Director’s Notes from Terrence J. McDonald
In her response to a University of Michigan alumnae survey in 1924, Emily A. Harper of Detroit, member of the “Literary” class of 1896, wrote: “Youth is our period of superlatives and I find my home letters of those days full of ‘the very best time’ as a characterization of each event, but looking back from my sober middle age, I recall the thrill that came when I chanced to meet Pres. Angell a week after I matriculated and he called me by my name! Poor innocent, it was not till years later that I realized that perhaps it was not difficult to remember the name of the one brown girl in a group of several hundred new students. At the time I was very happy to know that the president knew me.”
In 1924, this daughter of a Detroit barber—by then Mrs. Emily H. Williams—was a distinguished African American leader, having served as a department head in both the National Association of Colored Women and the International Association of Women of the Darker Races. She was now working as an instructor of English at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Until recently, her story and those of hundreds of other African American students at Michigan had been lost in time.
The Bentley Historical Library is setting out to correct that by collecting the names and all available information on the experiences of African Americans who attended the University between its founding and 1940. Existing records of the Alumni Association contain the names of most of those who came after that date.
Here is what we think we know: The first African American student appears to have been Samuel Codes Watson, who was enrolled in the Medical Department for two years beginning in 1853. It was not until 1868 that other African Americans enrolled: John Summerfield Davidson of Pontiac and Gabriel Franklin Hargo of Adrian enrolled in the Literary and Law Departments, respectively. The first female African American student admitted to the University was likely Mary Henrietta Graham in 1876.
A master’s thesis written in 1940 suggested that there were 100 African American students on the campus that year. There is evidence of a “colored students club” as early as 1902, and a thriving separate social life organized around chapters of African American fraternities and sororities beginning with Alpha Phi Alpha in 1909. A group of African American and white students organized the “Negro-Caucasian Club” in 1925 in part to question the University’s own policies that segregated dances and the swimming pool in the Michigan Union.
Katherine Brown, who was the only African American woman in her Medical School class of 1898, wrote that “some experiences were exceedingly bitter, immensely so as I view them after more than a quarter of a century. But they taught me my capacity for endurance.”
The stories will be mixed, but we need them all and we welcome your help. If you are a member of an organization that kept lists of African American students at the University before 1940, the Bentley Historical Library would be pleased to have them. If members of your African American family attended the University, then we would be grateful to hear about them.
We will report back as the work progresses.