Readings

Blacks at Harvard: A Documentary History of African-American Experience at Harvard and Radcliffe

edited by
Werner Sollors, Caldwell Titcomb and Thomas A. Underwood; with an introduction by Randall Kennedy.

1993, 575 pages, 61 illustrations. ISBN 0-8147-7973-5/ $20.00 paper; ISBN 0-8147-7972-7/ $55.00 cloth.

Copyright New York University Press, 1993. This document may be copied or reproduced for personal use only. Use of this document for any other purposes is strictly prohibited without the written consent of New York University Press.


"ERNEST J. WILSON III"

Ernest James Wilson III was born on 3 May 1948 in Washington, D.C., where he attended the Capitol Page School. At Harvard he was business manager of the Harvard Journal of Negro Affairs, and edited its special issue on "The Black Press." A concentrator in government, he received his A.B. in 1970. Pursuing graduate studies in Berkeley at the University of California, he earned his M.A. in 1973 and Ph.D. in political science in 1978. For a time he served as legislative assistant to Congressman Charles Diggs Jr., and in 1974 was the first-prize winner in the first Du Bois Essay Awards established by Black Scholar magazine. A specialist in the oil market, he has traveled and lectured in Europe, Africa and Latin America, and been an energy consultant for the World Bank and the U.S. Departments of State and Interior. From 1977 to 1981 he was on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. Since then he has been a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, where he also became Director of the Center for Research on Economic Development in the fall of 1988.

The Reform of Tradition, the Tradition of Reform

Two influences, outside of the family, did the most to form my character. The first was the educational and religious enthusiasm at Howard University, Washington, D.C., where my father was professor of Latin, and where I lived on the campus from birth until I entered Harvard. The second great influence was the atmosphere of tolerance, justice, and truth at Harvard. Endeavoring not to swerve under the stress from the principles thus engendered, sometimes to the detriment of material and official advancement, has been the greatest satisfaction of my life.

This quotation from my grand-uncle, Harvard class of 1897, expresses at least two interesting elements relevant to this essay. First, it acknowledges the formative role that Harvard College can play in an individual's life. This is a traditional refrain in the writing of black and white college graduates-Harvard shaped their lives.

Seventy years later, the black student experience at Harvard College put a twist on this refrain. For in the mid to late 1960s we changed Harvard as Harvard changed us. In our own selective acceptance and rejection of the traditional Harvard experience, my fellow students and I challenged Harvard in unprecedented ways, and in the process we changed the scholarly structure of the University.

Some of us were also guided by the second element of Eugene Gregory's class report-his firm grounding in autonomous Afro-American values and the supports provided by an indigenous black institution-Howard University. These values of cultural autonomy and worth also informed our own time at Harvard College.

In my freshman year there was no Department of Afro-American Studies, no Du Bois Institute, no cultural center for black students. Racial issues were not high on the priority of the University administration. The subject of Afro-America was not widely treated in the traditional disciplines and departments. My freshman year there were few black students in leadership positions in major campus-wide organizations. In other words black campus life was not unlike what it had been in the 1930s when Ralph Bunche was a student, or, for that matter, when W.E.B. Du Bois was a student in the late 19th century. When Du Bois and others wrote of their lives at Harvard they usually described themselves as black refugees to fair Harvard. They came; they studied what the University offered; they left. Harvard in those years admitted the occasional black student, but it did not admit the study of black life and culture as an important and legitimate element of the curriculum. This was the Harvard I found in 1966. By the end of the 1960s, these conditions were to change.

I have elsewhere described the political and institutional history of Afro-American studies at Harvard [Harvard Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1981]. Here, I want to indulge the personal side of that history and to indicate some of the personal motivations and values that led at least one undergraduate into student activism. In my own case these values include an assumption of the validity of Afro-American life and culture, and that their study was a high calling. With this came another family-instilled value-a strong belief that excellence in scholarship could, and should, be combined with intellectual activism. Third, I benefitted in my student days from a long familiarity with university life.

Through the decade of the 1960s dozens of white and black students participated in challenges to fair Harvard's traditional sense of itself and they pressed to make Harvard more open to the scholarly examination of gender and race. Many found common purpose to press for educational reform. They came from a variety of places and from different backgrounds. They were motivated by a variety of personal and political reasons.

