Chosen for Ability

Should well-qualified Negroes be invited to teach in our Northern colleges? The question is raised by FRED G. WALE, Director of Education of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, In June, 1946, Mr. Wale wrote to over 500 college and university presidents in thirty Northern states. “ It would be wrong,” the letter stated, “to appoint an unworthy person just because he was a Negro, but it would be equally wrong to turn down a worthy candidate because he was a Negro.” The presidents of 400 colleges never replied. But the inquiry persisted. Today 43 Northern colleges and universities have added Negro teachers to their staffs.



TWO men from Oxford County, North Carolina, were talking. It was the year 1790. “I tell you, Judge Henderson,” one was saying, “ ‘tain’t no use. A nigra will never learn.”

“ Why do you say that? ” Judge Henderson asked. “ ‘Cause I know. I’ve seen too many of ‘em. In the first place it’s an unnatural thing and, besides, they jest don’t have the brains the white man has.”

“Look here, Charles Manley,” replied the Judge, “you speak without reason. I will lay you a wager: given an equal chance, a Negro will do as well in college as your son or mine.”

By this time a small group had gathered about the two men. After some debate it was agreed that John Chavis, a young Negro well known in the community, would be the test case. The college chosen was Princeton, and the preacher in the group, a recent graduate, was asked to make the arrangements. Local donations paid the costs of the experiment.

The years came and went, and after a time the Negro student had finished his studies at Princeton. Finally the results were known. Not only did John Chavis make an excellent record in the white man’s college, but after graduation he returned to Oxford County. There, in the slave state of North Carolina, he ran a preparatory school for the sons of the very men who had questioned the ability of his race. Judge Henderson sent his sons, and so did Charles Manley. John Chavis’s graduates became the leaders in the state in the next generation, among them doctors, lawyers, justices, and at least one governor, Charles Manley, Jr. An outstanding North Carolina educator of the period, writing of John Chavis, said, “Of all the many schools maintained for the training of our youth, his was the best in the state.”

One hundred and fifty years have passed, and the year is now 1940. Two men, traditional descendants of Judge Henderson and Charles Manley, are standing on the library steps of one of our great Northern universities. “Well, Doctor, I don’t know. This innovation we are contemplating may not be entirely wise. I think I would caution against too great haste.”

“Haste? How do you mean — haste?”

“Of course, you mustn’t misunderstand me, Doctor. I personally have nothing against it, but — well, you know the spirit of this community.”

“No, I’m not sure that I do.”

“Oh, yes, you must! It is doubtful whether this community would consider it feasible at this time to bring a Negro to the faculty of this great university and give him tenure. It would be different if the appointment were for a visiting lecturer. No precedent, simply no —”

“Excuse me for interrupting, but I want to point out something. In a few words you have listed the three main arguments of the fearful ones: ‘Don’t go too fast!’ ‘What will the community say?’ and ‘No precedent, simply no precedent.’ Of the first, I ask, ‘What kind of breakneck speed is one appointment in a hundred and fifty years?’ Of the second, ‘Is a community some shrew behind whose petticoats a timid man must hide?’ And finally, ‘What precedent is needed for a matter other than that it be just and honorable?' What we are proposing is both. To bring a Negro to our faculty is a natural extension of the democracy under which we live as citizens and operate as an institution. If we appoint him, it will be because he is the highest qualified man for the post. If we fail to appoint him, it will be because he is a Negro, and that is a piece of protective coloration we can no longer afford ourselves. There, I guess I’ve made a speech.”

“And not a bad one, Doctor. Of course you haven’t convinced me, but I will say —”

And thus, in such an atmosphere Dr. Allison Davis, sociologist and anthropologist, author and lecturer, was brought in 1941 to the University of Chicago, the first Negro faculty member on record to serve with full status in any Northern university.

A hundred and fifty years from John Chavis, the Princeton graduate teaching the white sons of North Carolina, to Allison Davis of the Humanities Division of the University of Chicago! A century and a half of progress in the colleges and universities of our country, but without a Negro on the teaching staff. For several generations Negroes have been taught in Northern institutions and have been awarded all their degrees, but, with one or two exceptions, they have not been allowed to teach t here.

