As of March 2022, Harvard Medical School limits prospective students to a maximum of six letters of recommendation for consideration in their application. But when Martin Robison Delany — the son of a free mother and formerly enslaved father — was admitted to the wintersession of 1850, it took a whopping 17.
Some may know the story of Richard Theodore Greener, Class of 1870, the very first Black person to graduate from Harvard College. But before the courage of Greener, there was the persistence of Delany. Delany and two other men, Daniel Laing Jr. and Isaac H. Snowden, became the first Black admits to any school at Harvard University.
Unfortunately, their historic attendance was short-lived. The moment they stepped on the Medical School’s campus, they were met with constant protests and complaints from their enraged white peers who insisted that they could not “consent to be identified as fellow-students with blacks; whose company we would not keep in the streets, and whose society as associates we would not tolerate in our houses.”
By December of 1850, less than two months into their first term, Delany, Laing, and Snowden were asked by the administration to leave at the end of the semester.
In a time when many believed that the “problem” of race could be solved by simply sending Black people back to Africa, Laing and Snowden had been sponsored by the Massachusetts Colonization Society to attend Harvard. The goal was to graduate, then migrate to the colony of Liberia and practice medicine in America’s growing settlement of “unproductive slaves and free blacks who might encourage antislavery activities in the United States,” according to then-associate professor of pathology at New York University Louis Rosenfeld’s 1989 survey of Delany’s life.
But to Delany, American Colonization Society was “one of the most arrant enemies of the colored man.” He rejected Liberia for its location near the equator and its government’s dependence on white colonizationists. However, Delany was not entirely opposed to the idea of the migration of Black people out of the United States — as long as it was on their own terms. In fact, he’s credited with creating the popular Pan-Africanist slogan “Africa for Africans,” and has even been called the “father of Black nationalism.”
Black nationalism is a political ideology that advocates for the unity and self-determination of Black people through the creation of a separate, all-Black nation-state. Delany’s version in particular, however, viewed some indigenous African and South American cultures as barbaric and “in need of civilizing” by Black Americans — a colonial notion that was largely abandoned in later developed theories.
Delany returned to the United States in 1861 after several expeditions across Africa and London during which he attempted to raise funds, gain support, and negotiate with tribal leaders in an attempt to take control over their land. His refusal to collaborate with white colonization groups, as well as his strong reputation with little tangible support, eventually led to his downfall — especially up against the growing imperialist force of England. Still, he continued spreading this ideology throughout his many endeavors that followed until his passing in 1885.
Over a century later, Black nationalism found its way back to Harvard’s campus. On November 3, 1969, a small group of Black students sat down for the first time to organize the goals and values of a new political action group on campus — the Organization for Black Unity.
An 1969 article in The Crimson says that during their official launch, the “250 members present agreed that the goal of OBU was to ‘coordinate the interdisciplinary skills toward the building of a black nation for all African people,’” according to Philip N. Lee, at the time a third year law student and spokesman for the group.
Blurring the lines between an affinity group and a radical political action organization, OBU wasted no time in making noise on campus. Its first order of business focused on “[c]hecking out the blatantly racist employment practices for Harvard University,” especially in regards to the new construction of Gund Hall, a building of the Graduate School of Design. Their stringent seven-point list of demands included significantly increasing the hiring of Black and other minority workers and improving overall opportunities for upward mobility.
OBU held their first negotiation meeting with administration on December 1, in which Harvard was largely unable to meet their demands with the immediacy and full commitment that OBU believed the situation demanded. Citing the initiatives already in place that OBU was targeting as insufficient, Harvard repeatedly insisted that “the University regrets the failure to find a basis for a common approach to the problems of increasing black and other minority employment on construction projects.”
But for OBU, that was not going to cut it.
Over just two short weeks, they held a rally in the Yard and occupied the construction site of Gund Hall, the Faculty Dining Club, and University Hall (once on December 5, and again on December 11). “Black, Black power to the African people,” the 91 OBU members passionately chanted, arms linked as they slowly filed out of University Hall and into the cold December air after nearly five hours.
In another 1969 Crimson article, OBU claimed that 86 members of the December 11 University Hall occupation were suspended — while a chairman of the subcommittee dealing with suspensions denied that any notices were issued as of December 16.
On December 12 of the same year, the University’s Committee on Rights and Responsibilities sent a letter to attendees of OBU’s occupation of University Hall, informing them of their temporary suspension. Another temporary restraining order was issued at 3 p.m. on the day of the occupation, addressed to specific members as well as to the general population of the OBU, telling them to “desist and refrain from occupying, trespassing upon or remaining in or about University Hall, the Gund Hall construction site, the Faculty Club, or any other building or premises of President and Fellows of Harvard College.”
Finally, on December 19, 1969, 40 members of OBU were formally charged with a violation of the Resolution on Rights and Responsibilities for their participation in the University Hall occupation. But despite constant clashes with the University, OBU continued organizing through 1970.
Whether it’s Delany’s expulsion in 1850 or the inaugural action of the Organization for Black Unity in 1969, one thing is for certain: Harvard does not fare well with Black nationalists in December.