Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"This Pitiable Rejection of a Great Opportunity": W. E. B. Du Bois, Clement G. Morgan, and the Harvard University Graduation of 1890

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"This Pitiable Rejection of a Great Opportunity": W. E. B. Du Bois, Clement G. Morgan, and the Harvard University Graduation of 1890

Article excerpt

In June 1890 W. E. B. Du Bois and Clement G. Morgan became the first African Americans to deliver speeches at Harvard University's graduation exercises, thus breaking a highly symbolic racial barrier in U.S. higher education. (1) Never before had the nation's leading university honored an African American with the prominent role of speaking to a white audience at the culminating academic ceremonies. In subsequent years the two men reached other milestones at Harvard: Du Bois became the first African American to earn both the B.A. (1890) and Ph.D. (1895) from Harvard; while Morgan became the first to earn both the B.A. (1890) and the LL.B. (1893). But it was their pathbreaking selection for the highly public and coveted speaking roles in 1890, declared Du Bois, which made "New England and indeed the whole country reverberate." (2)

This celebrated triumph is belied, however, by new archival evidence from the papers of faculty members involved in the selection of the commencement speakers. These papers explicitly describe how the honoring of Du Bois and Morgan was privately compromised by racism that contradicted the publicly extolled, colorblind standard of academic merit. Even as academic meritocracy became fully instituted at Harvard in the 1890s, it was paradoxically enmeshed with racial discrimination.

As evidenced in his autobiography and other writings, Du Bois did not know of this paradox, and he became a loyal alumnus, taking great pride in the commencement honor. (3) Nor did subsequent researchers on Du Bois discover the heated debate surrounding the selection of the commencement speakers. The leading biographer, David Levering Lewis, made no mention of the debate in his W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919. (4) The noteworthy incident also eluded other biographers of Du Bois and historians of Harvard, including Francis L. Broderick, Elliott Rudwick, Joseph P. DeMarco, Manning Marble, and Werner Sollors. The archival evidence of the deliberations within the faculty committee reveal, however, that the two African Americans were set in competition against each other for one place on the commencement podium; that the faculty almost denied Du Bois his merited honor; and that they did deny Morgan "his fairly won place ... because he [was] black or, to put it in its mildest form, because somebody else [was] black." (5)

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The selection of Morgan and Du Bois to speak at Harvard's graduation exercises put the university one step ahead of other elite, white institutions in the "breaking of the color line." (6) During the 1870s, and especially the 1880s and 1890s, "in the debates over political strategy and social organization ... virtually all black authors" argued strongly for increased educational opportunities at all levels. (7) Consequently, the number of African Americans enrolled in colleges and universities began to grow; and, given that the established center of higher education in the country lay in the northeast, it is not surprising that the population center of these African American students attending colleges and universities began to shift geographically to the northeast of the general population center of African Americans within the country. (8)

But the shift to the northeast was small, and the geographical center of the African American student population in 1890 remained on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Furthermore, this small shift was due more to enrollments at the African American institutions of Wilberforce University in Ohio, and Lincoln University and the Institute for Colored Youth (later Cheyney State University) in Pennsylvania than to enrollments in the white colleges and universities of the northeast, which admitted only a few African Americans. Even as enrollments in those northeastern institutions slowly began to grow in subsequent decades, the geographical center of the African American student population in higher education moved no further northeast. …

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