“It’ll Be A Beautiful Sight”
As a freshman entering the University of Kansas when fall semester classes began on September 22, 1938, Genevieve Harman of Tonganoxie, Kansas, was no stranger to adversity.
Her personal situation, though, set her apart from most of her fellow Jayhawks who also had come of age during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Harman had lost both of her parents during adolescence, and as a matter of necessity, by the time she finished high school, she also had learned to support herself.
Self-supporting women like Harman – who typically did not pledge a sorority – faced limited housing options at KU during the late 1930s.
Watkins and Miller scholarship halls, donated to the University by KU benefactress Elizabeth M. Watkins to help “the girls who must travel up-hill,” were the main places where women who met both strict academic criteria and faced financial hardships could obtain low-cost room and board. There also were often openings at dwellings informally associated with the University, such as the Ricker Home, an off-campus house owned by the Unitarian Church that had become a de-facto residence hall for KU women of limited means.
Outside of these possibilities, self-supporting female students were largely on their own and forced to make alternative arrangements, usually by boarding with a local family.
Genevieve Harman was awarded a scholarship to help pay for her living expenses and resided at Watkins as a freshman and sophomore. During this period, she approached college life as many of her female contemporaries did. She joined the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Jay Janes, and diligently completed the coursework required for her chosen major, economics.
To make ends meet, Harman also worked as a secretary for the Kansas Power and Light Company. Her financial situation, however, proved to be a larger burden than originally anticipated. Harman moved out of Watkins after her sophomore year. According to student directories, she lived in a rented room at 1234 Oread Avenue during her junior year in 1940-41. Frustrated with the University’s seeming lack of a comprehensive plan for addressing the issue of affordable student housing for women such as herself, Harman took matters into her own hands.
Genevieve Harman wasn’t the only member of the KU community who thought the lack of affordable housing for students was a problem. A few years earlier, groups of male students at KU had begun organizing housing cooperatives under the tenets of the Rochdale Principles, the organic laws of cooperation that kept costs to a minimum within a shared living environment.
By early 1941, two men’s housing co-ops were in existence at KU, and plans for a third would soon be underway. Perhaps even more significantly, a vehicle to promote the development of still more student housing cooperatives at KU had been established. Called the University of Kansas Student Housing Association (UKSHA), it was formed by four students, five faculty members, and George Docking, a KU alumnus and Lawrence banker.
During her junior year, Harman – who by this time was a member of the YWCA commission on cooperatives – promoted the organization of the first woman’s cooperative at KU. She was assisted in this endeavor by Margaret Learned, president of the YWCA in 1940-41, and by members of the UKSHA as well as members of the men’s co-ops. The effort bore fruit and in the fall of 1941, the euphoniously named Kaw Koettes Co-op became the first women’s housing cooperative in the UKSHA system. It was located in a house at 1138 Mississippi Street.
Harman, by this time a senior, served as president of the Kaw Koettes during the co-op’s inaugural year. Her leadership and overall enthusiasm for cooperatives merited special mention in the Jayhawker yearbook, which noted, she was “wrapped up in the cooperative system and definitely believes its progress will be unlimited.” As Harman herself put it, “I can’t wait to see the campus five years from now with all the new co-ops springing up. It’ll be a beautiful sight.”
It didn’t take too long for Harman’s vision to begin coming true. By the fall of 1942, after Harman had completed her bachelor’s degree, two new sister housing cooperatives at KU had joined the Kaw Koettes. One was called the Jay Coed Cooperative. The other, in a rather unusual honor for someone who had so recently been an undergraduate, was named after Harman herself.
This recognition acknowledged Genevieve Harman’s involvement with the creation of the Kaw Koettes, as well as her persistence in pressing for affordable housing options for fully or semi-self supporting students. And though she was now an alumnus, Harman’s advocacy for the KU co-ops appears to have continued in some vein, possibly even to the extent of serving as a non-student member of the board of the UKSHA, though the record is unclear on this point.
The first ten residents of the Harman Co-op moved into a house at 1536 Tennessee in the fall of 1942. A year later, Harman House relocated a short distance away to 1537½ Tennessee, which had been a men’s cooperative residence. The Harman Co-op would remain at this address for the next seven and a half years. Its tenure would reflect the ebb and flow of the student cooperative movement at KU, beginning with a temporary setback due to the dislocations of the Second World War and ending with a revival in this type of living arrangement during the immediate post-war years.
