Roy Deferrari, Breaker of Barriers

I’ve written before about Brookland’s good fortune in attracting Howard University faculty to the neighborhood. Diplomat Ralph Bunche, poet Sterling Brown, and artist Loïs Mailou Jones, among others, made their homes here. Of course, Catholic University has contributed its share of outstanding teachers to the neighborhood as well: Semitic language scholar Henri Hyvernat in the early days, and more recently renowned art professors Alexander Giampietro and Tom Rooney, among many others. 

Roy Deferrari was another CUA standout, who throughout a long career left a profound mark on the university; academically, administratively, and finally, ethically. A devout man from a devout family, Deferrari was born in 1890 and grew up in Stoneham, Massachusetts, north of Boston. He excelled in his studies. Early on he developed an affinity for Greek and Latin and decided to pursue that discipline as a career, despite his father’s uncertainty about focusing on “dead” languages.

Roy Deferrari studying during his Dartmouth years.

Deferrari chose to get his BA from Dartmouth and a doctorate from Princeton, finishing his studies in 1918. An opportunity then presented itself. A professor at Catholic University’s Greek and Latin Department had died, leaving a vacancy. Although he was offered other teaching assignments, the Catholic University job would make Deferrari head of the Department of Greek and Latin as well. Although he was not very familiar with CUA, Deferrari took the leap and moved to Washington.

As a layman, Deferrari made for an unusual department head, given that most of the faculty and administration were priests or members of religious orders. But he proved to be not only a skilled teacher and gifted administrator, but a deft hand at navigating the political tides of an academic bureaucracy. 

With a settled position, Deferrari was able to start a family. He married an Italian Catholic girl, Evelyn Biggi, who also hailed from the Boston area. They built a lovely home on Quincy Street at the corner of 13th, just down the block from the Franciscan Monastery. There they had a son and daughter and began their Brookland life.

The Deferrari home at 1303 Quincy St. NE in Brookland, with son Austin perched on the front steps. The house still stands.

Deferrari’s academic acumen was impressive, and the Greek and Latin Department quickly developed a sterling reputation. Deferrari’s own reputation was elevated along with it and he soon became Director of the Summer Session, then Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and eventually Secretary General of the university. He continued teaching Greek and Latin throughout his career. He also published widely (the CUA library currently lists 98 books with Deferrari as author or co-author). But this post is less interested in his academic credentials than in some of the “side issues” he became involved with at the University. 

One of those side issues was the admission of women to the school. From the beginning, Catholic University had been adamantly against women on campus. Although women applied regularly, they were always denied admission. In fact, for many years, the only woman allowed on campus in an official capacity was Frances Brawner, a local Brookland resident who was secretary to the Vice Rector. Women continued to knock on the door however, and in 1897, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur bought land to start a women’s college nearby. The result was Trinity College (now Trinity Washington University), which opened its doors in 1900, just half a mile down Michigan Avenue from Catholic University.

Trinity College’s first building, Main Hall.   Catholic University of America Archives. 

In 1911, Rev. Thomas Edward Shields, a man deeply concerned with the whole range of Catholic education, started the Catholic Sisters College on a piece of property just north of CUA. It was a nice pairing, Trinity for lay women, Sisters College for religious. Both, however, only provided undergraduate studies. 

Brady Hall on the Sisters College campus at Varnum Street NE, 1923. Catholic University of America Archives.

Though women continued to apply to CUA for graduate work, they continued to be denied. As far as the university was concerned, women were still on the outside, not allowed to come on campus, use the libraries, or attend classes.

In 1920, Deferrari, despite some faculty objections, brought a group of nuns from Sisters College to use the Greek and Latin libraries on the second floor of McMahon Hall. It was the first crack in the wall. In 1924, the first woman admitted officially as a student to one of the regular classes began her courses in sociology. Sister M. Inez Hilger, O.S.B. (right) was given special dispensation, and it was made abundantly clear that her enrollment was not to be seen as a precedent. But unofficially, it was. The wall was beginning to come down. With a push from Deferrari and others, the university was open to all women religious in 1928. Shortly after, laywomen were admitted for graduate work in the arts and sciences and professional schools. One last barrier remained — the admission of undergraduate women. 

