Prof. Burns relates details of 1938 riot

In researching the riot that happened in the Berkshire Quad in the spring of 1938 for my installation project, I discovered that one student who was present for the events is still part of the Williams community today. Before finalizing my plans for the installation, I spoke with James MacGregor Burns ’39, professor of history emeritus, about the riot.

In the weeks leading up to the riot, members of the Garfield Club had made a formal offer to buy all of the “non-Aryan” books in the Vienna library in order to save them from burning by the German government. This offer was rejected, although the books were eventually preserved.

Students later made plans to burn Adolf Hitler in effigy in the Berkshire Quad. Burns described the Garfield Club as “the main locus of this idea, with a big cross-over with the students in the Berkshire Quad.” The Garfield Club was a social organization differing from the fraternities in that any student could join.

According to Burns, roughly one third of the members of the Garfield Club were Jewish, although interest in the demonstration was pretty evenly spread over the campus. Burns had just become president of the Garfield Club that spring. He explained that the demonstration was very much a “political prank” born out of “a spring liberation feeling combined with a lot of concern over what was happening abroad.” The students erected an edifice about eight feet high in the Quad and began burning it at dusk.

“I heard the drumming of many feet on Route 2, coming from fraternity row towards the quad with one objective in mind: to prevent the effigy burning,” Burns recalled. “They were in a festive mood: this was a prank on their part too. I would guess there were 50 to 100 students, which means that this was more than one fraternity.”

I discussed this detail with Burns, and because there were so many fraternity students involved, he said there must have been “some kind of conspiracy, though I hate to say it.” As for the number of students, further accounts in newspapers say that there were five hundred students involved in the riot. To put this in context, there were eight hundred students enrolled at Williams that year.

Once the two groups were together in the Quad, Burns remarked, “It degenerated into rough-housing. There wasn’t much physical violence. I don’t remember anyone lying on the ground, though I might have missed it.” The fraternity students brought fire hoses over from West College in order to try to douse the bonfire. Burns himself got into a struggle with a student over a fire hose, as Burns wanted to keep the fire going.

I asked Burns whether the surreal images described near the end of the article that appeared in the following issue of the Record were examples of poetic license, and he responded with something to the effect of, “tumult makes you do crazy things. It generated its own wildness.”

Burns made it clear that there were no Nazis among the students at Williams. Though there may have been undercurrents of some kind, this riot was primarily the child of youthful prankishness and the social divide on campus between the fraternity and non-fraternity students. This riot, he said, acted to “distance the two sides of the campus” a bit more. However he then pointed out that the fissure was not total: a lot of members of the Garfield Club had friends in frats, and vice versa, and they would often dine at each other’s houses.

I asked Burns whether this riot was forgotten after a week, as so many other events on this campus tend to be these days. He said that it was not; it resonated for quite a while, especially with the members of the Garfield Club, but the arrival of final exams was enough to push it out of consciousness.

When talking to Burns about these events, I found it helpful to remember that in 1938 no one knew what was going to take place over the next seven years. Burns described the major conflict on American college campuses at the time regarding the events in Europe as one of isolationism versus interventionism. The bitterness between these two sides would widen with every week that passed in the following few years.

Burns related a story to me about being at a dinner party while at graduate school at Harvard that broke up entirely due to hostility over this issue. I asked Burns how he would describe the general level of political involvement at Williams while he was there. He found it hard to judge, though he did remind me that the Record was published biweekly at that point, there was a monthly serious magazine called The Sketch, there was a highly regarded humor and satire magazine, The Purple Cow, and all of these were published within a student body of only eight hundred students.

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