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The Harvard Class of 2021 now prepares to receive its degrees and set forth into a world so startlingly different from 2017, when they arrived in Cambridge. It might therefore be appropriate to pause and give a salute to its centennial forbear — the extraordinary class of 1921 — and reflect upon some startling similarities, as well as differences, between their times and challenges. Both the 1921 and 2021 classes arrived at Harvard as epic events were unfolding that would forever alter the students’ lives, the University, the nation, and the world.
On October 10, 1917, just after the Class of 1921 had first entered campus, The Harvard Crimson gave voice to the supreme confidence of the New England upper-class students who dominated campus culture with an almost europhile gaiety as America buoyantly entered the fierce and cataclysmic First World War. “I am mighty glad I am here,” wrote back an enlisted upperclassman who viewed the conflict as “the greatest cause the world has known. From the frontlines, he observed: “This war is like a football game on a large scale.” For the Class of 1921, however, this exuberance soon gave way to analytical sobriety as news of the devastating loss of Harvard upperclassmen arrived back on campus from the bloody trenches crisscrossing France.
In 1918, yet another catastrophe would sweep the Harvard campus. In a fashion that only current students could relate to, the raging pandemic of the Spanish flu further depleted Harvard’s classrooms. Fortunately for most this was only temporary, but it permanently increased the psychic sobriety that marked the Class of 1921 and served as a new model of Harvard’s culture. By the end of their sophomore year, the class had begun to focus far more on serious meritorious educational achievement than their more dilettante preceding classes. The Belle Epoque was over. There was a complex, burgeoning technological nation to build, and they would be some of its builders.
Just as racial progress has been in our hearts and minds this past year, in 1917, when only one in one thousand black people held a college degree, four Black students entering the Class of 1921 would represent the rising spirit of “The New Negro” surging across America, determined to achieve racial equality.
For these four, the added burden of four years of unspoken, systemic racial isolation would produce serious group discussions in their brilliant ad hoc society they called the Nile Club. There, frustrations found resolution in incisive analyses of the rising nationwide attacks on Black communities — including the 1921 demolition of the Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma that had been an exemplar of Black economic success.
Farrow Allen, Class of 1923 (who entered with the Class of 1921), wanted to prepare for a career in medicine in New York City’s Black Harlem metropolis. He would forge ahead to Harvard Medical School and a lifetime of medical practice as a surgeon throughout Harlem’s most glorious era.
Leo Hansberry, Class of 1921, arrived from small-town Mississippi determined to plumb the racist axioms of anthropology extant even among the famous faculty at Harvard’s renowned Peabody Museum. He would spend a lifetime on meticulous research that would finally recognize more than four thousand years of undeniable Black civilizational impact and emphasize the equal potential of African peoples. The preeminent African history scholar of his time, he would teach Black youth from around the world the rich details of their past at Howard University. Near the end of his life, he would receive grateful recognition for his work, including the first Haile Selassie Prize, and the Hansberry Institute of African Studies at the University of Nigeria, named in his honor by his former student and Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe.
Also from the Deep South’s Jacksonville, Florida, Ned Gourdin, a Black and Native American multi-sports high school phenomenon in the Class of 1921, arrived determined to become a lawyer. He would become a lifelong hero of his class: a national 100-yard dash and pentathlon champion, and the holder of a world record-breaking 25 feet 3 inches long jump — a feat that would stand as the Harvard record for 93 years, through 2014 — and winner of a silver medal at the 1924 Olympics. He would become a lawyer, assistant United States attorney, a National Guard general, and a Massachusetts Superior Court judge.
From the renowned abolitionist city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, 17-year-old Class of 1921 member Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr.’s thoughts centered on service to the cause of racial equality. Jourdain’s devastating editorials in The Crimson on racial injustice generated widespread outrage at campus conditions. His convictions led him to attend Harvard Business School and then to reform-minded newspaper journalism, where his incisive arguments against Jim Crow led political leadership towards an era of startling successful desegregation in Evanston, Illinois. A letter of appreciation for his life’s work from Harvard also came.
A possibly unprecedented number of the entire Class of 1921 would in fact modernize a myriad of American business sectors ranging from revolutionary high tech materials, to revolutions in print media, building modern retail merchandising empires to modern business insurance. They accomplished these advancements having been shaped by sobering realities, not unlike those of the present-day: despite immense tragedy, a pandemic, and the need to rebuild on a truly global scale. And, for these four Black and Native American students especially, despite an America of grossly unjust opportunity and minuscule rewards. Their lives continue to shine bright — having forged a great leap forwards in America towards equal rights and fulfillment of individual potential.
As a member of the Class of 1961 — a midpoint between your classes — looking proudly upon the both of you, my hope is that the current graduates can learn a profound message from these glimpses of centennial forebears: That after your graduation the Class of 2021, despite your own historic challenges, will bring outstanding service to the nation and honor to Harvard.
Spencer C. D. Jourdain ’61 was a History concentrator in Kirkland House.
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