Thousands of Negro men and women have entered the teaching profession during those years, but all of them have taught in the segregated Negro college. Until 1940 it was unheard of that a Negro, no matter how qualified, no matter how many degrees he had earned in this country or abroad, or how many honorary titles had been conferred on him, should expect to teach in a so-called white institution. In fact, the idea was so unlikely that not only was it unexpressed on any college campus, but it has never, so far as can be discovered, found its way into the pages of book or magazine.

On the shelves of any well-equipped library there are many books that deal with the education of the American Negro. These books tell such facts as that there are today 75,000 Negroes studying in the colleges of this country; that there are 100,000 graduates with bachelor’s degrees, 3000 holding master’s degrees, and 550 with Ph.D.’s. One learns that nearly 3000 of these professionally trained men and women are engaged in college teaching, that 3500 are physicians, 1200 are lawyers, and 15,000 are ministers. Hundreds of Negro college graduates have reached the top in the business world by putting into pract ice the sound theories of the schools of commerce from which they were graduated.

These facts, recorded with a wealth of reliable research material, have been ably presented by recognized authorities, and yet nowhere in all these volumes is there a chapter, a paragraph, or even a single sentence devoted to the subject of Negroes qualified to serve on the faculties of Northern colleges and universities. Search all you will, I doubt that you can find one protest against this discrimination.

In 1938 an exhaustive study was published on the subject of the Negro college graduate by one of the country’s leading scholars. Major attention is given in this book to the high standards achieved in the Northern colleges from which graduate degrees are being won. The study also includes an analysis of the various professional employments. But whenever the Negro college graduate is referred to as a teacher, it is understood that it is as a teacher of other Negroes within the Negro college.

In fact, not only has this been the total pattern of thought up to the present time, but many sympathetic and enlightened authorities have advocated it without qualification. Studies that advocate increased graduate work for Negroes reason that the leader of the future must receive his training in the Negro college of the South since the South is the region in which he will work. There is never a question concerning his employment opportunities elsewhere.

It is, of course, too specious an answer to say that Negroes have not found employment on Northern college faculties because there “aren’t enough of them to go around” or because “they are needed so greatly among their own people.” There are today hundreds of Negroes of outstanding scholarship, holding degrees from ranking universities. As teachers they are needed as much by the white and Negro students of the North as they are by the segregated Negro student of the South.


THERE is one real reason, and it is the same lor all. Negroes have been denied admission to college faculties for about the same reason that many Jewish scholars have been, or that Japanese and Chinese Americans and occasionally Catholics have been. Too often, the college administrator, like many restaurant keepers, real-estate agents, and hospital trustees, has accepted the unchallenged way of our past. Consciously or unconsciously, he has never seriously considered a Negro as eligible for a faculty. If perchance he had, previous to 1940, he would have put the idea behind him as too controversial.

After Pearl Harbor, however, with the Negro Marine, officer and private, fighting side by side with his white brother, with Navy ships manned by mixed crews, with Americans of all races and creeds standing side by side at the factory bench, it was no longer a daring thing, a getting-outahead-of-the-community thing, for a college to add a Negro to its staff, chosen on the basis of’ ability.

This was the sense of a letter the Julius Rosenwald Fund wrote in June, 1946, to over 500 college and university presidents in thirty Northern states. The war was over in Europe and coming to a fast end in the Pacific. The letter pointed out that the restrictions of race and creed placed on large numbers of our citizens served to alarm many, lest in winning the war abroad, we lost in some measure the peace at home. The letter suggested that colleges could exercise some leadership in the matter by extending democratic practices not only throughout the student body but into the ranks of the faculty. “It would be wrong,” the letter stated, “to appoint an unworthy person just because he was a Negro, but it would be equally wrong to turn down a worthy candidate because he was a Negro.”

The first answer came within two days and asked for help in finding qualified candidates for two faculty positions. The weeks went by, and at the end of a month all replies were in. Letters had been written to 510 college presidents; 110 replied; 400 were never heard from. About a third of the replies were bare acknowledgments, the tersest of which came from the president of a great Midwestern university. He wrote thanking us for our letter and saying that he would give the matter consideration should the problem ever arise. From one of our largest Western state universities the president wrote, “There is no way in which the University can be helpful to you in your project.”

