‘Seven Sisters and a Brother’

‘Seven Sisters and a Brother’

Learning about a sit-in at Swarthmore in the 1960s — and about each other today

Jannette Domingo, left, and Marilyn Allman Maye
Jannette Domingo, left, and Marilyn Allman Maye

There is much that divides the black and Jewish communities, but there is so much more that connects us, and so very much that we share with each other and learn from each other.

It is with that understanding that the social action committees of five Orthodox synagogues in Teaneck, led by the committee at Rinat Yisrael, present a pre-Martin Luther King Day discussion called “Friendship, Resistance, and Strength: Untold Stories of Student Activists in the Civil Rights Era.” (See below.)

Jannette Domingo and Marilyn Allman Maye are two of the “Seven Sisters and a Brother” who went to Swarthmore College together in the 1960s, occupied the admissions offices there together, and then, decades later, wrote a book together. They both will be at Rinat and will talk about their experience.

“I think that people are looking for ways to be active, and to communicate with others, to support others, and to show that they have not been totally taken over by the negative spirit of the times,” Ms. Domingo said. “What can we do? How can we remain open, reach out, and reaffirm our solidarity with other people?” That’s what she intends to do at the meeting.

Ms. Domingo, who lives in Weehawken, grew up in New York. She’d graduated from Hunter High School — then as now a public school, run by Hunter College, that it is extraordinarily difficult to get into — and then been one of a group of about 50 black students at Swarthmore.

“We are going back to the 1960s for our story,” she said. “We’re going back to a college that was then and continues to be known as a liberal institution, with a Quaker heritage. We were part of their beginning to recruit African-American students.”

The school didn’t quite know what to do with the students — most of whom, like Ms. Domingo, “were not at risk,” as she put it. “One of the catalysts for our action was the college publishing a report about the character of the black students. Because the sample was so small — there were only 50 of us, out of about 1,200 students! — it was quite clear who was who in the study, even though they didn’t identify us by name.

“And they put it in the library; it wasn’t just for internal use. We asked them several times to remove it, but they refused. It was that kind of lack of respect that created friction between the administration and the black students.”

There were very few black faculty members — “there was only one, in fact, and he was from Eritrea, and untenured. And there were very few courses about African-Americans, or Africa, or the black diaspora.”

At first the students didn’t know what to do, but as they started feeling increasingly marginalized, and increasingly aware that they could take power — as the 60s began to shake the institutions and assumptions all around them — the students began to take action.

“We began to realize that there was not a critical mass of black students, so we began to agitate for the college to recruit more students,” Ms. Domingo said. “They were slow to do so.

“And we started to create our own courses. We got people to come to special lectures and events. These all were things that the college should have been doing, and this became part of our demands. The college needed to institutionalize the effort, to put resources behind it. To be serious about having a vibrant community that included significant numbers of black students and faculty and administrators, and to include a curriculum whose canon was expanded.

“We even affiliated in support of the black staff; they all were in buildings and grounds. There were no black administrators. We kind of felt like it was a plantation.”

For about three years, the black students became increasingly assertive. “We were able to create a group to support one another,” Ms. Domingo said. “We had been active doing all kinds of things, creating our own courses, bringing in all sorts of speakers, and advocating for more black faculty and staff.”

Through that work, the students supported each other. “This is very much a story about the power of collective leadership,” Ms. Domingo said. “It’s about how a group can accomplish change. About how going beyond being an individual advocate can give more power.”

Okay. So what did they do?

“Keeping in mind that half the group was going to be graduating in the spring of 1969, we knew that timing was of the essence for us,” Ms. Domingo said. “If we were going to get some concessions, if we were going to make a difference, we needed to do it before we left. And this was our graduating semester.”

So a “subset of the seven sisters and one brother — the New Yorkers, and one of us from Boston — met during the Christmas holiday to figure out the logistics. We had the blueprints of the building. They weren’t secret — we would go to the library, pull down the books, and put them on the Xerox machine. We got the information about the windows and doors, we bought supplies, chains for the doors, we decided when we would tell the other students, we invited them to participate.

“Remember, this was the 60s.

“So we had a meeting, and initially a large group of black students went into the admissions office and asked the staff to please leave, because we were taking over the office. We gave our demands, and eventually almost all of the 50 black students came to the admissions office to join us. Not everybody in that group by any stretch of the imagination would be considered a radical.

“We were there for eight days.” They negotiated, and almost all of their demands were met.

The sit-in ended abruptly; Swarthmore’s president, Courtney Smith, died of a heart attack. He’d had severe coronary problems, but the students had not known about them. “We were blamed for his death,” Ms. Domingo said. “It has taken quite a long time for that shadow to be removed.”

