Opinion

A Symbol of Courage: Marie Leaner and her Struggle to Desegregate Loyola

Alexa Galas | The PhoenixThe front doors to Lewis Towers, the heart of Loyola's Water Tower Campus. Donated to the school in the 1945 from Frank Lewis — it was the site of anti-segregation protests that got a Loyola student suspended.

The Loyola Phoenix is committed to publishing opinion pieces that represent many diverse perspectives and viewpoints. If you have an interest in submitting a piece or writing for us, email phoenixopinion@luc.edu.

When Spanish explorers brought the first enslaved Africans to this country in 1565, they introduced an institution that would come to define the United States. From the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, each successive generation of Americans has shaped their politics around questions of race and belonging. Unlike almost any other issue, slavery and its consequences have uniquely shaped the American experience. 

Therefore, it’s important to acknowledge Loyola University Chicago is not exempt from that history. Although Loyola depicts itself as a racially progressive institution, the university and the Jesuit order that founded it share a past tainted by the twin injustices of slavery and racism.  

For example, in the winter of 1963, Marie Leaner was a sophomore studying political science at Loyola. In an interview with The Phoenix she said she dreamt of working for the U.S. State Department when she graduated. But she had a more immediate aspiration, too. In 1963, she just wanted to learn how to swim. 

[Related in Opinion: The Pool in Lewis Towers: Segregation at Loyola]

One day that year, Leaner thought she had her chance. A friend told her about a pool in one of the school’s downtown skyscrapers that was supposed to be open to all female Loyola students. Leaner tried to go swimming there, but an attendant refused to let her into the pool.

Courtesy of Loyola University Chicago In 1963, Loyola student Marie Leaner led the charge to desegregate a pool inside Lewis Towers. The pool was run by Julia Lewis, wife of Frank Lewis who donated the building to the school in 1945.

She recalled asking the attendant what the problem was, but they wouldn’t give her a straight answer. Leaner suspected her race might have something to do with it, so a few days later she returned with a white friend who went in front of her. Her friend entered the pool without a problem, but when Leaner tried to go in, an attendant stopped her again.

As an African American growing up in Chicago in the 1940s and ‘50s, Leaner was no stranger to racism. Some of her earliest memories were of segregated changing rooms in department stores and of harassment by shop attendants. Leaner was just 5 years old the first time white people stopped her from going swimming with them. But Leaner’s parents taught her to stand up for herself. 

In an interview recorded with Leaner in late February, she said, “Growing up, I made a decision that I wasn’t going to accept any prejudice or racism towards me. I called it being better than white people. It was a refusal to accept their version [white people’s] that I was somehow different or inferior because of the color of my skin.”

With that attitude guiding her actions, Leaner took a stand. She began organizing her friends and classmates in order to protest the policy. At their first demonstration, approximately 10 students showed up. But soon, the protests grew.

As a lifelong Catholic attending a Jesuit university, Leaner understood the importance of getting the clergy involved in her movement. Therefore, she invited Loyola’s priests and nuns to join her on the picket lines — leading a number of them to answer the call. According to Leaner, this marked the first time white nuns participated in a Civil Rights protest paving the way for the “Sisters of Selma” two years later. 

Leaner was also successful in coaxing the media to cover her movement. As the first Black tour guide for the Chicago Sun-Times, she recalled having access to reporters whom she tipped off, leading to coverage in both the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune.

Dave Meade | Chicago Daily News Archives Coverage from the Chicago Daily News of the protests at Lewis Towers — June 29, 1963.

With the media and clergy by her side, Leaner felt emboldened. With her protest movement growing, she called for a march on the mansion of the Cardinal Albert Meyer, the then-Archbishop of Chicago. She said she hoped to shame the church into making a statement on the matter. Yet despite the protest march, Cardinal Meyer never commented on the drama unfolding at Loyola. 

Despite the church’s silence, Leaner’s strategy eventually ground her opponents down. Sadly though, they did not grant her the victory she sought. In fact, the pool Leaner tried to swim in was not owned by Loyola at all. Rather, an organization known as the Illinois Club for Catholic Women (ICCW) managed it. 

At the time, the ICCW was led by Julia Lewis — widow of the prominent Chicago business tycoon who donated Lewis Towers (111 E. Pearson St.) to Loyola in 1945. When Leaner’s protests first started, Lewis reacted by publishing an editorial defending the policy.

In it she claimed, “[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.”

Dave Meade | Chicago Daily News Archives An excerpt from a Chicago Daily News article about the protests, featuring Julia Lewis’ statement.

Sadly, Leaner’s efforts weren’t enough to change Lewis’s attitude. Rather than desegregate the pool, the ICCW closed it down for good. When Leaner heard the pool was being drained, it upset her, but she was hardly surprised. Several months later, Leaner said she accepted an offer from the ICCW for her to attend one of their meetings but refused their invitation to join the club.

Once the pool was drained and the media attention faded, Leaner became a target. In the eyes of the administration, her protests had tarnished Loyola’s reputation, so they suspended her from daytime classes for two semesters. Leaner’s suspension forced her to graduate behind schedule, and under threat of expulsion she handed over control of the movement to other student organizers.

Despite these hardships, Leaner, now 79, made it out of her undergraduate program with a degree and proceeded to attend Loyola’s law school. Throughout her adult life, Leaner used the skills she developed as a student activist to become an effective community organizer. In time, she started her own Head Start school for kids in Englewood and even ended up working with Fred Hampton and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

As part of our coverage for this story, Phoenix reporters reached out to the university press office for comment. We asked them, “Whether the school intends to apologize to Marie Leaner for the suspension,” and “whether the school intends to apologize for its connection to Julia Lewis or the Lewis family (and namesake of Lewis Towers) for their segregationist policies — and finally, if an apology is planned, if renaming Lewis Towers would be a part of said apologies.”

Rylee Tan | The Phoenix Marie Leaner, 79, addresses a group of students from Sunrise Movement LUC on March 18. The group of students demonstrated on campus for, among other things, the school to divest from fossil fuels and cut ties with the Chicago Police Department.

Within a few days, Loyola’s spokesperson sent back this statement: “We do not condone the racist actions taken against Marie Leaner in 1963. It is the very antithesis to our Jesuit mission and values, and it was wrong. At Loyola University Chicago, we believe diversity, equity, and inclusion are vital and we are working closely with our students, faculty, and staff as we plan and implement a series of changes and initiatives to better support our students of color.”

Our reporters also asked Loyola’s press office for an interview with President Jo Ann Rooney to discuss this topic, but unfortunately, they declined our requests. 

The authors of this article applaud Loyola’s press team for their strong statement, yet, it alone is not enough to make up for past wrongs. Strong statements must be followed up with strong actions if they are to be taken seriously. Loyola University Chicago owes Marie Leaner a debt of gratitude. She fought to end segregation at our university so the students who followed her wouldn’t have to. 

Leaner was punished for her courage and for 58 years, her name was barely mentioned at Loyola. Yet, with the administration’s support, her name could ring out at this university as a symbol for all Ramblers to rally behind. Leaner Towers has a nice sound to it, after all. 

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