One of State College’s least assuming houses is also one of its most important. From the Penn State Black Alumni website:
The circa 1910 structure was a rooming house for male African-American students at the Pennsylvania State College from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. Known as Lincoln Hall, the boarding house could accommodate 6-8 students and was operated by Harry and Rosa Gifford, their children Bessie and Emanuel, and the latter’s wife, Agnes. The family had moved north from the Mississippi to become fraternity house cooks at Theta Chi, Phi Gamma Delta and Zeta Beta Tau.
Penn State’s First and Only Black Dorm
Due to an unofficial campus housing policy at the college from about 1930 until 1946, Black males could only choose to room at Lincoln Hall or at a few private homes. The very few Black female students could reside in the dorms. At times Lincoln Hall residents made up half the African-American student enrollment, making it the center of Black life at Penn State.
The Giffords and other Black cooks assisted students by employing them to work for rent and meals. This network, though born out of segregation, is credited for nurturing, supporting and encouraging an early generation of African American students.
Some early Lincoln Hall roomers of note include: Wallace Triplett III ‘49, the first Black varsity football player and former NFL player; Henry “Barney” Ewell ‘47, Olympic gold medalist; Roger K. Williams ‘46, vice president of academic affairs at Morgan State College; and James H. Robinson ‘49, associate dean and director at Jefferson Medical School. Other known residents of Lincoln Hall were Ernest Lowe ‘49, Perry Smith ‘48, Mitchell Williams ‘49, Rufus O. Williams ‘48, Charles Murray ‘50, Clayton Wilson ‘49, Hope Winborne ‘50, Bert Lancaster ‘50, and Rushu Karnge. A later resident, Barton A. Fields ‘53, became Secretary of the Commonwealth (PA). This group included several founding members of the Penn State chapters of Alpha Phi Alpha and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternities.
I walked by Lincoln Hall, located at 119 N. Barnard Street, countless times when I lived on the west side of State College as an undergraduate, totally unaware of its significance until recently. The property looks almost exactly as it did 80 years ago, aside from the historical marker that went up in 2012.
People often have a difficult time articulating the “Penn State spirit” beyond the special feeling one gets when watching a particularly exciting football game or when taking a contemplative walk through campus. I would argue the Penn State Spirit is the collective energy of the things and people that make our University unique, separate from all the commonalities and perks of university life across the country (there are, of course, hundreds of beautiful campuses worthy of contemplative walks and just as many exciting college football games). It is revering Mount Nittany. It is tipping your cap to Old Willow or the admiring the remaining Elms. It is celebrating the unique vision of people like Evan Pugh and Joe Paterno. And it is remembering places that never should have needed to exist at all like Lincoln Hall. There will only ever be one Wally Triplett, one Barney Ewell, and one Penn State. A careful study of this sort of distinctive culture is, in this author’s opinion, a more noble endeavor than the directionless “rah rah” mentality that permeates most large university campuses these days.