III: Black Renaissance

Alma Mater

During my senior year—to the neglect of my Greek—I did one other thing besides my novel that interested me greatly. For Professor Labaree’s course in sociology each graduating student had to turn in a paper on some phase of American life. I chose to do a survey of the campus on which I studied. Food, living conditions, social life, academic standards, and race relations between the Negro student body and the white faculty were all to be covered. Menus studied over a period of time as to their dietary value, dormitories checked daily, each student and teacher interviewed on questions vital to the college life—so much material, in fact, that two other students were assigned to help me, once the study was outlined.

There was something I wanted to prove. So I checked on menus and whether or not there were any bedbugs on the beds, simply to get around to that.

During my years at the college I had sat in on many student bull-sessions, and over and over I had heard Lincoln’s own peculiar color line discussed: the fact that there was an all-white faculty for an all-Negro student body. Over and over I heard many students agree that it was better so, that there was something inherently superior in white teachers that Negro teachers did not have. I wanted to prove that the students believing this were wrong, and that Lincoln was fostering—unwittingly, perhaps—an inferiority complex in the very men it wished to train as leaders of the Negro race. I wanted to show that the color line is not good on campus or off.

Of course, I did not say so, but that was in the back of my head. So I began to gather data on the matter, quite sure that the data would not lie. It didn’t.

My survey showed that sixty-three per cent of the members of the junior and senior classes preferred that Lincoln have an all-white faculty. The reasons given were various: that Lincoln was supported by “white” philanthropy, therefore whites should run the college; that favoritism and unfairness would result on the part of Negro teachers toward the students; that there were not enough Negro teachers available; and that things were all right as they were, so why change? Three students even said they just didn’t like Negroes. Two said they did not believe Negro teachers had the interest of students at heart. Another said members of his own race were not morally capable!

These comments I tabulated carefully. In my paper commenting on the results of my survey, I wrote:

“63% of the members of the upper classes favor for their college a faculty on which there are no Negro professors. And, since I have never heard otherwise, I judge that the faculty of Lincoln University itself supports this attitude. Yet it seems to me the height of absurdity for an institution designed for the training of Negro leadership to support and uphold, on its own grounds, the unfair and discriminatory practices of the American color line. And the fact that 81 members of the Senior and Junior classes at this college can themselves approve of such a situation, and give reasons for their approval which express open belief in their own inferiority, indicates that the college itself has failed in instilling in these students the very quality of self-reliance and self-respect which any capable American leader should have—and the purpose of this college, let us remember, is to educate ‘leaders of the colored people.’

“There is a mixed faculty at Fisk, and certainly the work done there is quite on par with Lincoln. Tuskegee has an all-Negro faculty, as have many other schools dependent upon white philanthropy. And certainly with men like Charles S. Johnson, Westley, Locke, Brady, and Just in the teaching fields, besides large numbers of colored graduates every year from the best Northern universities, it is stupid to say that there are no capable Negro teachers available. Not an all-Negro faculty—possibly not even a predominantly colored faculty is to be desired, but certainly one of our eleven professors might well belong to the race from which all of the 323 resident students of this institution come.

“Student-faculty relationships outside the class-room, while friendly, do not seem to be in any way free or intimate. There is a tendency on the part of the students to avoid relations with the faculty or members of their families, and what cultural contacts come to the students from the faculty are, therefore, almost solely by way of the class-room. Few individual students ever enter a faculty home unless it be on a matter of class-room business, by special invitation, or else to work there. Faculty-student relations at Lincoln are confined almost wholly to curricular activities.”

And that was true. The same line that cuts across American life, dividing the white from the non-white, cut across the life at Lincoln: the dark students in their dormitories on the campus, the white teachers in their houses across the road—meeting a few hours a day for classes, and that was just about all.

When I entered Lincoln there was an all-white Board of Trustees, and an all-white faculty. Kind, gentle, missionary-minded people, most of them, personally sweet and likable. But there was no course in Negro History being given, none in Negro Literature, and none in Negro Education (the problems peculiar to the segregated Southern schools where most of the young men who became teachers would teach). Among the alumni there was a growing agitation for a Negro member of the Trustee Board, and for Negro members of the faculty. But among the students the most vocal were opposed to these reforms.

My survey created a sensation on the campus. A portion of it leaked out to the newspapers, inaccurately. Letters came in from Southern schools saying they would not employ Lincoln men to teach, coming as they did from a student body that did not believe Negroes capable of teaching themselves.

One of the famous old grads of Lincoln, in objecting to the baldness with which the facts of my survey were presented, said to me at graduation: “Young man, suppose I told the truth to white folks. I never could have built the great institution I’ve built for my race.” (And he has created a large and much needed institution for the Negro population in a great Middle Western city.) He continued: “You don’t get things out of white folks that way.” His implication was that “things are got out of white folks” by flattery, cajolery, good-natured begging, lying, and general Uncle Toming—not by truth.

“I don’t agree with you,” I said.

“After you’ve been out of college awhile, you’ll agree, young man,” he answered. “You’ll agree.”

He walked away. I looked at him crossing the campus, famous, well-to-do—the kind of a man the graduation speakers told us to look up to.

I felt bad, confused, puzzled. I had never thought much before about the nature of compromise. For bread how much of the spirit must one give away? He had his great buildings, serving hundreds of black people denied the same service elsewhere in the city where he lived. And maybe those buildings would stand there a long time on their cornerstone of lies.

I began to think back to Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Fred Douglass—folks who left no buildings behind them—only a wind of words fanning the bright flame of the spirit down the dark lanes of time.

The old grad has his buildings, just as Booker T. Washington had Tuskegee. Yet how heavily the bricks of compromise settle into place!

But Lincoln today is not the Lincoln of my survey. In ten brief years many changes have been made. There are Negro members of both the faculty and the Board of Trustees. It is a mixed faculty now, Negro and white—which is the way it seems to me all the faculties of all the universities of America should be.


Icon for the Public Domain license

This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.