When Ivory Towers Were Black

Sharon Sutton

When Ivory Towers Were Black tells the story of how an unparalleled cohort of ethnic minority students earned degrees from Columbia University’s School of Architecture during the Civil Rights Movement.

Chronicling a little-known era in US history, the book begins with an unsettling effort to end Columbia’s exercise of authoritarian power—on campus and in the community. It ends with an equally unsettling return to the status quo.

The book follows two university units that steered the School of Architecture toward educational equity. It illustrates both units’ struggle to recruit ethnic minority students, while also involving them, and their revolutionary white peers, in improving Harlem’s slum conditions.

The book is narrated through the oral histories of twenty-four ethnic minority alumni who, after receiving the gift of an Ivy League education, exited the school to find the doors of their careers all but closed due to Nixon’s racist policies.

The book assesses the triumphs and upending of this experiment to achieve racial justice. It demonstrates how the triumphs lived on not only in the careers of the alumni but also as best practices in university/community relationships and in the fields of architecture and urban planning.

Through its first-person portrayal, When Ivory Towers Were Black can catalyze contemporary struggles for educational equity as injustices increase and historically marginalized students remain excluded from elite professions like architecture and planning.