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In March 1963, Loyola University Chicago made nationwide headlines when its men’s basketball team, the Loyola Ramblers, beat the Cincinnati Bobcats 60-58 in the final round of the NCAA championship. Their victory marked a turning point in the history of college basketball and the civil rights movement. Never before had an integrated college team starting four Black players on a five-man squad gone on to win a national title.
Yet, even as the camera bulbs flashed in the stadium, racism was still a daily fact of life for Black people in Chicago, and Loyola was no exception.
Less than a month after the NCAA championship game, a Black sophomore named Marie Leaner was refused access to a swimming pool on the 17th floor of Lewis Towers (111 E. Pearson St.). This incident touched off a series of student-led civil rights protests, testing Loyola’s commitment to social justice when the university’s standing with a major donor was on the line.
Loyola came into possession of Lewis Towers back in 1945, when a prominent Chicago business magnate and philanthropist, Frank Lewis, donated the skyscraper to the university. However, there was one condition. Frank’s wife, Julia Lewis, would retain control of the top eight floors of the building as a tenant, using them to operate her organization the Illinois Club for Catholic Women (ICCW).
For years, the ICCW operated the pool on the 17th floor, allowing most Loyola coeds to use it as they pleased. However, the ICCW was a segregated organization and as Leaner and subsequent civil rights testers showed, Black women were not allowed in the pool.
On July 1, 1963, Loyola University Chicago again made national headlines in the wake of a protest in which habit wearing nuns joined with students to march against the ICCW’s racist policies. Although the university administration remained largely silent on the issue — worried to anger either side — on July 9, Mrs. Lewis bowed to the pressure and announced that she would desegregate the pool.
But, Leaner and other Black students never got a chance to swim there — shortly after the announcement was made, Mrs. Lewis closed down the pool for “repairs” and never reopened it again.
In an editorial she published in defense of the ICCW’s policies in June 1963, Mrs. Lewis wrote that “[I have] probably dealt with more Negroes than the local rabble rousers and I know that the really sensible and sincere ones are not interested in associating with other than their own race.”
Disturbingly, Loyola never distanced itself from Mrs. Lewis or the ICCW. From 1962 until her death in 1966, Mrs. Lewis held several prominent positions within the university, including Honorary Chairwoman of the Women’s Board of Loyola and member of the Medical Center Council. In 1964, she even joined the Board of Lay Trustees, which once advised the university president on financial and legal matters concerning the administration of the university.
Meanwhile, the ICCW still maintains an office in suite 914 of Lewis Towers. The Phoenix reached out to both the university and the ICCW for comment on this story, yet neither responded at the time of publication.
Since 1963, Lewis Towers has become home to the Office of the President and other key university administrative offices. Instead of a pool, the seventeenth floor now boasts two large conference centers, a computer lab and an electronic classroom. Yet, the building’s name remains.
Upon entering Loyola, nearly every first-year learns about the Ramblers’ 1963 NCAA run, especially if they go to a basketball game. Yet, the university’s administration has had nothing to say about the courageous students who stood up for human rights — and each other — just months later.
What message does that send to Black students or to those who care about the core tenants of social justice?
In the course of my research for this piece, I also came across a column, written in the Loyola News — the forerunner of the Phoenix — in April 1963, in which a student called out the university for allowing certain fraternities and sororities to exclude Jewish and Black students from their ranks.
As Loyola reckons with its latest round of racial justice protests, prompted by real and pressing issues at the university, it must also confront its past. It may seem easier to white-wash history, to pretend that the university was always on the right side. Unfortunately, that narrative is not only false — it’s harmful.
Loyola can’t address the historic (or present) wrongs it’s done to its Black students without acknowledging them. Nor can it seriously address them while President Rooney’s office sits in a tower that still bears the name of Mrs. Lewis, an open segregationist.
If the university administration sincerely wants to “learn and grow in confronting racism,” then it must start by acknowledging its history and the contributions of students like Marie Leaner who had the courage to challenge an evil system. It should then go even farther by adopting the recommendations of the Black Cultural Center, as well as the demands of the Our Streets LUC movement, and finally, it should rename Lewis Towers.