PLANNING A NEW WORLD
A New Book Helps Recount the History of the Black Harvard Scholar
the broader history of Blacks in America."
Throughout the 180-page paperback, incisive articles on topics ranging from an account of Harvard-trained journalist W. Monroe Trotter's trip to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 to an account of 1920s Black-power activist Marcus Garvey's visit to Harvard create a vivid history of Harvard through the eyes of its Black graduates.
Autobiographical essays, like the one by fiction writer Marita O. Bonner, "On Being Young and Colored," reveal a special and personal insight into the evolving Black experience across the barriers of time and prejudice.
Up From Slavery
Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges have granted approximately 2600 degrees to Black men and women, and since 1899, there have been only three graduating classes without Black members. Since 1969, the year following the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., more than 100 Black students have entered Harvard and Radcliffe each year.
But the first Blacks at Harvard did not come to Cambridge for the education. They were slaves. Early Presidents Increase Mather (1685-1701) and Benjamin Wadsworth (1725-1737) both held Black slaves in their households. Black servants continued in the employ of wealthier students as personal valets during most of the 19th century.
Richard T. Greener entered this atmosphere of wealthy white society and in 1870 received the first A.B. granted by the College to a Black student. "Rumors inevitably sprang up among his classmates as to his background; he was variously represented as an escaped slave, a genius who had come straight from the cotton field to the College, as a scout in the Union Army, as the son of a rebel general, and so on," the book quotes a Harvard Harvard Alumni Bulletin of 1964. Radcliffe did not grant its first B.A. to a Black woman until 1898, when Alberta V. Scott graduated.
The Ragtime Era
While Harvard during the late 19th century may have been a playground for Boston's elite, Black undergraduates not only faced the problems of prejudice, but also de facto segregation from the white community at large.
Despite this lack of integration, Black students from Harvard and surrounding institutions formed an active community. Dubois, who in 1895 became the first Black man granted a Harvard Ph.D., wrote of an active "company who met and ate, danced and argued, and planned a new world." Dubois' active social life did not go unnoticed. It "attracted attention and the Crimson noted my girl friends."
Dubois later became a major spokesman for the Black movement in the early 20th century, sharing much of the spotlight with another recipient of a Harvard degree. In 1896, Booker T. Washington was the first Black man awarded an honorary degree by Harvard. His distinguished career as a spokesman for Black equality later prompted Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa chapter to elect him as its first Black honorary member.
Alain Locke, who received a Harvard Ph.D. in 1918, did not become a major political spokesman like Dubois or Washington--instead he directed his energies toward developing a Black cultural and artistic identity. Regarded as an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Locke felt that Black art, music and literature were evidence that "Negro thoughts now wear the uniform of the age."
These three men are only a small part of what seems to be an emerging Harvard tradition of leadership in the Black community. Such a tradition continues today in a broader sense, says Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, who contributed an introduction to the reprinted of a speech delivered by Malcolm X at the Law School.
"You would find Black Harvard graduates of distinction in almost every walk of life. The tradition of leadership has been more varied since after World War II," he says, citing posts ranging from federal judges to Washington Post journalists currently held by Black alumni.
"In terms of range and scale, Black alumni leadership presence in both national and Black ethnic leadership structures dwarfs what it once was," says noted Black historian and Professor of Government Martin L. Kilson, who has a forthcoming book called Neither Insiders Nor Outsiders: Blacks in American Society.
A Housing Hubbub
Harvard's relatively enlightened tradition was blemished during the dormitory crisis of the early 1920s, when President Lowell brought the issue of racism to a head by refusing to allow a Black student to live in the freshman dormitories.
Black alumni expressed outrage at the administration's discriminatory actions. The noted journalist and first Black man elected to Phi Beta Kappa, W. Monroe Trotter '95 accused Lowell of "making Harvard turn from democracy and freedom to race oppression, prejudice and hypocrisy."
Raymond Pace Alexander, a noted Harvard Law School graduate and a president of the National Bar Association, called Lowell's actions "a departure from the great Harvard tradition of fairness and justice to all, irrespective of race or color." Lowell's actions were ironic: Blacks had already lived in the freshman dormitories between 1917 and 1920.
The administration reversed itself in 1923, with a unanimous vote by the Board of Overseers allowing Blacks to reside in the dormitories provided that "men of white and the colored races shall not be compelled to live and eat together."
The racial situation in the United States remained "a sore burden to the entire nation" as Harvard moved into its fourth century, wrote Ralph J. Bunche. Bunche, who held both an A.M. and Ph.D. from Harvard in government, was the first Black recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. An eminent diplomat and organizer of the United Nations, Bunche taught briefly in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences during the early 1950s and later served as a Harvard Overseer between 1959 and 1965.
Since the late 1960s, Harvard has experienced remarkable growth in its Black undergraduate community. After a period of confrontation during the civil rights movement, an Afro-American Studies Department was established in 1969, and the size of the Black student body began to increase--and still supports almost a dozen Afro-American organizations on campus. Since the 1970s, Blacks have also held prominent leadership positions in campus administration, including Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Rev. Peter J. Gomes, who is the minister of Memorial Church.
However, the situation of Blacks at Harvard today is sometimes difficult and complex to ascertain, says Sollors, referring to the results of a recent senior thesis examining Black student identity at Harvard.
"In the post civil-rights and post-segregationist environment, there is less a driving force and more a search for collective cohesion and identity among Blacks," says the chairman of the Afro-Am Department.
Sollors, who edited the book with Thomas A. Underwood and Caldwell Titcomb, adds that his department has received many other essays and uncovered new sources relating to Black experiences at Harvard. Although he calls a second edition both possible and desirable, there are no plans yet for another volume. Copies of Varieties of Black Experience at Harvard are available free of charge at the Department of Afro-American Studies offices on Dunster St.