PROFESSOR MERZE TATE (1905-1996): A Profile(*)

By Harris, Joseph E. | Negro History Bulletin, July-December 1998 | Go to article overview

PROFESSOR MERZE TATE (1905-1996): A Profile(*)


Harris, Joseph E., Negro History Bulletin


Upon entering Oxford University in 1932, Merze Tate paused to ponder her future, and she did it in a vein not unlike the British poet Milton expressed in one of his famous sonnets. Though considering "what before me lies," she also indicated an admirable sense of ethnic pride and a strong devotion to her sorority. Contemplating all of her remarkable scholastic and civic achievements since "coming down" from Oxford, as welt as before, one can reasonably conclude that Merze Tate ... [became] a distinguished scholar in European and diplomatic history and a role model for serious young and elderly black men and women everywhere striving to prove the "folly of prejudice."

Her life history fully illustrates that hard work is the main key to successful endeavors a bit of her philosophy of life that was instilled in her by her forebears.

Dr. Tate's great grandparents--the Letts and Totes--were pioneers who, in the nineteenth century, migrated in covered wagons from the east in Ohio and her grandparents from Ohio into the wilderness of central Michigan, where black families were beginning to settle. The impetus that led to the migration of these free, ambitious, and energetic blacks and whites and emigrants from northern Europe to that sparsely inhabited territory was the Homestead Act of 1862, which provided for the transfer of a quarter section (160 acres) of unoccupied public land to each homesteader on payment of a nominal fee after five years of residence. These black trailblazers, along with the white settlers, felled the trees, built the first log houses, barns, schools, churches, corduroy roads, and pineroot and log fences. It was into this pioneer community that Merze Tate's parents were born or grew up in Mecosta and Isabella Counties. By the time their daughter was barn, mast lag houses had been superseded by frame dwellings.

Merze's birth occurred on February 6, 1905, in the midst of a blizzard, through which the country doctor residing in Blanchard could not drive his horse and sleigh. Consequently, a German neighbor, Mrs. Vernie Fisch, officiated at the delivery, leaving the rest, including the medical examination and the preparation of a certificate of birth, for the physician who managed to get through the next day. Completing the birth certificate for the Isabella County files, the county clerk inadvertently recorded the new arrival as a "white female," thereby causing a minor complication some years later when Merze Tate applied for a passport to study in Geneva and to travel in western Europe.

By the time Merze was five years old, the log school buildings in the county had been replaced by frame, one-room structures, not painted red but a creamy white, with a belfry and spaced approximately four miles apart on surveyed dirt and gravel roads, which meant that no child generally had to walk further than two miles to school. Merze attended Rolland Township Elementary School Number Five, located on a one-acre corner of her parents' farm and less than one-quarter mile from her home.

The curriculum in Michigan's elementary schools was not limited to the three R's, but included geography, history, horticulture, orthography, and physiology. Dr. Tate recalls that her geography books were illustrated with fascinating pictures of the Acropolis, the Great Pyramids of Cheops and the Sphinx at Giza, the Cape of Good Hope, Victoria Fall of the Zambezi River, the temples of Siam and Cambodia, Mandalay, Singapore, Hang Kong, Zanzibar, Australia, New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, Niagra Falls, the Grand Canyon, the "Old Faithful" geyser in Yellowstone National Park, the huge redwood trees in California, and the Christ of the Andes, which prompted her to dream dreams of seeing those "far-away places with strange-sounding names."

Young Merze's visions of extensive travel were coupled with strong aspirations to emulate the didactical pursuits of her sister Thelma (ten years her senior), who had earned a diploma from Central Michigan Teachers College, had taught in two different elementary schools for a while, and later passed the Civil Service examination for a clerical position in the U. …

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