170 Years of Women on Campus: Clara I. Lane

By Susan Falciani Maldonado, Special Collections and Archives Librarian

During the spring semester of 2020, we will be offering a series of blog posts that highlight little-known stories of women who have played a role in Muhlenberg’s history. This series is designed to accompany the Special Collections exhibit An Innovation Revisited: 170 Years of Women on Campus, on display in the Rare Books Exhibit Room (Level B) until April 24th.

Two or three summers ago, a panoramic photograph entitled “Muhlenberg College Summer School 1927” popped up on eBay. We purchased the image, happy to add to the archives and be able to further illustrate the story of the Extension School (now the Muhlenberg College School of Continuing Studies). 

In the early twentieth century, there was increasing interest on the part of local teachers in upgrading and standardizing their educations to meet the more stringent certification requirements that were being established by educational administrative bodies. In the autumn of 1909, Muhlenberg College opened the Saturday School for Teachers. Twenty students, both male and female, enrolled during the 1909-1910 academic year. The courses taught during that first program included physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, ancient and modern languages, and English. 

The program grew slowly but steadily: in 1915, the first Summer School was established. In addition to traditional academic subjects, courses in agriculture, calisthenics, and domestic science were offered. In 1917, Dr. Isaac Wright became the director of the Department of Philosophy and Pedagogy at Muhlenberg, or what became known as the Extension Division. The program grew rapidly; soon there were more students enrolled in the Extension School than in the regular College. Courses were offered throughout neighboring cities and counties.

When the photograph arrived and we unrolled the curled-up image, we found, right in the middle, the image of a Black woman. This was a revelation, because, according to College records and the archives, the first Black students at Muhlenberg were five men who joined the regular residential College in 1947. Unfortunately, the 1927 photograph is not labeled by student name, and without a name, we couldn’t query the Registrar’s office for records relating to the Extension School in that period. 

When planning for the current exhibit An Innovation Revisited: 170 years of women on campus, in which we were telling little-known stories of women in Muhlenberg’s history, we thought this would be the perfect time for the anonymous woman to make her debut. We shared her image on social media and focused on the image in a local news segment,  in the hopes that she had been a local resident and her children or grandchildren might recognize her. And then we settled in for some old-fashioned historical legwork. 

A search of the Morning Call from 1927 revealed a reprint of our panoramic photograph, followed by a list of students in the Summer School, along with their towns of residence…..180 women and 201 men. She was somewhere on that list. 

We then began cross-referencing the names and towns in the Morning Call with the United States census. In addition to names, occupations, addresses, and languages spoken, the census records race. Working through the women’s names alphabetically, we had gotten through about 102–through the letter “K”–when we came across Clara I. Lane, of Bethlehem. 

Clara Isabella Lane (1899-1936) was the daughter of Clara B. and Abram Lane of 627 Cherokee Street, Bethlehem. She graduated second in her class at South Bethlehem High School in 1918, according to The Crisis, the periodical of the NAACP. The Morning Call lists her as a participant in local oratorical contests. Upon graduation, she attended West Chester State Normal School (now West Chester University).  A “normal school” was a teacher-training institution; at the time Clara attended, the program was designed to last two years. The increasingly codified teacher certification requirements being mandated around this period would have necessitated that Clara, along with many others, seek further educational opportunities such as those afforded by Muhlenberg’s Extension School. 

Clara graduated from West Chester in 1920, and by 1923 was teaching in Atlantic City, NJ. She taught elementary school students at both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Avenue Schools. She appears to have been teaching there when those schools were legally ordered to desegregate in the late 1920s. According to the Morning Call, she attended not only the 1927 Muhlenberg Summer School, but also the 1926 class. The 1930 census still lists her occupation as “teacher;” by this time she had married John R. Major, an Atlantic City mortician, and given birth to her first daughter, Beryl. A second daughter, LaVeida, followed in 1932.

According to a fragment of an obituary appearing in the Morning Call, Clara passed away in January, 1936, and was interred in Atlantic City. The cause of death is unknown, and further research in the microfilmed archives of Atlantic City newspapers is needed to learn more. Clara’s daughters went on to college, one graduating from West Virginia State University, an HBCU, and one attending Moravian College for one year. Both daughters appear to have spent time living with their grandmother in Bethlehem. After 1960, their names disappear from all readily-available sources.

We plan to continue to search for resources that shed light on Clara’s life, and perhaps someday help us locate her descendants. For now, we can assert that Clara Lane was Muhlenberg College’s first known Black student. 

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