The Last Negroes at Harvard
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.
The Last Negroes at Harvard will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 11, 2020