Another Light on the Hill: Black Undergraduates and Tufts

By Gerald Gill

The struggle for educational opportunities has been one of the central topics in the history of African-Americans in the United States. Whether as enslaved or free persons in the antebellum period or as citizens of the republic after the Civil War, African-Americans strove first to learn to read and to write and then to gain access to both public and private educational institutions.

One such institution was Tufts. While evidence suggests that black students may have been enrolled at Tufts College during the late 19th century, we do not know when the first black student enrolled or graduated. For, as W. E. B. Du Bois noted in 1910, Tufts was an institution that had "sent forth Negro graduates of power and efficiency," although the Medford School did not keep "any record of race or nationality of [its] graduates." That lack of records may reflect factors favoring an unquestioned pursuit of equity. The liberal humanism of the Universalist tradition, upon which Tufts was founded, held as a central principle the right to education for all.

The first black graduate identified was Forrester Washington, a native of Salem, Massachusetts, and a member of the Class of 1909. He received a graduate degree from Columbia and became one of the first blacks who was a university-trained social worker. A National Urban League official and later dean of the Atlanta University School of Social Work, he also served as a member of the "Black Cabinet" during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Shortly after Washington's graduation, James A. Jeffress enrolled as a member of the Class of 1915. A resident of West Medford, a small but vibrant community close to the Tufts campus, he was a math major who would later become a secondary-school teacher. While black undergraduates may have been few in number, several of the black professional and graduate students also took part in campus activities, particularly on sports teams. Black students from the School of Dentistry, for instance, played varsity football in the pre- and immediate post-World War I years.

The decade of the 1920s, according to historian Raymond Wolters, saw the emergence of the "New Negro on campus." There was a marked increase in the 1920s as the sons and daughters of a small but emergent middle class began to enroll in institutions of higher education nationwide. Tufts was no exception. Continuing the West Medford connection, Madeline Bernard (Jackson 1920) was the first African-American woman identified as a graduate of the college. After graduation she began her longtime career as a public service employee. Throughout the decade, other black students participated in campus activities and on athletic teams. For example, Henry Jeffress of the Class of 1925 (a younger brother of James) was a writer for the Tufts Weekly, a member of the debating team, assistant secretary of the student union and a member of the track team. He would graduate from the Tufts Medical School in 1930. Claude Randolph Taylor and Mae Tyson Wright, both of the Class of 1927, were active in campus organizations. A biology major who would later earn a Ph.D., Taylor was a three-year varsity letter winner in football, basketball and track. Mae Tyson Wright, a history major and outstanding student, recalled, "my grades in college remained high," and in 1927
the cum laude student was initiated into Phi Beta Kappa. After her graduation, Wright would be a longtime teacher and educational administrator in her native Baltimore. During the mid-1940s, she served as national president of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.

However, the on-campus social life of black students may have been restricted. To fill such a void, black male and female students pledged several of the citywide chapters of the historically black fraternities and sororities, such as Omega Psi Phi, Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, and Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta.

Perhaps the most prominent on-campus activity involving black students in the 1920s was the staging of Eugene O'Neill's play The Emperor Jones by members of Pen, Paint and Pretzels. According to the Tufts Weekly, that production marked "the first time that any play has ever been given on hill with the lead taken by a negro [sic]." The production starred John Moseley in the lead role and Jester Hairston, who would go on to become one of Tufts' most acclaimed alumni. From the early 1930s until his death in 2000, Hairston was a singer, composer, choral director, and internationally acknowledged advocate and promoter of gospel music. In addition, he was an actor in numerous movies and television shows, most notably in "Amos and Andy" and "Amen." He received an honorary degree from Tufts in 1972.

Jester Hairston, A29, H72, a member of the Shenley Quartet (fourth from left) while at Tufts, went on to stardom as a singer, composer, choral director and internationally recognized promoter of gospel music.

The depression years witnessed a nationwide decline in black enrollment in colleges and universities. At Tufts, several black students had to withdraw from school due to financial reasons, and fewer black students enrolled than in the 1920s. Still, students such as Joseph Walker and Irma Thompson were quite involved in campus activities. Walker, a member of the Class of 1933 and a student of Americo-Liberian descent, was a summa cum laude graduate of the College of Engineering and captain of the men's tennis team during his senior year. Thompson, a member of the Class of 1937, played on the tennis, field hockey and basketball teams. In her senior year, she was captain of the women's basketball team.

