By Deva Woodly
Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center

The University of Chicago had the good sense and the humane spirit at this time to entrust that African American students could meet and exceed the school’s expectations."”
—Adam Green
Associate Professor in History and the College

From its founding, the University of Chicago was unique among the nation’s top universities in its willingness to allow students of color and women to pursue advanced studies. Between 1870 and 1940, 45 African American students were granted PhDs, more than at any other institution in the nation. In the first decade of the 20th century alone, nine African Americans earned undergraduate degrees, while five more earned graduate degrees.

But admissions and graduations only begin to tell this extraordinary story. Black scholars from the University became intellectual leaders across the nation, with Chicago as their nexus.

Today, the list of graduates reads like a Who’s Who of African American intellectuals in the post-Reconstruction era: Monroe Nathan Work, Carter G. Woodson, Benjamin Mays, Katherine Dunham, and Vivian Harsh, to name a few. In the last years of the 20th century, a new wave of faculty luminaries kept that tradition alive, including E. Franklin Frazier, John Hope Franklin, William Julius Wilson, and Barack Obama.

As the nation commemorates civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and the inauguration of its first African American president, the legacy of the first black students at the University looms large.

The circumstances surrounding the integration of the University are detailed in an exhibition at the Joseph Regenstein Library, Integrating the Life of the Mind: African Americans at the University of Chicago, 1870-1940.

Danielle Allen, the UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study and former Dean of the Division of the Humanities at Chicago, curated the exhibition, which runs through Feb. 27 in the Special Collections Research Center.

“People were curious about who the first African Americans at the University were,” she says. “My colleagues and I were embarrassed to realize that we simply didn’t know.”

Adam Green, chairman of the Black Metropolis Research Consortium, one of the exhibition sponsors, contends that this legacy represents the University’s best intellectual tradition.

“The University of Chicago had the good sense and the humane spirit at this time to entrust that African American students could meet and exceed the school’s expectations,” says Green, Associate Professor in History and the College. “And the successes of the scholars who came out of the University gave credit to the idea that the African American mind was a resource for not only black people, but also the nation and the world.”

Launching pad for black intellectuals

As Allen began to unearth when and how the University was integrated, she found no consensus crusade toward racial integration in those early years.

Its roots were simply stated. “Law Graduates: A Woman and a Negro,” reads a headline from the Chicago Tribune’s July 9, 1870 edition, referring to Mrs. Ada H. Kepley and Richard A. Dawson.

Yet a deeper examination reveals a complex account of the courage and conviction of a few faculty and administrators, combined with a handful of African American students determined to pursue their education.

Green notes that in the early days, the University was “trying to establish an identity, was willing to experiment, and was less apt than more traditional institutions to say who could and could not make a contribution.”

But what was it about the University that encouraged so many future African American luminaries to plant themselves in its fertile intellectual ground?

For one, the University is located next to one of the most historically vibrant African American communities in the country. Green notes, “African Americans were becoming more urban and more engaged with the intersection of the agendas and histories of other American peoples.”

Bronzeville, South Shore, Woodlawn, and other South Side communities became a hub of African American mass migration to the North. The African American community that existed alongside the University between 1870 and 1940 became an established black metropolis and developed a community that Green says was “variegated in terms of class, infrastructure, churches, media, and advocacy. Even as there was overcrowding and segregation, even as black Chicago was being underserved, there was a sense that this was a special place.”

Not only was the community neighboring the University singular, the institution seemed particularly suited to trailblazers. “For me,” says Allen, “it’s really a question of the attractiveness of the energy that emerges from intellectual exploration and the construction and reinvention of culture.”

Early visionaries

The exhibition illustrates how graduates helped shape fields from sociology to cell biology, constructed new fields in African American history and literature, and led institutions including Howard University, Morehouse College, and the Tuskegee Institute. It features many of the University’s distinguished alumni, including:

— Carter G. Woodson, often called the “Father of African American History,” who spearheaded the creation of Negro History Week in 1926, the precursor to Black History Month.

— Katherine Dunham, who attained a Bachelor of Philosophy from the University in 1936 before founding the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the nation’s first major black dance company.

— Benjamin Mays, who earned his PhD from the Divinity School in 1935 and is best remembered as a professor at Howard University and as president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. His most honored student, Martin Luther King Jr., often spoke of him glowingly.

Allen says the exhibit is “about a crucible, a space where many different generations of scholars of all races and all backgrounds have come. What happens with their ideas at the University gives them the resources to undertake dynamic projects of cultural creation.

”So much of the work of the civil rights movement, and all the cultural work that went with that, was driven by black intellectuals,” Allen says. After looking at what African American alums of the University produced, “You have to ask yourself the question, where did they get the creative energy to do that work?”

In Allen’s view, the African American scholars who have contributed to the vibrancy of the intellectual life at the University—from Monroe Nathan Work to Barack Obama—bring a special kind of creative energy to and profit from a community of thinkers not intimidated by the challenges or the responsibility to push toward the better world that must come next.

“Yes, each of these people was incredibly talented,” Allen says, “but it mattered powerfully that they be in a place with other people whose minds were as activated as theirs.”

Each of these students came to the University seeking the best education that their talents could win them in a time when society doubted their efficacy, feared their difference, and often, punished the audacity of those who struggled through traditional barriers.

How did they do it? Carter G. Woodson may have the simplest and most accurate answer: “In the long run,” he said, “there is not much discrimination against superior talent.”

Originally published on January 19, 2009.