Nathan B. Young and the Struggle over Black Higher Education

Nathan B. Young and the Struggle over Black Higher Education

Nathan B. Young and the Struggle over Black Higher Education

Nathan B. Young and the Struggle over Black Higher Education


At the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans eager to improve their lives through higher education were confronted with the divergent points of view of two great leaders: Booker T. Washington advocated vocational training, while W. E. B. Du Bois stressed the importance of the liberal arts. Into the fray stepped Nathan B. Young, who, as Antonio Holland now tells, left a lasting mark on that debate.

Born in slavery in Alabama, Young followed a love of learning to degrees from Talladega and Oberlin Colleges and a career in higher education. Employed by Booker T. Washington in 1892, he served at Tuskegee Institute until conflict with Washington's vocational orientation led him to move on. During a brief tenure at Georgia State Industrial College under Richard R. Wright, Sr., he became disillusioned by efforts of whites to limit black education to agriculture and the trades. Hired as president of Florida A&M in 1901, he fought for twenty years to balance agricultural/vocational education with the liberal arts, only to meet with opposition from state officials that led to his ouster.

This principled educator finally found his place as president of Lincoln University in Missouri in 1923. Here Young made a determined effort to establish the school as a standard institution of higher learning. Holland describes how he campaigned successfully to raise academic standards and gain accreditation for Lincoln's programs successes made possible by the political and economic support of farsighted members of Missouri's black community.

Holland shows that the great debate over black higher education was carried on not only in the rhetoric of Washington and Du Bois but also on the campuses, as Young and others sought to prepare African American students to become thinkers and creators. In tracing Young's career, Holland presents a wealth of information on the nature of the education provided for former slaves and their descendents in four states shedding new light on the educational environment at Oberlin and Tuskegee and on the actions of racist white government officials to limit the curriculum of public education for blacks.

Although Young's efforts to improve the schools he served were often thwarted, Holland shows that he kept his vision alive in the black community. Holland's meticulous reconstruction of an eventful career provides an important look at the forces that shaped and confounded the development of black higher education during traumatic times."


Nathan Benjamin Young, born a slave in Alabama, was a member of that select group of freedmen who dedicated their lives to the uplift of their race through education. Young, like many other young freedmen, had the advantage of his mother's encouragement and inspiration, but he also had what was lacking in many of the other cases, the opportunity to pursue a formal education. His educational experience led him through the usual period of doubt in determining his life's work. in the end, however, Young was convinced that he could make a significant contribution to racial advancement by becoming a teacher.

Young, the son of Susan Smith and a father whose identity is not known, was born in Newbern, Alabama, on September 15, 1862. His mother was the most important influence on Nathan's life. Susan Smith, the daughter of an African mother and a father of mixed blood, was born in slavery in Chatham, Virginia, in 1843. When she was twelve years old, her master died, and in the settlement of his estate, she was given the choice of being sold to a local master who had the reputation for abusing his slaves, or being sold to a slave trader. Her mother persuaded her to take her chances with the slave trader. in the fall of 1856, Susan was sold for $750 and taken from the plantation without having the opportunity to say a final good-bye to her mother. She would not see her parents again until after the Civil War.

1. Nathan B. Young, “The Quest and Use of an Education,” typewritten
manuscript, 83, hereafter cited as “The Quest.” Young manuscript, Joint

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