Most of the colleges protested (some almost too much) that there was no policy of discrimination against employing Negroes on the faculty, and a few followed up with “though we have no Negroes on our staff at the present time,” the incorrect inference being that they have had in the past.


SOME of the answers contained amusing paradoxes. For example, one president referred to a pamphlet published by the liberal governor of his state, dealing with the principle of equal opportunity for all, and then concluded his letter with the regret that there had been no occasion in his institution to do the sort of thing we suggested. Another wrote, “We do not have a Negro on our faculty, but I’d like to get your help to do something else.” In this case it was to establish a segregated monastery for Negroes in the South.

by the merest chance there came in the mail one day two letters giving the big and the little ends of the same argument, both ends adding up to the same total, “no opportunity here.” One letter said, “In a city of this size with so large a Negro community it seems best to us that a college for Negro students employing Negro faculty members could and should be supported by the community itself.” And the other said, “I must confess it seems eminently unwise for a college as small as this in a community of a few thousand with only one Negro family living in it to consider the employment of a Negro staff member.”

I he president of another college was relieved of the necessity for action when he reported that it was hardly a problem for him since there were practically no Negroes in his vicinity, his institution being the most northerly in one of the most northerly states. Another said he lived too close to the Ohio River.

Another president, with a somewhat more progressive reputation than some of his fellows, stated that he and his faculty had considered the matter as one of grave importance for many years, but as yet had taken no positive action.

Some of us want our democracy, but we want it gradually. An eminent college president with half a century of Christian service behind him wrote that he was glad to report that his college had pioneered in democratic practices just as far as that was in any wise practicable in the world in which we live.

Occasionally we know the truth, but there is no strength in us, for we stand alone. Or, we think we do. Such was the college president who wrote that he could not consider seriously the application of any Negro for a faculty post because, regardless of his theoretical ideas or his own personal idealism, he must, as an administrator, face the hard, cold realities with which he had to deal. Yes, prejudice is bleak going sometimes.

Then there came the morning when a letter arrived from a president who said that “as far as ho was aware, he did not have a position at the present time for which a Negro would care to be considered,” and in the afternoon mail this piquant twistogram, “It isn’t that we discriminate against the Negro race as such, it’s just that our entire college is white.”

If one were to consider only the puzzling fact that 400 presidents failed to reply to the letter, the total effect might be dismal. Fortunately, however, there is much else to report, most of it to the good. Whereas in 1940 there were perhaps no more than 3, today there are 43 Northern colleges and universities which have added Negroes to their staffs and at least a score more are giving the matter serious consideration.

Lest there be any misunderstanding on this point, it would be well to emphasize once more that those administrators who have made their decision have done so because of practical reasons and not out of a sentimental attitude. They have not said, “America has been unfair to Negroes. Let us hire one for our college.” Rather, they have said, Y^e have an opening in English, mathematics, or music. We want the best person we can find. We know now that there are some excellent English, mathematics, and music teachers who happen to be Negroes. We know too that they probably won’t apply unless we get some word out that their qualifications will be considered along with everyone else’s. The door has never been open to the Negro candidate, so for a time we shall have to solicit applications. That we will do, and muy the best man win regardless of race or creed.”

And so to date, 48 presidents and deans have made this statement with the result that during the past two years 78 Negro men and women have been added to the faculties of our Northern colleges and universities. Some of them have been appointed for a quarter or more, but 29 are on continuing assignment with a tenure as secure as that of their fellow staff members. Sixteen of the colleges have brought more than one Negro to their faculties. Four colleges have employed 8; three have employed 4; two, 5; nnd one college a total of 6.


WHEN the 350 students in philosophy at the University of Minnesota signed up last fall to study under Dr. Forrest O. Wiggins, none of them knew that their instructor was a Negro. But also none of them knew that Dr. Wiggins was a graduate of Butler University in Indianapolis, that he had done postgraduate work in Europe and had earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin. For it was without fanfare that the University of Minnesota brought Dr. Wiggins on a regular full-time appointment to teach in the Philosophy Department, treating the matter as a natural event.