Indeed, during the 1944-45 academic year, Harman was the sole women’s co-op in existence at the University and was home to just 23 members. (This decline in Harman’s membership, it should be noted, was quantitative, not qualitative, since during this period Harman was home to many women who were “active in campus activities, including campus leaders,” according to KU co-op historian John Eberhardt.)
The end of World War II brought a significant increase in the size of the KU student body and breathed new life into the co-op system. Evidence indicates the Harman co-op shared in this revival.
In 1947, the co-op was such a thriving operation that the Central League of Campus Co-ops, a regional organization of college campus cooperatives sponsored by the Consumers Cooperative Association (a cooperative wholesaler based in Kansas City that later became Farmland Industries), cited Harman’s “living quarters” as being “among the best on the campus.” Although this reference may have been a bit hyperbolic, the Central League further added that Harman was “so popular that its waiting list is never ending.” Indeed, during the 1948-49 academic year, the number of KU women calling the large house at 1537½ Tennessee home reached a high of 31.
An entrance foyer, large living room, large dining room and kitchen made up the first floor. Study rooms occupied the second floor, with two residents assigned to each room. The third floor “had unheated sleeping quarters at each end,” recalled Lois Harkleroad Gooch. The women slept in bunk beds lined up dormitory-style. Bathroom and shower facilities were located between the sleeping quarters. Gooch also remembered “an unfinished room across from the bathroom provided an area for clotheslines and storage.”
In order to keep expenses down, Harman residents divided the cleaning and cooking tasks amongst themselves. Gooch recalled that assignments were made weekly, “depending upon our availability” due to class and work schedules. Tasks also varied by season. During Betty Leatherman Barker’s stay at Harman, she was assigned to “[sweep] the snow off the front steps on cold winter mornings.” Gooch was responsible for “stoking the coal furnace.”
Discretionary income was largely foreign to most Harman residents. As Jeanne Shoemaker Colwell recalled, “most of us had jobs on the campus and some were working their entire way through college.” Shoemaker noted that the monthly house fee was approximately $30 per person during her tenure at Harman.
Although each resident agreed to share the household chores equitably, tasks were not always accomplished in a timely manner. To address this situation, according to Gooch, “we started waking everybody in the morning for 15 [minutes] of cleaning.” Apparently, the tactic worked.
Harman House patronized a cooperative grocery store in Lawrence and bought foodstuffs in bulk. “I was in charge of planning the meals and purchasing the groceries,” noted Lois Kihm Kipp, adding that this experience was helpful training for the remainder of her adult life. Buying food this way, however, resulted in some repetitive offerings at the dining table. “We ate a lot of macaroni and cheese and cabbage and peanut salad,” recalled Colwell, noting that chili was a special treat. Desserts also made encore appearances. “The most I remember of the meals is canned prune plums for dessert, endlessly,” reminisced Marjorie Brooks Kervick. Gooch noted that pudding was also frequently offered as a conclusion to meals.
Harman House fell under University housing regulations, and a housemother – sometimes referred to as a chaperone in the reminiscences of former residents – lived on the first floor to provide adult guidance. Three older women – Mrs. Ellen Running, Mrs. Paul F. Ensign and Mrs. A. R. McAdoo – fulfilled this function during Harman’s first four years. In 1946-47, however, house-parent duties were assigned to a young couple, Ralph and Erma Smith. Their relative youthfulness wasn’t the only characteristic that distinguished them from their predecessors. “They had a car,” remembered Gooch, which was a treasured resource, as none of the residents that year owned a vehicle. Gooch also recalled that the Smiths “took a more active role in running the house.”
The Smith’s year at Harman coincided with the resurgence of the student cooperative houses. Much as Genevieve Harman had predicted, residential co-ops were on the upswing at KU, as well as at other college campuses across the country, spurred in part by the post World War II enrollment boom and subsequent shortage of affordable student housing. Along with the men’s co-ops, Harman members promoted cooperative housing to prospective residents, and the house frequently served as the gathering place for co-op meetings.
The success of the KU cooperatives was partially due to the stalwart support of KU political science professor Hilden Gibson. As one of the founding members of the UKSHA, Dr. Gibson “was a tie to the larger co-op organization,” remembered Colwell, “and we relied on him for advice and assistance.” Colwell had taken a class from Gibson and noted that “many of us had our political consciousness raised by him as a professor.” His role with the co-ops, however, was that of “an ever present friend . . .. He was invariably helpful and humorous.”
