter to Dr. Garrett, if they did not reconsider their hiring choices.

However, Dr. Garrett did not rescind his offer to Davis. Instead, he opted to extend the contract offer to Davis. According to TSL, on the same day Angela Davis later signed the contract, Dr. Garrett was fired from the BSC. 

“The thought crossed my mind that the intention may have been to embarrass us, [the Black Studies Center,” Garrett said in a Nov. 1975 interview with The Observer. “The [administration] said it would be all right. We’ve had Marxists here before.”

According to college administrators at the time, Dr. Garrett acted on his own to hire Davis, although he later alleged that he followed normal hiring protocol. 

By the time the BSC brought Davis on, the center was still in its infancy after years of student-driven activism. Years of activist efforts from the Black Student Union eventually culminated in the construction of the center focused on Black studies but the pathway was marred by tumultuous setbacks, including the silencing of professors like Davis.  

Davis ultimately taught for one semester because her contract was not renewed. While she was in Claremont, however, administrators took efforts to conceal her presence on campus by limiting her course size to 25 students all of whom were “sworn to secrecy,” according to New York Times reporting. Additionally, the location of the class was kept secret and changed each week.

However, the student body was far from quiet about Davis’ time in Claremont. 

“I can’t see how Angela Davis will hurt the colleges,” Joel Kuperberg, ASPC President said in an article with TSL. “It’s stupid to avoid controversy in an educational institution.”

Other opinions published in TSL touched on academic freedom amid calls for transparency while messages on Walker Wall acknowledged her presence, despite having been shrouded in secrecy. 

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