III: Black Renaissance
At the height of the Negro Renaissance, I was a student at Lincoln University, spending my week-ends and holidays in New York. Lincoln is a college and theological seminary primarily for men of color, although white students may attend, too, if they wish. It was established in 1854, by John Miller Dickey, a Presbyterian minister in Oxford, Pennsylvania, because there was then no college in the North especially for Negro youth, and he felt that there should be one.
“A race enlightened in the knowledge of God will eventually be free,” he preached. “Kindle the lamp of religious knowledge. It will surely light them to an everlasting position among the people of the earth.”
Lincoln is located in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, forty miles from Philadelphia through the Quaker country on the highroad heading toward the Maryland border and Jim Crow. In spring, its campus is beautiful and green and there are tall old trees everywhere, and from its dormitory windows a view of farm lands for miles around is to be seen. Down the campus road a piece there is a tiny village of a dozen houses, with a general store and a railroad station. Four miles away by train or road is Oxford.
I liked Lincoln very much. But just as I like America and still find certain things wrong with it, so I found several things wrong with Lincoln. When I first went there, it had an all-white faculty teaching an all-Negro student body. And, other than the football coach, no Negro had ever, in all its seventy years, held a professorial position at Lincoln, a college for, as its catalogue states, the training of Negro leaders. There was an unwritten official color line that said no Negro could teach on that faculty. And no one of its alumni had ever been asked to join the Board of Trustees. How then could they be training Negro leaders? That worried me, for surely out of all the Negro leaders they had trained, some one would be capable of serving on the Board of Trustees of the college, or of coming back to the campus as a teacher.
Most of the professors on the faculty were elderly, kind, religious old gentlemen, graduates of Princeton in the ’80’s. Some of them, like Professor Labaree, Professor Wright, and Dean Johnson, were excellent teachers, but others were merely mediocre. And between faculty and students there were practically no social or comradely relations of any kind. From chapel in the morning until classes were over in the afternoon, we saw our teachers only in the classrooms. After that until the next morning they disappeared into their houses bordering the campus, leaving the main yard and the dormitories entirely to the students—which gave student life a certain freedom not enjoyed by most Negro colleges. Indeed, dormitory life was entirely student-controlled—and sometimes highly hilarious.
Hazing was terrific. Incoming freshmen were given the paddling of their lives practically every night, from the opening of classes until the holidays. They were called dogs, made to roll pencils with their noses, to clean the sophomores’ rooms, to “assume the angle” for paddling, and to write insulting letters to their girl friends. At Thanksgiving, just before the annual big game, in the dead of night, all freshmen were seized and their heads shaved bald.
Fraternity initiations occasionally sent agonized howls into the darkness around the countryside, whole woods and fields being available for the ordeal of brotherhood. The manhood rites of an African tribe could hardly have required more strength of the aspirants. When I was initiated, because I was a poet with my first book published and my name in the papers, each of my brothers-to-be was inclined to think every other brother would let me off easy. The result—each and every brother laid on with such a heavy hand, applying so many licks to be sure the poet would be well initiated, that I could scarcely walk for a week.
“A New Negro, huh?” Wham!
“The boy poet, heh?” Wham!
“So nobody else’ll beat you, heh?” Wham!
“Letting you slip by easy, are they?” Wham! Wham! Wham!
I was well initiated all right!
Water-throwing was an institution, too, at Lincoln, in defiance of faculty rules. We used the fire buckets in every dormitory hallway for the delightful purpose of drenching our fellow students. Whenever an unsuspecting student, preferably a dressed-up one, was entering or leaving the building—the most desirable were those leaving for a week-end in Philadelphia—somebody in an upper-story window would let him have it with a full bucket of water on his head, or perhaps two or three buckets from the sides. Well aimed, they could drench you to the skin.
Sometimes, by accident, a passing faculty member would get a soaking, since the front walk ran near the dormitories. And then there would be a quietus on water-throwing for a long while.
