Bindu Wisdom

By Anemona Hartocollis

April 4, 2019

It was just before 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 28 of last year when I walked into a bar called Paris Blues in Harlem and first met Ervin Lester Goodson, a member of the Columbia Class of 1973 profiled in my recent article about the history of affirmative action.

The bar was dark, and had an old-fashioned ambience. Mr. Goodson was the bandleader and saxophone player of the four-piece band, which had set up in a corner under a string of blue lights and a photograph of a smiling Malcolm X, opposite one of Barack Obama behind the bar. In the back, the owner Samuel Hargress, a fedora perched on his head, gazed out at the crowd through dark glasses.

His business card said the bar had been founded in 1969, the same year Les Goodson entered Columbia as part of a record-large cohort of black students.

I sat at the bar, had a beer and enjoyed the music, surrounded by neighborhood characters, foreign tourists and a few people who came for the free food.

The band was good. When the first set was over, I was tickled to hear Mr. Hargress introduce Mr. Goodson to two young men who were, Mr. Hargress said, “from Columbia.” Although Mr. Goodson had attended Columbia College decades ago, it was obviously still a strong part of his identity. I had come to the right place, and found the right person.

Mr. Goodson’s was one of many stories — some success stories, others bittersweet — that I heard while researching a project on college admissions during the early years of affirmative action.

I began the project a year ago, and worked on it off and on between other assignments. My job was not to decide whether affirmative action was a success or a failure. It was to put a human face on a policy that has dominated public discourse since at least the mid-1960s, to get beyond the rhetoric and the legal arguments.

I interviewed historians, read archival news stories and pored through college directories at the library before deciding on Columbia’s Class of 1973.

For a while, I considered writing about the Harvard/Radcliffe Class of 1977.

With that in mind, I interviewed Enrico Melson, now a doctor in Los Angeles. In the fall of 1973, his freshman year, he walked into Harvard Yard through a gate festooned with balloons and was greeted by students handing out an article about race on campus. “Everybody who’s got a big Afro gets one,” he said. It was, Dr. Melson recalled, a troubling article, by Harvard’s first African-American tenured professor, Martin Kilson, who criticized what he saw as racial separatism on campus, and asked for a reconsideration of the admissions process.

“That actually set the tone for my Harvard career,” said Dr. Melson, who had grown up poor in Compton, Calif., and was a National Merit scholar. “You don’t belong here and we don’t want you here. You only are worth staying here if you turn white and assimilate.”

But the welcome from Harvard’s president, Derek Bok, cushioned the shock of the Kilson article. “He bangs his gavel two times and he says to us, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the top of the world,’ ” Dr. Melson recounted. “I looked around and my life changed. I saw the old-school blue bloods, the smug looks on their faces. I saw the new breed go get ’em types. I saw others who were, ‘All right, well, this is cool.’ And I saw these other kids who were scared.” He knew that he could make it.

That sense of epiphany came up again and again as I searched out former Columbia students.

Gregory Peterson, one of the students I profiled — now a corporate lawyer and art collector — remembered learning to sing a Columbia fight song, “Who Owns New York?” and feeling that it was about him.

A classmate, Jeriel Heard, from Detroit, remembered the glow he felt when a dean announced that he was part of a record-large contingent of black students. “They thought we were going to be transformational in terms of the history of the college,” Mr. Heard said.

And so they were. The members of the Class of ’73 are now pushing 70 years old. Some of them had died before I tried to reach them. One early source died after I met him. It was even harder to find admissions officers from that time. I felt a sense of urgency, that this was a last chance to capture an important moment in history.

At the same time that I was working on the project, I covered a potentially landmark lawsuit accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian-American applicants, a charge Harvard denies. In court, Harvard’s lawyers argued that the future of affirmative action was at stake.

On Saturday, soon after the affirmative action project went online, I got two emails. The first was from someone on the Asian-American side of the court dispute; the second was from someone on the Harvard side. Both of them recognized the complexity of the issues.

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