Such forthrightness has paid dividends. The response of students and fellow faculty members has been unanimous. There is only one matter of importance: “How keen is Dr. Wiggins as an instructor of philosophy?” On this there is universal agreement.

As the head of the Art Department at Atlanta University for fifteen years, Hale Woodruff taught hundreds of Negro men and women the beginnings of art form. His quality as a painter and the warm affection of his personality make him a successful teacher. When Mr. Woodruff joined the Division of Art Education at New York University last fall, a student rose in one of his early seminars and said, “Mr. Woodruff, you told us a little while ago to bring up anything that seemed to be important. I would just like to say that New York University showed a lot of sense in asking you to join the faculty. I for one am glad you have come to work here.” Not a polished speech on race relations, but it expressed the feelings of the entire department. Hale Woodruff thanked him warmly and that was all that was said on either side.

Mr. Woodruff is working harder than he has ever worked before. He teaches a full week in downtown New York and rushes back uptown to his own painting in his studio on 125th Street. Never having taught before outside the segregated South, Mr. Woodruff, like all his fellow teachers in Atlanta, was never allowed to forget that he was first a Negro and then an artist. Today there are long periods during which he is conscious only of the fact that he is a teacher of students in art education.

Mary Huff Diggs was taking a year of well-earned rest when Hunter College asked her to consider a faculty post there last fall. Mrs. Diggs is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Minnesota, an M.A. from Fisk University, and a Ph.D. in social economy from Bryn Mawr, the first Negro to receive a doctorate from this institution. For six years Mrs. Diggs has been on the graduate faculty of social work at Howard University, to which post she had planned to return this fall. The offer from Hunter College to become a permanent full-time member of the faculty came as a surprise to Mrs. Diggs, but for Hunter College it was the final act in a careful search to fill the vacancy with the highest qualified person in the field.

These are typical illustrations of Negro stall members teaching in Northern colleges. Happily, there are now many more. Ira Reid, for example, who, in addition to being the editor of Phylon, a monthly of unusual literary merit, has commuted this year between New York University and Haverford College, teaching some of the most popular courses in both institutions.

Adelaide Cromwell Hill, a recent graduate of Smith College, is back there teaching courses in the field of sociology. And then there is Lawrence D. Reddick, curator of the Schomburg Collection, who teaches history at the New School for Social Research in New York. And Walter Anderson, formerly director of music at Karamu House in Cleveland, who now heads the Music Department at Antioch College. And St. Clair Drake, co-author of Black Metropolis, who teaches sociology at Roosevelt College in Chicago. And Cornelius Golightly, teaching philosophy at Olivet College in Michigan, and Madeline Clarke Foreman, professor of biology at William Penn College in Iowa, and Joseph Gier, lecturer in electrical engineering at. the University of California. These and many more, and each month the list grows longer.

Of all the letters we received on this subject, only one expressed serious disagreement. It came from the retired president of a Northern college whose name and charter carry it back to Revolutionary times. “It is unwise,” said this letter, “to put on a drive to secure the appointment of Negroes to the colleges of the North for white students, for in doing so you will pillage an already depleted field and thus deprive the Negro college of its leadership.” The whole idea, he added, was harmful to the advancement of the Negro race, and we should instead get educated Negroes “to accept positions in their own institutions that need them so badly.”

The answer is, of course, that none of us needs any single part of the whole as much as we all need one another. This must be the basic principle of our future either as Americans or as citizens of the world. The paradox of evil with which we struggle daily is that as a nation we permit seventeen of our forty-eight states to carry on a segregated program of educational enlightenment in an administrative pattern which is itself a product of the Dark Ages. If Americans are to assume leadership as citizen of the world, segregation as a national institution must go.

The colleges of the country will do their part in this great endeavor by introducing to their students as friends and teachers such men as Sterling Brown, one of America’s finest raconteurs; Arna Bon temps, the only college librarian to write a book for children, another for adults, and to have a play produced on Broadway all in the same year; and Alain Locke, who, in the minds of many, shares top honors with John Dewey on the philosopher’s bench. Great progress has been made by public and private educational institutions during the past five years. Still greater lies ahead.