In my freshman year (1966), I often sensed more than a whiff of condescension toward black students. Some whites acted as if we were a black tabula rasa ready to be filled with New England education and high culture. Others caricatured us as the carriers of the culture of James Brown; any interest in the written word, or in Beethoven, was somehow disappointing and inauthentic. Then in 1967 and 1968 the black rebellions in the cities and the upsurge in nationalism and activism among black students created conditions ripe for a black student movement at Harvard, as at other colleges and universities.

What we accepted and what we rejected during this highly politicized period reflected the personal history that each of us brought to the institution. Many black students eventually seized on similar political values, usually reformist and nationalist; all took different roads to get there. My own experience at Harvard certainly reflected my personal-and family-history. Some of the values and interests that I brought from home Harvard positively reinforced-intellectual curiosity, delight in a spirited and partisan argument, a breadth of experiences, social and political engagement. Some skills and outlooks I learned for the first time. However, other personal values Harvard denied-- especially the validity and autonomy of Afro-American cultural life, and the importance of studying it. Nonetheless, I strengthened my commitment to these values as I struggled to give them a reality and meaning within the University. Indeed, struggling against the rejection of values that I took to be self-evident became an important part of my Cambridge education.

I grew up on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C, born in Freedman's Hospital, living in campus housing. Each day I walked through the center of the campus, past the clustered classroom buildings named for Frederick Douglass and Sojourner

Truth, and under the imposing if familiar presence of Founder's Library, to attend Lucretia Mott School, the segregated elementary school just catercornered from Freedman's on Fourth Street. My young world was well contained on the campus, and Howard University was home. I had a proprietary feel for the place, and as a child I felt it was (almost literally) my own and my home. My father worked in the new red brick administration building overlooking Benjamin Banneker School just across Georgia Avenue. My maternal great-grandfather was in Howard's first graduating class of five students and later taught there; my maternal grandfather taught Latin and English, and co-founded the Howard University Players, the first drama society. In the 1940s my father studied at Howard with E. Franklin Frazier, Alain Locke ['08], [William] Leo Hansberry [A.M.'32] and Rayford Logan [Ph.D. '36]. And into the 1960s, siblings and assorted cousins passed through its gates. University life for me was immediate and personal.

In that community, and around our warm and constantly crowded kitchen table, came professors and poets and students and friends (for example, poet-professor Sterling Brown [A.M.'23], my grandfather's student and friend, and my father's teacher and friend). Discussions were debates and all were engaged, enthusiastic and loud. My father led discussions that ranged from Negro spirituals to Nietzsche, and an important constant was the everpresent threat and fact of racial inequality in a racist society. That external threat, and the values of my extended family, meant that learning and scholarship were from the earliest days tied to social relevance. Howard University had a mission-to better the race through medicine, through law, through philosophy. It was to demonstrate too that black people could excel. Relevance did not mean any less excellence. On the contrary. Our best scholars devoted themselves to superior social and natural science, and to moral uplift.

If I felt proprietary about Howard University, and if it nourished in me a strongly critical sense of committed learning, I felt somewhat the same way about Harvard University. Not in an immediate sense, but as a place I was familiar with but hadn't yet visited. My maternal grandfather, T. Montgomery Gregory, was a member of the Harvard class of 1910, a friend of John Reed and Walter Lippmann, to whom he introduced me in 1966. He was active on the debating team and a lifelong loyal son of Harvard. His son [Thomas Montgomery Gregory, Jr.] was a member of the class of '44, and his older brother, Eugene, was in the class of 1897.

It was assumed that after high school I would follow one part of the family tradition and become the fourth member of the family to go to Harvard. I would take with me a tradition of critical thinking, a predisposition to teach, a familiarity with university life, and an abiding belief in the importance of studying Afro-American life. All of this helped me, I now believe, in helping to bring Afro-American studies to Harvard.

As an underclassman at Harvard, I felt a mixture of sheer delight and naive surprise. The former was promoted by the enormous wealth of things to do and learn in Cambridge-lectures, recitals, and plays, people to talk to and to listen to. The surprise (and several years later, as race relations deteriorated nationally, outrage) flowed from the invisibility of the things I took for granted at home-the disciplined and serious and sustained study of black culture, politics, and life.

