Howard Thurman: The Making of a Morehouse Man, 1919-1923

Article excerpt

Since their founding in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have represented the intellectual incubators, nurturing social-cultural environments, and professional launching pads of numerous black leaders, such as noted black theologian and revered Morehouse man, Howard Washington Thurman (1900-1981). During the post-Reconstruction era and throughout the 1920s, lynching and race riots shaped the landscape of American race relations. HBCUs represented the educational settings where contested notions of what it meant to be an "educated" Black man and how black manhood should, could or would manifest itself in American life. This study examines how the ethos of Morehouse College and its Black male leadership shaped the life of Howard Thurman, class of 1923. (1)

In addition to the freedman's aid societies and White missionary and industrial philanthropic organizations, Blacks contributed mightily in multiple ways to their own educational endeavors (Gasman & Sedgwick, 2004). College-educated Blacks of the late 1900s, such as Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, W. E. B. Du Bois, and John Hope came to symbolize the Black talented tenth, whose elite status provided access to elements of the White world closed to other Blacks, yet obligated them to lift up members of their less fortunate communities. Within that context of limited educational opportunity and Black self-agency, Black colleges offered special sanctuaries of learning and development to prepare other leaders for the Black community.

Michael Kimmel (1996) in Manhood in America: A Cultural History claimed, "What it means to be a man in America depends heavily on one's class, race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, region of the country" (p. 5). For Black men in the South at the dawning of the twentieth century, proudly claiming manhood proved contentious, contradictory, and often deadly. College-educated Black men were rare between 1900 and 1925, but their numbers grew as a result of the institutions many of them led and attended. Morehouse College, in particular, possesses a unique legacy in the shaping of Black men and Black male leaders.

The original institution (Augusta Institute, established in the basement of a black church, Springfield Baptist in Augusta, Georgia) that became Morehouse was founded in 1867 under the auspices and support from the local Black community and the American Baptist Home Missionary Society (ABHMS). The legacy of Morehouse in developing positive contributors to their communities reveals a type of intellectual and cultural resistance to the entrenched negative stereotypes of Black men (i.e., Uncle, Sambo, Rastus, and Black Brute) and the widespread American narrative of Black men as dangerous, dumb, pathologically sexual, lazy, and immoral. The institution prides itself on taking Black males from various walks of life and transforming them into a "Morehouse man." Clearly the label, Morehouse man, can mean various things to multiple audiences, yet historically it referred to a high standard of excellence in intellect, character, Christian values, and commitment to improving the Black community. The early history of Morehouse demonstrates the complexity of southern race relations, Black self-agency balanced with White missionary philanthropy, individual benefits for collective advancement, and how the leadership and mentoring of committed men and women, Black and White, moved generations of Black males to claim a special heritage (Jones, 1967).

The role of Morehouse in shaping Black male leaders is significant and relevant to America's educational and religious life (Williams, 2001). Close examination of the early history of Morehouse reveals how and why the Morehouse man legacy emerged and a focus on Thurman informs us specifically about one of its favorite sons.

This study examines the early history, environment, and leadership, of Morehouse College and the student experiences of Dr. …