In winter there were snowball fights, a pond in the village for skating, a barn of a gymnasium for basketball, and movies in the chapel on Saturday nights. There were movies in nearby Oxford every night, but Negroes had to occupy the last rows on the side in the theater, so few of the Lincoln students went. As in most colleges, most of a student’s spare time was spent in bull-sessioning. Nobody having much money, there was little gambling. As long as prohibition lasted, however, there was a campus bootlegger or two—some enterprising student with enough cash to lay in a supply of hooch for resale after a trip to Baltimore or Philadelphia.
In my junior year a group of upper classmen organized a Sportsmen’s Club, the initiation fee being the contribution of something that the committee considered valuable to the club, said contribution to be stolen by the neophyte à la Robin Hood from anywhere on the campus. Rip Day, a husky Harlem incorrigible, was the president and I was on the organizing committee. The committee began by deciding to steal our president’s room from him and make a club out of it. So, in the middle of the night, Rip was forcibly removed, bed and baggage, and placed in another classmate’s room to lodge. Not wishing to set a bad example, the president acquiesced—and then proceeded to think up all manner of deviltry himself. We proceeded to list the most attractive couches, sofas, chairs, tables, silken pillows, and floor lamps to be found in the various dormitory rooms, and neophytes were ordered to secure them. In the case of very difficult jobs, the club as a whole would condescend to aid. It took the entire club, one pitch-black night, to steal into the silent prayer room of the chapel and remove the organ, since we decided we needed music during our club meeting.
Of course, no one was admitted to the club room except members, who had to know various secret signals and passwords even to enter that end of the dormitory hallway. When all was ready and our club completely furnished, we planned to hold open house—from which we would be absent, so that the students could scramble over their missing belongings. But that reception never came off. Over-ambition brought us to our end too soon.
We decided that the barren walls of the club room needed the attractive faces of pretty women to make it more to our liking, so neophytes and club members alike were ordered to scour the dormitories for the loveliest pictures of the prettiest women to be found—not magazine pictures, but real pictures of attractive girl-friends and sisters of our schoolmates. Those bringing a picture already framed received an extra mark of merit on the club roster.
Then it was that trouble began. Boys began to miss their favorite girls’ pictures from their dressers and desk tops. (And with the spring track-meet coming on, there would be some tall explaining to do if the girls showed up on the campus for a visit.) One aspirant to membership in the Sportsmen’s Club was caught leaving a room with the photograph of a football man’s brownskin lovely only partially concealed in the covers of a biology notebook. The football man fell upon the would-be Sportsman with a vengeance and took his picture back. By then, however, our walls were lined with beauties, ranging from blonde high-yellows to chocolate-browns. So one more or less didn’t matter. But by that time the campus was in an uproar. A missing overstuffed chair, bought in a second-hand store, might be taken as a joke, but not a missing girl-friend’s picture. By now, prayer meeting night had rolled around, too, and the divinity faculty discovered only an empty space where the organ had been. Somehow they suspected the Sportsmen’s Club.
Irate lovers and irate theological professors got together and descended upon the club room. And that was the end of the Sportsmen’s Club! Well, spring had come, anyhow, when the young ladies would be arriving to watch the sprinters. Other amusements would be available.
There were four hundred men at Lincoln pursuing their studies—and only a few colored girls in the nearby village. However, for the games on the campus, and the Glee Club concert, young ladies—often chaperoned by their mothers—would come out from Philadelphia, Baltimore, or even New York, or from nearby Cheney Teachers’ College. The old dormitories had no guest rooms, nor even lobbies to entertain guests, so the hospital house was given over to the students for that purpose. But it was very small and inadequate.
There was, of course, a rule against young men having ladies in their rooms after dark, but nobody paid it any attention. Some of the visiting mothers, who could not find their daughters for hours, must have complained because, one spring, hired chaperons suddenly appeared in the dormitories for the first time in history—nice, old, village colored women, whose duty it was to sit at the bottom of the steps near the front door and see that no young ladies entered after sundown. The boys soon got rid of these paid guardians of respectability by dropping giant firecrackers boom! bang! down the well of the staircase.
The following day, after the firecrackers, one of the elderly professors in the theological seminary assailed the entire student body at chapel, calling us all “libertines and lickertarians.” The students demanded an apology on the grounds that it wasn’t so. But by that time the college year was at an end, anyhow, and everyone went off to get jobs for the summer in the big cities, where there were plenty of girls.