In The Last Puritan, his epic novel that chronicles the life of the Boston Brahmin Oliver Alden, George Santayana, the Spanish-born philosopher who graduated from Harvard in 1886, alludes to the life of the outsider at the University.
Harvard outsiders, he writes, were “odd persons going about alone, or in little knots, looking intellectual, or looking dissipated […] likely to be Jews or radicals or to take drugs; to be musical; theatrical, or religious; sallow or bloated, or imperfectly washed; either too shabby or too well dressed.”
“The tribe of these undesirables,” Santayana concludes, “was always numerous at Harvard.” At the University’s 375th anniversary, the history of that “tribe of undesirables” includes the narratives of Native Americans, African-Americans, Jews, women, homosexuals, and many others historically excluded from University life. Below are a few of these narratives from last three and three-quarter centuries.
When Joel Iacoomes, a Wampanoag American Indian from Martha’s Vineyard, arrived at Harvard’s Indian College, he and his classmate Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, class of 1665, had been attending preparatory school for five years in order to become fluent in Latin. An American Indian from the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, Iacoomes was the son of an interpreter for a Christian missionary and excelled academically.
Iacoomes and Cheeshahteaumuck were students at the Harvard Indian College, established by Harvard’s Charter of 1650. The charter calls for the “education of the English and Indian youth of this country, in knowledge and godliness.” The College stood on the present-day site of Matthews Hall and, in its history, only ever had five students: Iacoombe, Cheeshahteaumuck, John Wampus, Benjamin Larnell, and a student known only as Eleazer. Harvard professed its dedication to educating American Indians free of charge.
Cheeshahteaumuck was the only student ever to graduate from the Indian College. Iacoomes, Larnell, and Eleazer died before completing their degrees, and Wampus left to become a mariner. By the end of the 17th century, the Indian College had been torn down, its bricks to be used for the construction of other buildings.
Although Iacoomes died just weeks before graduation, Harvard declined to give him his degree.
The first black student was not admitted to Harvard until 1847, when Beverly Garnett Williams was accepted but died before entering the college. After his death, Harvard waited nearly 20 years to admit Richard T. Greener, who graduated from the college in 1870. The next several decades saw more black students at Harvard and eventually at Radcliffe, including on athletic teams and in the graduate programs.
It wasn’t until the Presidency of Abbott Lawrence Lowell, class of 1877, in the 1920s that the University took a step backwards.
Lowell, a Harvard alum and progressive in his stances on economic disparity, made it his mission to eradicate black students from Harvard Yard. He had not, he said, “thought it possible to compel men of different races to reside together.”
“It is not a departure from the past to refuse to compel white and colored men to room in the same building. We owe to the colored man the same opportunities for education that we do to the white man; but we do not owe it to him to force him and the white into social relations that are not, or may not be, mutually congenial,” Lowell said.
Feelings of racial segregation in housing persisted until the implementation of the randomized housing lottery in the 1990s.
THE SECRET COURT