The Class of 1941 included four African-American male students, most notably Edward "Eddie" Dugger of West Medford. As a student and as an athlete, Dugger won the respect of his classmates and peers for his involvement in numerous campus activities and for his stellar performances as a hurdler and sprinter. By the time he graduated, Dugger had won 24 New England Intercollegiate, Eastern Intercollegiate, Amateur Athletic Union, Penn Relays, and National Collegiate Hurdles titles in the broad jump, one-hundred and two-hundred-yard dashes, and the hurdles. Dugger was captain of the indoor-track team, co-captain of the men's outdoor-track team, secretary of the Senior Class, and a member of the Senior Honorary Society for Men. Perhaps the best measure of Dugger's impact upon the Tufts community was the description of him in his class yearbook: "We will never forget Eddie Dugger, who is one of the finest athletes Tufts has ever had. He is unaffected by the fame he has attained, and his leadership and ability will never be forgotten."

From 1945 to 1965, the number of black students on campus grew slowly. Whereas an estimated 25 black students may have enrolled as undergraduates from 1905 to 1945, more than 50 were enrolled in the two decades after World War II. Their numbers were decidedly small, but there was an increasing diversification in the background and in the gender ratio of the black student population. No longer were most black matriculants from the greater Boston area; students came from other parts of the United States, the Caribbean and from various colonies and later republics in Africa. In addition, the number of black women increased. Only four black women have been identified as pre-World War II graduates of Jackson; approximately 20 studied at Jackson during the two decades after World War II.

During the 1950s, Armon Furey, A51, Robert Jones, A53, Reginald Alleyne, A54, and Brooks Johnson, A56, captained the men's track team. Johnson went on to coach the 1984 women's US Olympic track team. Among the most active women in extracurricular affairs were Ione Dugger Vargus, the fifth member of the Dugger family to have attended Tufts, and Inez Smith Reid, members of the Jackson Class of 1952 and 1959, respectively. Both would later serve as Tufts trustees. In addition to being a Dean's List student, Dugger Vargus was a member of the women's bowling team, member and officer of the co-ed choral group, a representative to the Student Council for commuter students, and a vice-president and secretary for her Jackson class. After receiving an M.S.W. from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from Brandeis, she became a professor, dean of social work, and acting vice provost at Temple University. Smith Reid was a Dean's List student, member of the Jackson Judiciary Council, president of the Forensic Council, president of the Debating Society, member of the Sociology Honor Society, winner of both the Moses True Brown Prize and the Greenwood Prize, and a second-prize recipient of the Wendell Phillips Memorial Prize Scholarship. After Tufts she attended Yale Law School and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University, receiving a J.D. and Ph.D. Currently she is a judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Although race relations at Tufts in the early 1950s were generally described as positive by Ebony magazine, there were still areas of on-campus student life and activities closed to black students. In the earlier years several, if not most, black students had sought a social life off campus. By the early 1950s, there was increasing concern, however, over the racially exclusionary practices of most fraternities and sororities on campus. Over the 1950s, several of the social living groups began to accept black pledges: most did so without incident, but some fraternities continued their racially restrictive policies. In principled acts that garnered both local and national attention, two campus sororities chose expulsion from their national associations for pledging black women students. Not until 1963 would all campus fraternities and sororities adopt non-discriminatory clauses.

Bernard Harleston joined the Tufts faculty in 1956 and would later serve as dean of the faculty from 1970 to 1980 and receive an honorary degree from Tufts in 1998.

From the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, black male and female students were involved in student government, drama productions and choral groups, student publications, and numerous campus organizations. At the same time, black and white students became concerned with the burgeoning civil rights movement. In March of 1960 several took part in the picketing of the Woolworth's in Medford Square as an expression of their support for those black college students involved in sit-in campaigns against segregated facilities in the South. Other students financially supported southern-based initiatives or Boston-area campaigns on behalf of racial equality. Such growing "civil rights consciousness" in the mid-1960s would be the spur for black and white students to ask why so few black students were enrolled at Tufts. To Tufts' credit, the University was one of the first to implement policies and programs to spur the recruitment of black students. In the fall of 1964, the Committee on Negro Education was established and chaired by Professor Bernard Harleston of the psychology department. Harleston was, in 1956, the first African-American hired to a tenure-track position.

