Coming of the Race: Kelly Miller and Two Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the Niagara Movement Era

By Jones, Ida | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Coming of the Race: Kelly Miller and Two Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the Niagara Movement Era


Jones, Ida, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were academic, social, political and emotional incubators for newly emancipated and free born African Americans. Towards, this end the pedagogical formation of these institutions greatly impacted discussions of race, character and uplift. Early enrollments included students from a variety of regional/cultural backgrounds, academic abilities and innate desire. During these formative years Kelly Miller, a South Carolinian, attended Howard University and in 1886 graduated with an A.B. degree. From 1890 to 1934 Kelly Miller and Howard University were mutually exclusive; so much so that Howard in many circles became known as Miller's University. Alumnus, instructor, administrator, dean and founder of the department of sociology, Kelly Miller's pleasure, passion, and at times peril centered around racial uplift. Thus, the focus of this article will be an examination of the HBCU community during the era of the Niagara Movement, as reflected in select writings of Dean Kelly Miller.

Kelly Miller was born on July 18,1863 in Winnsboro, South Carolina to a formally enslaved mother and a freeborn father. He received his early education in the schools of the Reconstruction era. Northern missionaries and government agents working to reconstruct southern cities that had been decimated by the Civil War operated many of these schools. During his formative years, teachers quickly recognized young Miller's intellectual gifts. He was adept at math and proficient in comprehending mathematical formulas. Initially, Miller pursued mathematics as a career. In 1880 he won a scholarship to Howard University's Preparatory Department, where he completed the intensive curriculum in two years. The Preparatory Department was created to prepare students for college life and course work. This department was a three intensive program that plied prospective college students with Greek, Latin, arithmetic and algebra. In 1886 he received a A.B degree from Howard University and was the first African American student to attend Johns Hopkins University for post graduate work in mathematics.

His relationship with Howard University would continue after graduation, when he returned to Howard in 1890 and was appointed professor of Mathematics. After five years work in mathematics, Miller's interests shifted to the field of sociology, and he served as a professor of Sociology at Howard University. Miller's migration to the field of sociology coincided with its early professionalization. The failure of Reconstruction led many academics to conclude that African American people were unfit for citizenship. The professionalization of many social sciences inadvertently contextualized the racism of the day through quantitative means. In part, sociologists often employed the scientific judgment that African Americans culturally inferior. This belief was reinforced by regional bigotry that stigmatized rural, southern and ethnic communities as backward.

Therefore, Miller as an educator sought to refute racism notions about African American culture, intellect and ability. Concurrently, Booker T. Washington's philosophy of self-help, and W.E.B. DuBois's philosophy of the talented tenth provided fertile ground to implement the tool of sociology. Miller's mathematical insight provided him with a binocular vision on the solution to the race problem, fusion. He believed that each student should be allowed to cultivate his/her innate talents. Thus, Miller devoted the next 40 plus years of his Howard career to writing insightful and well-researched articles and treatise on race relations, political ideologies, military campaigns and an array of other topics.

Like other contemporaries, Miller sought to contribute to racial uplift of the "undeveloped" African race through self-improvement and orchestrated educational effort. "[T]he salvation of any overshadowed race will depend upon what they are rather than what they do, upon character more than enterprise, upon endurance rather than endeavor. …

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