Black History Month Spotlight: Howard University
This past week, I went to the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at the Founders Library at Howard University. I was doing research on my dissertation on Horace Kallen and Alain Locke. Howard University, founder in 1867, is the most famous of American Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Locke was a professor there for many years. My research, however, was focused on Locke’s time at Harvard University, where Locke was an undergraduate from 1904-1907.
There’s considerable irony to Locke’s attitudes and career. At Harvard, Locke had to skillfully navigate between the various groups of people there: the wealthiest WASPs who wanted nothing to do with him (like Teddy Roosevelt Jr., the president’s son), middle class gentiles and Jews who befriended him despite the racist sentiments they may have held, as well as the small but not insignificant number of other Black students. Interestingly, with a handful of exceptions, Locke wanted nothing to do with his fellow African Americans at Harvard, thinking them crass and beneath him, unwilling to take advantage of the social opportunities Harvard provided and opting instead for self-isolation and segregation. This included pseudo-celebrities like the grandson of Frederick Douglass. On one more than one occasions, Locke referred to his African American peers at Harvard derisively as “niggers” in letters home to his mother.
Just how accurate Locke’s assessment of his fellow Black students was remains to be seen. But it’s ironic that after graduating from Harvard and attending Oxford as the first Black Rhodes Scholar, Locke took a job at Howard University. None other than Booker T. Washington helped him secure that job. The Washington stressed industrial education, Locke imbibed his “self-help” attitude, transferring it to the cultural sphere. This was the spirit behind the Black Arts movement of the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance, for which Locke served as intellectual godfather.
Locke had an ambiguous relationship to his own Black identity. He was proud of his family lineage, and of the achievements of great Black artists and intellectuals. He taught at a Black university. He led a Black arts movement. He eventually came to see himself as a race leader. Yet he was never entirely comfortable with large swaths of the Black community.
And I guess this is sort of the point. When I visit Howard, I find it utterly fascinating. I grew up in a thoroughly middle-class/upper-middle-class Jewish environment in Montreal, Canada. Both my parents have doctorates, my father is a professor. I’ve always been totally at home in academic environments.
Without engaging in too much stereotyping, I imagine that for many Howard students, that is not the case. Here is an environment where when I walk around, I’m one of a handful of non-Black people around, and yet nearly all the Black people around me are thoroughly educated undergraduate or graduate or law or medical students or faculty.
One of my first thoughts when visiting Howard was that if I was African American, particularly if I was African American from a poor background, I would find it very empowering. I think it would be more empowering than for a Jew to attend Brandeis, for example (which now has many, I’ve heard of possibly even 40% non-Jewish students). Certainly more empowering than Yeshiva University, which has only Orthodox Jewish men (and boys).
I remember telling this to some of my (white) friends, and they wondered whether they might find Howard stifling, rather than empowering. Too much homogeneity and that sort of thing.
But I really don’t think I would feel that way.
At Howard, there is actually tremendous diversity: Black people of a variety of origins, those whose families came to America as slaves, those from a multitude of countries for Africa or the Caribbean, people of mixed race (with any number of races), people speaking many languages, practicing different religions (or no religion), people gay and straight and bisexual and transgender, with a variety of political leanings and academic interests and socio-economic backgrounds, people of different sizes and shades and hues and features and clothing and hairstyles.
This is of course obvious, perhaps banal to state. But Alain Locke found the 1904-1907 Black community at Harvard rather stifling. I wonder what he would think of Howard today? Or of Black students at Harvard today? I don’t have the answers, and as a historian, I never will. But it’s fascinating to speculate.