By the fall of 1966, the black student population began to increase incrementally. Whereas in the fall of 1963, there were fewer than 20 black undergraduate and graduate students on campus, by the fall of 1966 there were approximately 40. With the presence of a "critical mass" on campus, black students formed the Afro-American Society during the 1966-1967 academic year. Under the leadership of Charles Jordan, A69, the society sought to work with the admissions office to recruit more black students and to serve as tutors in Roxbury schools.

The nature of black student life and activities at Tufts from the late 1960s until the early 1990s mirrored that experienced by black students at other predominantly white, prestigious colleges and universities across the country. In less than a decade, the black student population increased by 700 percent (from 40 in the fall of 1966 to 279 in the fall of 1972). From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, black enrollment stabilized around 250-280, before declining throughout the 1980s.

The rather rapid rise from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s was attributable in part to efforts initiated by black and white students alike. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 affected the Tufts campus greatly. In the wake of the civil rights leader's death, black and white students formed the campus organization Students Concerned About Racism (SCAR), which intended to increase the number of black students admitted to the incoming freshman class. Through its active recruiting efforts and through its raising of scholarships, SCAR was instrumental in the recruiting of an additional 40 black students for the Class of 1972.

The admission of more black students to Tufts was a beginning step. However, according to Glenn Smith, the president of the Afro-American Society in the spring of 1968, black students were now seeking "to challenge the present values of the University." Black students, upset at the paucity of black faculty members (one) and at the near-total exclusion of course offerings on the life, history and culture of persons of African descent, demanded the hiring of more black faculty members and the introduction of new courses. Beginning in the late 1960s, often through the sponsorship of the Experimental College, courses pertaining to African and African-American literature, history, politics and art were being offered. Within a few years, most had become institutionalized through the traditional academic departments. And Tufts began more concentrated efforts to hire black faculty members, particularly when Harleston assumed the position of dean of the faculty in the early 1970s.

Unlike its neighbors Brandeis and Harvard, Tufts was spared any direct confrontation over the hiring of black faculty members, the establishing of a core component of African and African-American Studies courses, and the setting up of the Afro-American Cultural Center. During the fall of 1969, however, members of the Afro-American Society complained to the University administration that the Volpe Construction Company, the contractor building what later became Lewis Hall, employed only two or three black and other workers of color. In conjunction with the New Urban League and the United Community Construction Workers in Boston, members of the Afro-American Society proposed that at least 20 percent of the project's workforce be made up of black and other people of color, that members of the Society be involved in and apprised of the monitoring of workers hired, and that they be allowed to observe University negotiations with the contractors. When the Volpe Company failed to hire the percentage of minority workers stipulated by the Afro-American Society, black students and supportive white students and faculty members occupied the construction site in November of 1969. Campus officials obtained a restraining order preventing students from occupying the site and called in police officers from Medford and Somerville to prevent any confrontation between students and workers. Tensions remained high between black students and administrators throughout the winter of 1970; however, feelings of ill-will began to abate when President Burton Hallowell ordered the injunction removed and University lawyers filed suit against the construction company for its failure to hire a sufficient number of workers of color.

Throughout the 1970s the Afro-American Society and the Afro-American Center became the prime foci of most black students' life. The Society began sponsoring (and continues to sponsor) the annual celebration of Kwanzaa, sponsored a 1973 cause dinner to benefit victims of the drought in West Africa, co-sponsored a Stevie Wonder Concert in 1974, and provided funding to the Committee for Black Involvement in Drama (a black student organization that promoted more opportunities for black students in both CBID productions and in drama department productions). The Society was also involved in several off-campus activities. During the early 1970s the Society sponsored a summer institute for youngsters from Dorchester and Roxbury, maintained tutoring programs, set up cultural programs in the Columbia Point Housing project and initiated a sickle cell anemia testing program.

The Afro-American Center opened in the fall of 1969 and in the same year there were established single-sex residential units for black male and black female students. The Center had office space in each of the respective residential units and its staff consisted of a director and other office personnel that helped to plan programs-educational, academic and social-for the campus' black population. By 1971, the two separate residential living units and the office space for the Center were housed in one building. In 1972 the Center was moved to Carpenter House and in 1977, the Center, now named the Africana Center, moved to its current location, Capen House.

The Center became and remains a vital office on campus. Throughout its existence, the Center has sponsored or co-sponsored the on-campus appearance of prominent African-American artists, entertainers, activists, writers, politicians and intellectuals. The Center has worked closely with other centers, academic departments and programs to promote intercultural activities and, in the words of a former director, to "help enlighten the university community about the cultural history and ideas of African-Americans."

