Otto Klineberg: Anthropology Faculty 1934 – 1943
By the time Otto Klineberg took the stand in Delaware to testify against school segregation in one of the cases consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education, he had been arguing the scientific basis of racial equality for 20 years.
In research conducted during the 1930s, Klineberg administered IQ tests to black and white children in Northern and Southern schools. He discovered that black children in poorly funded, Southern schools had the lowest scores of all the groups; however, when they moved North and attended superior, integrated schools, their scores came up to par with their Northern-born cohort, indicating that the quality of the schools—not the ability of the students—was responsible for the difference.
Although he earned doctorates in both medicine and psychology, Klineberg was drawn to anthropology and did research at Columbia University with renowned anthropologist Franz Boas. From 1934 to 1943, while a full-time professor at Columbia, Klineberg taught anthropology, mythology, and religion at Sarah Lawrence. Joan Ehrman Avenali ’40, a student in his 1938 “Comparative Religion and Mythology” class, remembers his great sense of humor and says, “He opened doors to a whole new culture we were not aware of in those days. He broadened our perspective.”
Klineberg’s classes and open talks fit in well with the campus-wide discussion of race and race politics in the 1930s. The American Student Union, a group that campaigned for “universal educational opportunity,” actively condemned discrimination, while discussions of racial prejudice, lynchings, the plight of Arkansas sharecroppers, and the highly controversial Scottsboro Case in Alabama animated lectures, roundtables, and the student newspaper throughout the decade.