For the progressive, politically conscious KU student in the 1940s, racial discrimination was the issue of primary significance. As one-term editor-in-chief of the University Daily Kansan during the 1944-45 academic year, Colwell “wrote editorials rebuking the University administration for not allowing black women students to live at Corbin Hall.” Her words brought chastisement from the KU administration, and “the Assistant Dean of Women was evidently delegated to remonstrate with me,” both via telephone and face to face.
The following year, Henley House, an Oread Avenue home owned by the Young Women’s Christian Association, became a formally integrated women’s housing cooperative, the first such residence at KU. Henley soon developed into a fulcrum for desegregation efforts at the University, and spurred Harman residents to think seriously about integrating their own house.
But in the end, the Harman members could not bring themselves to challenge the community status quo regarding race, a decision that appears to have been a factor in the co-op’s eventual closure. “We tried several times to desegregate the house,” recalled Gooch, “but [the decision] required a unanimous vote which we couldn’t reach.” After Harman refused to admit an African American applicant for the fall of 1947, several Harman residents – including Gooch’s sister Joyce Harkleroad Smith and the car-owning house-parents Erma and Ralph Smith – moved to Henley House. An examination of Harman photographs in the Jayhawker indicates that the house remained all white through its final year of existence.
The departure of Erma and Ralph Smith brought a new housemother to the residence at 1537½ Tennessee. Although she was 42 years old, Portteus H. Latimer did share a common characteristic with her younger charges – she was a student as well. After having taught grade school music for 21 years, Latimer enrolled at KU to pursue a sociology degree. Being housemother and student proved to be a delicate balancing act. “Taking care of the girls is a large order,” she once remarked to a newspaper reporter, “but during the evenings I can study without interruption.” Latimer remained the Harman housemother through the spring of 1950.
Despite their limited financial means and the periodic disagreements over racial integration, the Harman women managed to have fun. Social activities, including dances, were held in conjunction with the men’s co-ops, but men were welcomed at Harman only within narrow parameters. “No men were allowed above the first floor,” noted Gooch. Once, the unauthorized presence of even one man in Harman resulted in a major disturbance. “One evening,” recalled Barker, “we evacuated the house because we had a male intruder in the laundry area of the basement.”
Harman gained an influx of sanctioned male neighbors in September 1949 when an old two-story brick barn located on the Harman property was transformed into a new men’s residence known as the Hill Co-op. The barn-dwelling men provided tangible evidence that, at least for men, the cooperative movement at KU was continuing to grow.
Expansion of the women’s cooperatives, however, would prove to be an unattainable goal. By the mid-1950s, none of the women’s co-ops at KU were still in existence. The University had embarked upon a major construction program in the late 1940s, and dormitories were high upon KU’s wish list. These new residence halls were being completed by the early 1950s. Additionally, beginning with the 1951-52 academic year, freshman women were required to live in University-operated housing. These changes would have a detrimental effect on the women’s cooperatives. Harman’s demise took place earlier than some of its sister co-ops, as the house closed its doors for good in January 1951. The house at 1537½ Tennessee, however, remained a men’s residence in the cooperative fold for a few more years, first as the Twin Pines Co-op and later as the Rochdale Co-op.
Today, there are no physical remains of the Harman cooperative house. Although its neighbor, the barn-based Hill Co-op, continued to welcome residents until the spring of 1960, it too eventually fell prey to changing economic and social conditions. The Pi Kappa Phi fraternity is currently located at 1537 Tennessee, and an apartment building sits on the ground where the Hill Co-op once claimed territory. Harman’s place in KU history, however, was not forgotten. In 1997, when the Department of Student Housing re-opened the renovated Templin Residence Hall, officials designated the 7th floor as “Harman House.”
As for Genevieve Harman herself, she went on to marry Norman Hemphill, with whom she would have three children. Residing in the Kansas City area, she devoted much of her time to volunteering and civic duties, including some 35 years at the Nelson-Atkins Art Gallery and serving as the first woman on the Countryside (Ks.) City Council. She died at the age of 75 in 1996.
The eight and a half year tenure of her namesake co-op ranks it among the longest running student housing cooperatives at KU. It made a university education possible for many of its residents. “I could not have attended KU without the help of the Harman House scholarship,” noted Barker, “and I know many of the residents of that Hall were in the same situation.” “I think we were all happy to have such a beautiful home for a small amount of money,” noted Gooch in 2001. Undoubtedly, the numerous women who called 1537½ Tennessee home would concur.
Valerie A. Schrag
Social Studies Department
Lawrence High School