The Road From Rentiesville

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So we’re drawing up this petition, and the president of the university is nervous. He’s very proud that Fisk has been singled out by the President of the United States, and very unhappy that these young whippersnappers are going to spoil everything by bringing up something unpleasant like the lynching of Cordie Cheek. So he called me in. We didn’t happen to get along, the president and I. And he said, “You know the President of the United States is going to be the guest of Fisk. I think it would be unseemly and discourteous for us to pull on his coattail and urge him to do something about this lynching while he’s here.”

“My mother and father were . . . disdainful of the whole apparatus of segregation.”

He made me feel pretty bad about it. I was 19, you see, and I had some savoirfaire, but not enough. So he talked me out of making that protest. But only with a bargain that we struck. He said, “If you don’t present that petition to the President while he’s here, I will get you an appointment with the President at Warm Springs.” I thought that was fair [laughs] , so I didn’t press the issue. Of course, I believe until this day that he never even made the effort. I think that was just to get me off his back. He never once talked to me about it afterward. He ignored it as though he had duped me, which I think he had.

What about the teachers at Fisk? I believe you were converted to the study of history by Theodore Currier, among others.

Oh, not among others— by Theodore Currier. It was at Fisk that I had white teachers for the first time, and one of them, Theodore Currier, was the most influential person in my life besides my parents. I took a course called Contemporary Civilizations. It was a kind of overall survey, with lots of different people coming to give lectures on sociology and political science and history and whatnot, and Currier came in and gave some lectures on world history, and I just had never heard any history that exciting.

So, it was not African-American history that brought you into the field but history in general. And you soon knew you wanted to go to graduate school in this history. Why did you choose Harvard?

I couldn’t go to Oklahoma, because blacks were barred, period. And Theodore Currier wanted me to go to Harvard. He loaned me $500 so I could.

In 1935 you went to Harvard as a first-year graduate student. This was your initial experience living in the North. How did it feel? How was it different from the South?

I don’t know. You see, one of my problems is I’m not terribly racially conscious. I mean, until it’s called to my attention, I don’t think about it. I didn’t think about the fact that I was the only black in the history department, the only black in any class I took at Harvard. I just didn’t. It didn’t touch me.

When you left Harvard, you said you didn’t want to be in Cambridge another day. Why?

I didn’t like the pretensions of the place. I didn’t like the way the young people at Harvard tried to emulate the superficial aspects of their professors—you know, walking like them, talking like them, carrying their umbrellas like them, and that sort of thing. And Harvard itself, I felt, encouraged such pretensions. Many of the teachers seemed never to have got over the fact that they were professors at Harvard. Samuel Eliot Morison, for instance, was more interested in putting on a show than in intellectual rigor or teaching. He did write beautifully, but he taught miserably and was interested neither in teaching nor in his students. I didn’t like the air, the atmosphere at Harvard. I never did, never have, I don’t mind saying. This is not based on race.

Did the faculty assume that because you were black you would necessarily work in Negro history?

I suppose they did. In my seminar with Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., he listed a number of subjects on which he thought we might work, and they were in nineteenth-century social history. When he asked if anything interested me on the list, I expressed a preference for Lyman Abbott and the Social Gospel. When another student indicated a similar interest, Schlesinger suggested I might like to read a book on Booker T. Washington or something like that. I said, “No, I want to write on this.”

How, then, did you come to write a dissertation on free blacks in North Carolina?

Well, the first idea I had was to do something in British history. I gave that up because at that time Britain was much farther from me than Mars is now. I mean if you’re going to be a British historian, you’ve got to go to England sometime, and there was no chance in the world that I ever would. So I thought, What the hell do I want to do, and I remembered that I had written a paper for Theodore Currier called “The Free Negro in the South.” I warmed to the subject.

In order to do a dissertation on free blacks in North Carolina, you had to examine the archives in a thoroughly segregated state. How did you manage that?