Around this time, nursing education in the United States was beginning a slow shift from hospital to university schools. Deferrari, now Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, wanted to do for nursing students what he and Fr. Shields had done for education students. He wrote to Rector James Ryan about offering a program for nursing through Sisters College. He received what he termed “unenthusiastic permission” from the rector to try out several courses in the summer session. He then talked to Rev. Thomas Verner Moore about incorporating nursing education as part of his department of Psychology and Psychiatry. Moore agreed, and suggested Sr. Olivia Gowan, O.S.B. to head the program. So, in the summer of 1932, Catholic University’s first class in Nursing Education began. Here they are, standing on the steps of Mullen Library, with Roy Deferrari front and center:

Courtesy Catholic University of America Archives. Click to enlarge

It quickly became obvious that the nursing students needed general undergraduate classes as well, and though it still took some time, more and more women in the professional schools like nursing were allowed into a variety of undergraduate courses. Finally, in 1950, all restrictions were lifted and undergraduate women were allowed to enroll in the full bachelor’s degree programs.

Deferrari had a role in breaking another barrier as well. Shortly after his arrival in 1918, the university decided that it would no longer allow black students. Although African Americans and foreign black students had been allowed at the university from its inception in 1887, their numbers had been increasing, and succumbing to the Jim Crow mindset of the era, the school decided to ban “Negroes” completely. When the decision was made there was still one African American student enrolled who had yet to write his dissertation. Deferrari was assigned to direct his work, and when completed, to mail him his diploma and not allow him to attend commencement exercises. That student was George Morton Lightfoot (left), who would go on to head the Department of Latin at Howard University and become a renowned classicist. 

Offended by the new policy, Deferrari began haranguing Rector James Ryan regularly, bringing him the records of qualified African American applicants and urging him to reconsider. It was to no avail. Then in 1936, Bishop Joseph Corrigan of Philadelphia took over as Rector. Here is how Deferrari approached him, as described in his Memoirs

Following my usual practice when bringing matters before the Rector, I made a list of agenda for our meeting, including “the admission of Negroes” as one item. I waited with some anxiety for his reaction when he would come to this topic, but it was nothing alarming; he reacted simply by saying: “Why not?” As I returned to my office after the conference, I met Dean Campbell, who was also anxiously waiting the result of my meeting with the Rector. To his question: “How did you come out?”, I replied: “He said: ‘Why not?’ which I suppose means: ‘Yes. Admit them.’”

That was all it took. Catholic University became the first formerly white school in DC to reintegrate. Within a week nearly one hundred African Americans had registered in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences alone. There were shock waves. Rector Corrigan denied approving the policy until Deferrari showed him the agenda with the words “Admission of Negroes” and his “OK, JMC” scrawled next to it. Many faculty and parents vigorously protested the abrupt change, but there was very little complaint from the students. The Board of Trustees wisely approved the policy after the fact and the matter was settled, though grumbling continued for years.

Dr. Roy Deferrari continued his valued service to the university for another quarter century. In 1960, upon reaching the university’s compulsory retirement age of 70, Deferrari left as Secretary General, Director of the Summer Session and University Workshops, and Gardner Professor of Greek and Latin. He continued to write and publish from his home on Quincy Street. He died in 1969.

All photos of Roy Deferrari and the house on Quincy Street were graciously provided by John DeFerrari, grandson of Roy, and author of the fine history blog Streets of WashingtonHe is also the author of a number of well-received books on Washington history.


Deferrari, Roy Joseph. Memoirs of the Catholic University of America 1918-1960. Boston:Daughters of St. Paul, 1962

Deferrari, Roy Joseph. A Layman in Catholic Education, His Life and Times. Boston:Daughters of St. Paul, 1966

Ellis, John Tracy. The Formative Years of the Catholic University of America. Washington: American Catholic Historical Association, 1946

Nuesse, C. Joseph, The Catholic University of America, A Centennial History. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1990

Finding Aid to the Roy J. Deferrari papers at the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives. 

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