In the fall of 1959, Harvard College admitted eighteen “Negro” boys to its freshman class. Four years later, they graduated as Afro-Americans, as Black men. I was one of them. We were The Last Negroes at Harvard.
Now in our seventies, we are part of the generation that includes the Little Rock Nine and James Meredith, and our stories are also a part of Black history in the United States. We entered Harvard without US Marshals and crowds of venomous Southern racists; we weren’t the despised “niggers” at that front in the war for equality. We were, instead, the invited guests of the white aristocracy, and we represented, at least to the white northeast liberal elite, the deserving and well-behaved “Negro,” actively recruited as Harvard’s first foray into what would become Affirmative Action. We had come to Harvard from North and South, from the urban projects and from the upper echelons of the Black elite, with all kinds of hopes and experiences and interests. We came with little in common except our youth (two not yet and four barely seventeen, none over eighteen), our academic ability, and our culturally defined “color,” although in truth our colors were so different that we ourselves couldn’t always recognize each other. We were brought to Harvard and left to fend for ourselves in the citadel of white privilege.
Six years before we got to Harvard, a cross had been burned outside a dormitory that housed two Black students, and as the flood of G.I. Bill students ebbed and the 1950s wound down, the college was tilting strongly to the right and looking backward, longingly, to the days when Harvard was the exclusive province of the white ruling class. This is the Harvard we entered. We experienced a full range of reactions from our eleven hundred white classmates: at times, we were seen as insignificant anomalies with nothing much to contribute, and we experienced both subtly and blatantly racist assumptions and practices; but much of the time, we were treated as friends, if not equals, and our intellects were valued and stimulated. Often, we were seen as curiosities, objectified as anthropological specimens: at least two “studies” of us were done by white students, titled provocatively, “Bright Shadows in the Yard,” and “Rising Sons of Darkness.” Like all college students, we learned and loved and worried and fooled around; but we were always The Negroes.
We were the first generation to come to Harvard in numbers large enough to build a collective identity, despite the fact that we were the last generation to go to a Harvard with no Black studies, no Black faculty or administrators, no Black student groups. Early on, it was as simple as establishing Harvard’s first Black Table in the dining hall, sharing our experiences and “educating” our white classmates. And by the time we were seniors, we had joined with our African national classmates to fight for the right to form an exclusive Black students’ group, we had met Malcolm X, and we had all succeeded academically. We were the first beneficiaries of Affirmative Action, the first wave of Black activism at Harvard, a wave that would crest in the late 1960s. We left Harvard with changed identities and with a commitment to the cause that would shape many of our lives and careers.
This is our story, as yet untold, seen through our own eyes and told in our own voices, both as it happened and as we reconsider it today, in these times of hope and disappointment. Harvard changed us, and we changed Harvard.
This book is particularly timely now, as a new generation of young people rises up to challenge racism on campuses and in communities, protesting everything from police brutality to micro-aggressions. We represent the oldest surviving generation of Ivy League Blacks, lately reacting to the revelation that these citadels of white privilege were funded by the stolen labor of our ancestors and served complacently as the intellectual homes of people whose words and deeds had oppressed and maligned our race. Having been born during Jim Crow and having lived three-quarters of a century as Black men in the United States, we are ready and uniquely qualified to add our voices to the chorus of those who are questioning the future of this country. Our experiences at Harvard between 1959 and 1963, our diverse life stories, our formative years in the bastion of white privilege, our small acts of Black activism, and our awakenings as Black men help to illuminate how institutional concretions -- even those as entrenched and revered as Harvard’s – both endure and erode, how new frames of reference emerge, how young people find the ideas that transform themselves and the world.
This book deals with central issues to race in America: affirmative action and meritocracy; Black identity, anger, and anxiety; Black, white, and institutional racisms; the roots from which racial identities are formed and transformed. At the most basic level, the book appeals to the natural curiosity of younger generations about the real human experiences of those who lived in “darker times,” but it also has meaning and import with regard to enduring issues: What was it like to be Black at Harvard between the end of the complacent 1950s and into the first years of the turbulent 1960s? How did this early form of Affirmative Action play out, on campus and in our lives? How did our personal and collective identities emerge and change? How does it all look from the vantage point of the 21st century, as we spend our last years on the planet?
But the book is also very much a story, a lively and compelling story of our four years at Harvard, a narrative that brings the reader right into the time and place, to the sights and sounds and feelings of our lives there, beginning as we first set foot on Harvard Yard and ending back on The Yard again, at our commencement exercises. A second, interwoven narrative arc begins in 2009, when I started looking for my classmates and interviewing them, and that story, too, has its mysteries, sorrows and delights.
I began this project after a long career as a network television news producer; my co-author, too, had retired from a long career, she as an academic in the field of the history of education in the US. Her research skills and theoretical perspectives, my journalism experience, and most important, my experiences as one of the “Last Negroes” make us perfectly suited to write this book. We have so far interviewed all of the surviving members of our class, along with others, including white classmates, surviving Harvard faculty and administration, and families and friends of both living and deceased class members. We have videotaped all of the interviews to date, and those have been edited into a promotional short video.
The Last Negroes at Harvard will be published in the fall of 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
This program is funded in part by the Mass Humanities, which receives support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and is an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.