Part of that struggle between 1966 and 1970 involved me and other undergraduates as negotiators with a not inconsiderable array of faculty, administrators, overseers and alumni. Those of us on the negotiating team (most notably Robert Hall ['69], now professor of history at University of Maryland, who also grew up on a college campus and had experiences similar to my own; Francesta Farmer ['71], President of Crossroads Africa; business executive Craig Watson ['72]; and Harlan Dalton ['69], on the Yale Law School faculty) drew up lists of those from whom we expected opposition, and support, and we visited each in turn to lobby and to discuss the merits of bringing Afro-American Studies to Harvard.

In retrospect, we had a lot of gall even to attempt such changes; we were just wet-behind-the-ears undergraduates. Part of the hubris came from our feeling that, at last, history was going our way. We knew that we were riding the crest of a wave. With Nina Simone singing that all of us were "young, gifted and black," we felt our newly assertive blackness was not just an extra burden, as it was for many of our predecessors, but also at times a decided social benefit. And after all, cities were literally burning over the question of black equality; and the real heroes of the black revolt, courageous black students in the Deep South, were engaged in far less genteel and more dangerous battles at Ol' Miss and Texas Southern. For us, pressing for Afro-American Studies in Cambridge seemed the least we could do. And the excitement of creating something new, scholarly and socially relevant was exhilarating.

Part of my own self-confidence came from my earlier experiences as a page in the U.S. Supreme Court between 1963 and my graduation from high school in 1966. During those three and a half years, I met senators and congressmen on a regular basis, lunched with Chief Justice Warren, met President Johnson and Vice President Humphrey, and got to know many in the Washington diplomatic community. Fortunately, some of these contacts were substantive and not merely ceremonial, and I gradually assumed that talking to one's elders, including putatively distinguished ones, was not in the least unusual.

Washington and the Page School were good preparation in other ways. While enjoying a successful high-school career in a student body that, like Capitol Hill as a whole in those days, was entirely dominated by southern whites, I was able to sustain my close friendships with friends in my northwest Washington neighborhood. Nor did being a page prevent me from joining the "Free DC" movement led by activist Marion Barry, or other progressive causes. I also developed life-long friends in Washington's diplomatic community. I relished the rich multicultural life of the city, and I was determined to continue that life in Cambridge. Thus, while I was very active in and head of several campus black-student organizations and publications, I also joined the Harvard Lampoon, wrote for the Crimson, ate at the Signet, was elected a Class Marshal and joined one of Harvard's final clubs [the Fly], well-known locally for its splendid spring garden parties.

All of this seems very neat and tidy in retrospect, and I suppose I view it as such today. But re-reading my diaries and journals from that period I can also see it in a different light. I recall feeling the demands and pulls from different directions by different communities. In the late 1960s bigoted nationalist students would taunt and insult other black students walking across the Yard with a white friend. I refused to be taunted, or a taunter. Nonetheless, the pressures to conform to narrow and preconceived notions of racial or social categories were intense. I and others resisted as best we could.

Harvard did not teach me these particular "balancing" skills, but it certainly sharpened them. Harvard reinforced my love of politics and of the intellectual life, and, however imperfectly, showed me that the intellectual life and the life of commitment can, with effort and imagination, be combined.

I left Harvard with the usual complement of new intellectual skills and classroom learning. I also learned valuable lessons about institutional change. Black students in this topsy-turvy time did succeed in expanding the realm of the possible and opening new possibilities for choice in the College and the University. We helped to legitimate and expand the study of Afro-American life at the University.

In retrospect, I also left Cambridge somewhat naive about the resilience of big institutions and their ability to follow their own worn paths, and the manifold ways that institutions resist and thwart change. Inertia, racism, and unhealthy elitism proved harder to change than we as undergraduates realized. Forcing choices into seemingly choiceless conditions still does not guarantee that the choices made will be the most desirable ones. The imperfect and odd choices that all parties made in the early days of the Afro-American Studies Program and the Du Bois Institute at Harvard, including some that students made, are cases in point.

The Harvard I left in 1970 (and revisited in 1980 as a Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government) is different from the one I found in 1966. Now there is a niche in which interested black and white faculty and students can more easily find programs and materials on black life in America. They can also find an even more precious present than that which those of us in that time tried to leave behind the institutional and intellectual legitimacy of studying black life without fear of being mocked or marginalized. That struggle is not yet completely won at Harvard or at other universities. It is, however, an important beginning that we bequeath to students and scholars who follow us. I am confident they will continue the tradition. (1989)

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