While many on the Tufts campus viewed black students as separatists, black students remained as involved, if not more involved, in campus-wide activities as in earlier decades. Throughout the 1970s black students won election to the TCU Senate, starred or co-starred in campus productions and participated in several other campus organizations. Black male and female students distinguished themselves on several of the varsity athletic teams, including the 1972-1973 ECAC championship basketball team, the football team, the soccer team and the baseball team. With the enactment of Title IX, women's sports teams came of age. Over the 1970s black women athletes won acclaim for their sports accomplishments. In addition, for several years black women comprised a majority of the members of the cheerleading squad. According to the Tufts Observer, the cheerleading squad had become "virtually defunct" until revitalized by black women interested in cheering for the men's basketball team.

Although the black student population at Tufts declined throughout the 1980s, African-American students remained quite active in campus affairs. Through the African-American Society and the African-American Center, they established the African-American Dance Troupe, the Third Day Gospel Choir and the Black Outreach Program. Black students established the Onyx, a literary magazine, and served as writers and editors for both the Tufts Daily and the Observer. From the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, students shared their viewpoints in "The Other Side," a weekly column in the Daily that often commented on campus race relations. In addition, black students appeared in such campus productions as Jesus Christ, Superstar, Godspell, Pippin and the highly acclaimed 1986 production of The Wiz, directed by Audrey Davis and choreographed by Iris Carter. In 1982 Vera Walker won election as Homecoming Queen, the first African-American woman to receive that honor. In the two decades since, black male and female students have won elections as Homecoming Kings and Queens.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, black students were active in any number of campus organizations and sports teams. Over the decade numerous black male and female students were elected members and officers of the TCU Senate. In 1991 Julian Barnes would win the first ever student body election for TCU president. Manar Zarroug in 1987 and Myra Frazier in 1990 were the Wendell Phillips Award winners. Throughout the 1980s, but especially during the 1981-1982 championship season, black students were mainstays of the men's basketball team. Other male students were prominent members of the men's track team in the early to mid-1980s, while others distinguished themselves on the football team. Similarly, women athletes starred on the basketball team, the lacrosse team, the soccer team, the women's softball team and were mainstays on the track team.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, theater was also a creative arena for student talent. Robert O'Hara and Heather Simms (two recent Tufts alumni who are currently pursuing careers in the theater) reintroduced black drama productions to the campus. They brought distinction to themselves for their directing and starring in productions such as T'Ain't Right, Trouble in Mind, Ain't Misbehavin', The Trip, and The Colored Museum. Their legacy continues today with the work of the Black Theater Company.

Over the past decade there have been noticeable changes in the campus black population. The number of students of African descent during the early to mid- 1990s was lower than in the early 1980s, although by 1996 the numbers had started to rise. Concurrently, the black student population was becoming increasingly diverse in terms of ethnicity and place of birth. In a realization of this latter change, the African-American Society voted in 1991 to rename itself the Pan-African Alliance. More recently, students have formed the Caribbean Club and the African Students Organization. African-American women also formed the a cappella performing group Essence (now a singing group for women of all races interested in the performing of music from the African diaspora). The multi-racial Gospel Choir has become one of the most spirited and dynamic music groups on campus.

Members of the planning committee for the Black Alumni Reunion in October 2000 pose in front of Capen House, now the Africana Center.

In the 1990s, students of African descent continued to exercise leadership. They have won election to the Senate, with Ancy Verdier, Omar Mattox and Larry Harris having served as TCU presidents. Others have served as trustee representatives and as members of the TCUJ, the Elections Board, and the Concert Board.
Indeed, students of African descent have not become complacent about making Tufts a more diverse community. Concerned with stagnant enrollments of black students and the sudden departures of quite a few popular black professors, administrators and senior staff members, students staged a peaceful march on Ballou Hall in December 1998. That march helped set in motion new initiatives on race and race relations, leading to the increased enrollment of students of African descent. The most recent freshman class saw the highest enrollment in Tufts history: 121.

Individually as well as collectively, black students have contributed greatly to the ambience of the "Tufts experience." Their accomplishments, past and present, need to be acknowledged and made more a part of the history and lore of Tufts University. May the presentation of the history of African-American, Caribbean-American and Continental African students spur further research on the historical experiences of students from other racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Then, the history of Tufts will more fully encompass the experiences of all its students.






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