Paul Cornely moved a lot before being attracted to Ann Arbor.
He was born in the French West Indies to a Chilean mother and a West Indian father. The Cornelys moved to Puerto Rico in 1909, when Paul was 3 years old, and stayed there for a dozen years. Next came a year in New York before moving to Detroit when Paul was 16. His father, Eleodore, went to work in a foundry and his mother, Adrienne, stayed home to raise Paul and his younger siblings, Antoine and Lily.
After graduating from Central High School in Detroit, Cornely took two years of classes at the College of the City of Detroit, a precursor to what is now Wayne State University. He enrolled at UM in 1926, attracted by its low costs and location close to home. His father had talked him out of studying engineering and pushed him towards medicine, saying a career as a doctor would be more lucrative and more sustainable for a black man.
Cornely joined Omega Psi Phi, the African-American fraternity that had a home on Catherine Street. And he became one of the first members of the Negro-Caucasian Club, created in 1926 by African-American and white students with the ambitious commitment of “the abolition of discrimination against blacks”.
Of some 13,000 UM students, less than 100 were African American. Campus pools, dances, halls of residence—everything was off-limits to black students. “Racism was rampant in many parts of the city and the university,” Cornely said years later.
Along with several club members, Cornely sat at food counters in Ann Arbor whose owners refused to serve African-American diners, saying their presence would drive away paying white customers.
“We sat down, not to wait for service, but to count the number of white people who came out because they saw black people sitting there,” club member Lenoir B. (Smith) Stewart recalled. “The total count was NONE. … It convinced business people that they didn’t have a leg to stand on.
Stewart, Cornely, and other club members invited prominent African Americans to speak on campus, knowing that administrators would never do so. Writer Alain Locke, Rhodes’ first African-American scholar, said young black people were preparing to challenge racism and fight for equal rights by showcasing their abilities. Robert W. Bagnall, an NAACP executive, appeared at Lane Hall. Poet Jean Toomer drew a crowd to the Auditorium of Natural Sciences.
Civil rights leader WEB DuBois has called on white Americans to accept black people as equals, saying there is no redeeming quality to racial segregation.
“There is no place he can go and still have a sense of friendship towards the white man, because wherever there is segregation there is constant hatred simmering on every side,” DuBois said. to a crowd in the Natural Science Auditorium. “There is no remedy by segregation that is possible, and the countries of the world have their eyes on how the United States solves the problem, so it is indeed an important problem to consider in our life today.”
It was the intellectual whirlwind that surrounded Paul Cornely as he progressed through his pre-medical studies.