While it would be shocking today if Harvard only accepted four African-American students to a single class, in 1948, four was an all-time record.
All four went on to have distinguished careers in fields ranging from diplomacy to mathematics. And all four were honored at a reception, sponsored by the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations and the Black Men’s Forum, in Lowell House Saturday night.
For James M. Harkless ’52 and Walter C. Carrington ’52, the event marked a return to Lowell House, their one-time residence. Both went on to receive degrees from Harvard Law School.
Herbert S. Hughes ’52, formerly of Kirkland House, could not attend the event but was represented by his daughter, Amy S. Hughes ’78. And William M. Simmons ’52, once a Winthrop House resident, was also represented by his brother, Tom Simmons.
While composing just a fraction of their class, which numbered over 1,000 students, the four pioneers proved to exhibit great influence as leaders of the College’s most active student organizations.
Harkless was the first black president of the Harvard Glee Club. He went on to become a prominent labor dispute arbitrator.
Carrington became the leader of the Liberal Union and a class marshal. He was one of the original seven overseas directors of the Peace Corps in 1961, and he later served as U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.
Hughes came from an impoverished family in Washington, D.C. and won a full scholarship to Harvard. He distinguished himself in mathematics and later contributed to the making of one of the first automatic bank machines.
Simmons became the first black president of The Crimson. He served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force and is a lawyer representing high-tech and construction companies.
“I liked that these men were able to come back to Harvard and be honored for the pioneering efforts,” said Matthew K. Clair ’09, who helped organize the event. “They truly are trailblazers, and they have done things that many who graduate now could not imagine doing, regardless of race or background.”
The honorees had the opportunity to share stories of their background and experiences at Harvard as well. Carrington provided insight into the housing situation in 1948, when the four were freshmen. Black students were invariably paired with each other for rooming. Carrington and Harkless were assigned to Hollis Hall, and Hughes and Simmons roomed in Stoughton Hall, while the four Chinese students in the class were fully integrated with white students, according to Carrington. He added that he had not faced “real discrimination” until he came to Harvard.
S. Allen Counter, the director of the Harvard Foundation, said that the event marked “a wonderful evening of connecting generations of minority students with a better understanding of what is was like then and the improvements of race relations we see today.”