Ms. Domingo went on to have a distinguished career; she earned a master’s from McGill and then a doctorate from Columbia, both in economics. She taught at the City University of New York for many years and was chair of the African-American studies program at John Jay College; working with John Jay, she developed the federally funded McNair Scholars Program, “a post-baccalaureate mentoring program for first-generation students.”

Does she see any hope in this grim world? “Yes, I do,” Ms. Domingo said. “I want to affirm the student movements we see today and the young people who are taking the lead on everything from environmental issues to criminal justice issues to women’s rights to gun control. You can make a difference through youth action, through collective action. But we also have to remember that the gains we make today have to be cultivated and sustained. It is not automatic that the gains we make today continue forever.

“Activism should never die out. Young people today are fighting for some of the same things that we fought for. It’s easy to become complacent, but there are areas in which young people have said yes, this is our world. We are responsible for making a change. That gives me hope.”

Marilyn Allman Maye said that one of the questions that audiences often ask about the book is how eight authors managed to work together.

It’s an important question, she said; the strength that the eight got from each other when they were young has continued to fortify them over the next 50 years. “Even as we have gone our separate ways — we have not all been in touch with each other all that time — we did not have to regain the trust. It was already there.

“It wasn’t as if there were no problems at all. There were the usual misunderstandings. But we always weathered those storms, using the same processes we had used all along. We had a high level of confidence in everybody’s motivation. I am very bullish on this process. I believe in this process.”

What will she say to a Jewish audience in particular? Ms. Maye laughed; her connection to the Jewish community goes way back. She grew up in Harlem; a teacher in her public elementary school was struck by her talent, and helped her get a scholarship to the then all-girls Calhoun School, a private institution on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “It is now a very progressive school, but back then it was very traditional,” Ms. Maye said. “I was the only black girl in the class, and the school was predominantly Jewish.” It then had a smallish brownstone on a side street — now it’s on West End Avenue — “and it wasn’t big enough for the whole school to meet. So every Wednesday we would walk down from 92nd Street to Bnai Jeshurun for our assembly.

“I have been very much affected by Jewish culture and mores and people,” she added.

“When I went to Swarthmore, there was a Jewish community there,” Ms. Maye said. She became friends with one classmate in particular, a young woman whose grandmother had endowed an award Ms. Maye had won.

Like Ms. Domingo, Ms. Maye talked about the lack of sensitivity to black students that she encountered at Swarthmore. “Together, we began to realize that change was needed, and that change was possible,” she said. “It kind of grew. It wasn’t as if outside agitators had come. In the end, all sorts of people come around to put their own two cents in, but we already had come to the conclusion about what was needed.”

After the sit-in, and after graduation, Ms. Maye, who had wanted to become a teacher, went to graduate school at Harvard, and then she taught math, first in Harlem and then at Queens College. In the 1980s, she worked for the City of New York; her background in math and education brought her logically into technology. She worked for City Hall, under mayors Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani. And then she came to work in Englewood, for school superintendent Joyce Baynes; later, they both worked in Teaneck as well.

It is because of Ms. Maye’s connections in Teaneck and Englewood that she and Ms. Domingo will speak at Rinat, Shira Forman said.

Ms. Forman is a co-chair of the shul’s newish social action committee. “The idea being that we have lots of wonderful committees at the shul already,” Ms. Forman said. “They’re already focusing on things like chesed and education, that typical shuls have, but we don’t have anything that focuses on reaching outside the Jewish community.” That’s where the social action committee came in. “We” — that’s Ms. Forman and the other co-chair, Ravital Korn — want to reach out. “We want to get programs that would get people excited about hearing about issues of social justice and social advocacy that we don’t always do in our yeshivas and our shuls. Fortunately, we have had a really nice amount of interest. We had a book drive for hurricane victims and an annual Thanksgiving visit to local first responders.

“At Rinat, we often talk about issues like respect for others and the fundamental rights of all human beings. It is just a matter of getting people motivated. They are always receptive, but it takes work to put things into action, and we are all very busy with lots and lots of projects. That’s always the way it is in the Orthodox community.”

And she senses a change.

“People are starting to think about chesed as expanding outside our local community,” she said. “I think that this is a perfect time to introduce speakers like Marilyn and Jannette. We have a lot to learn from them.”

Who: A consortium of social action committees from five of Teaneck’s Orthodox shuls, spearheaded by Congregation Rinat Yisrael

Who: Marilyn Allman Maye and Jannette Domingo, two of the “Seven Sisters and a Brother”

What: Offer a pre-MLK Day discussion, “Friendship, Resistance, and Strength”

When: On Sunday, January 5, at 8 p.m.

Where: At Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Ave., Teaneck

For more information: Call (201) 837-2795 or go to rinat.org.

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