A Michigan Woman, Race Relations, and Virginia 1945

Posted on March 9, 2020

In honor of Women's History Month, Jenna Hershberger, SCRC Graduate Apprentice, introduces Marilyn Kaemmerle and her 1945 Flat Hat editorial that sparked a national response. Read on to learn more about the editor-in-chief's call to action for a school mired in racial segregation.

Page 8 of the February 7, 1945 Flat Hat, featuring an editorial article from Kaemmerle titled, "Lincoln's Job Half-Done..." Her editorial begins, "When Lincoln freed the slaves, he undoubtedly hoped the Negroes would someday be accepted as equals by the other colors of people in this country. Today we find the Negroes release from formal bondage, but not equalized...."
Kaemmerle's editorial, The Flat Hat, 1945 February 7

On Wednesday, February 7, 1945, Marilyn Kaemmerle '45, the editor-in-chief of William & Mary’s newspaper, The Flat Hat, published an editorial on race relations, titled "Lincoln's Job Half-Done..." Kaemmerle’s article began by advocating that African Americans “should go to our classes, participate in College functions, join the same clubs, be our roommates, pin the same classmates, and marry among us.” Recognizing it would be a long, hard process to get to that point, she continued, arguing that differences among races were only skin deep. She ended the article by advocating the importance of white people educating themselves “away from the idea of White Supremacy, for this belief is as groundless as Hitler’s Nordic Supremacy nonsense.”[1]

No Flat Hat issue was published the following week, due to a temporary suspension initiated by the College’s president, John Pomfret, and the week after that, Kaemmerle was removed from the staff. The Publications Committee of the Flat Hat chose Ruth Weimer, the paper’s managing editor, as Kaemmerle’s replacement on February 19. A biography of the new editor-in-chief appeared at the top of the front page the following Wednesday, without any mention of her predecessor. In fact, the former editor was almost expelled. Pomfret said that he hoped “anyone who has read this editorial will consider that it was written by an undergraduate editor and by one who has little expertness in the complex and intricate field of race relations.”[2] However, he did insist Kaemmerle stay the next few months and graduate.

While many students did not agree with Kaemmerle, they quickly protested the College censoring her free speech. The former editor did not attend the protest, saying she would rather forget about the article, though she still believed every word she had written. Over one thousand students gathered to fight against the threatened infringement on the freedom of the press. When rumors of potential race riots and loss of state funding for the College spread, students backed down. Consequently, Flat Hat editors had to discuss “controversial” writings with faculty before publication.

Cover of Kaemmerle's personal scrapbook, featuring a sailboat at sea with two sailors towards the boat's rear. A blue and gold frame contains the image. Large gold text reads, "Scrap Book" toward the bottom of the cover. Small text that reads, "WINDWARD, HO" is printed to the right of the sail.
Kaemmerle filled this scrapbook, now part of the Marilyn Kaemmerle Collection, with newspaper clippings responding to her editorial and removal from The Flat Hat staff.

On February 28, the Flat Hat published an article by Professor Dudley Warner Woodbridge, Dean of the Marshall-Wythe School of Law, in response to the question: “What is the College of William and Mary?” The article stressed everyone having their place in the harmonious unity of the college. Without any mention of Kaemmerle, Woodbridge wrote, “We are the great freedoms of humanity: freedom of thought, freedom of press, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech in whose preserve tyranny and falsehood cannot long survive. We are part of the College of William and Mary,”[3] an ironic sentiment given Kaemmerle’s recent ousting.

Reactions to Kaemmerle’s editorial did not remain within William & Mary. In fact, the Marilyn Kaemmerle Collection (UA 5.058) in Swem Library’s Special Collections is composed of four boxes of newspaper clippings, organized by state, which discuss her writing. Many of the articles specifically call her a “girl editor,” saying she was too young and naïve to make such an argument. They point out that she came from Michigan, so she would be unfamiliar with race relations in the South. Sometimes articles target her as a woman, describing her features, and stressing the university’s paper as “co-ed.” Other newspapers support Kaemmerle’s ideas, but say her approach did more to hinder than help efforts for racial equality. Still, others praise the editor, affirming her argument and urging her to not back down.

Perhaps Marilyn Kaemmerle knew what controversy her editorial would spark, or maybe she did not realize how much backlash she would receive. Whatever her expectations or understanding of the situation, Kaemmerle dutifully saved and organized newspaper responses to her editorial in a scrapbook that still exists today in Special Collections—a lasting reminder of the importance of freedom of press and respecting someone else's right to voice their opinion even when it does not align with one's own.

In the 1980s, the Board of Visitors issued a formal apology to Marilyn Kaemmerle. She passed away in 2001. 

Internal page from Kaemmerle's scrapbook. Three articles pasted onto one page, including one that features a black-and-white headshot of Kaemmerle. The top two articles discuss Kaemmerle's ousting in more neutral reporting, but the bottom article rallies support for Kaemmerle's stance and her freedom of press.
A page from Kaemmerle's scrapbook, featuring an article in support of her editorial.

References and more to explore:

[1] Marilyn Kaermmerle, “Lincoln’s Job Half-Done,” The Flat Hat 34, no. 15 (1945), 8.

[2] “Michigan Girl Shocks College,” Danville Register (February 11, 1945).

[3] D.W. Woodbridge, “What is the College of William and Mary?” The Flat Hat 34, no. 17 (1945), 8.

Access a digitized copy of the February 7, 1945 Flat Hat on the W&M Libraries Digital Archive. Kaemmerle's editorial, "Lincoln's Job Half-Done...", is featured on Page 8.

Explore the finding aid for the Marilyn Kaemmerle Collection (UA 5.058) on the SCRC's manuscripts and archives collections database.