From the Editor

Black at Yale, through the decades

Late in life, looking back on his college days, a man who is now one of Harvard’s most renowned graduates wrote: “Of course I wanted friends, but I could not seek them. My class was large—some three hundred students. I doubt if I knew a dozen of them. I did not seek them, and naturally they did not seek me.”

That offhand “naturally” makes instant sense when you know that the writer was W. E. B. Du Bois, excluded from white undergraduate society in the late 1880s as a matter of course. Du Bois’s is the first memoir in Black Harvard, Black Yale, a collection Jesse Rhines ’83MA assembled in 1999 and has now self-published. Rhines decided to go into print now, he says, because of the essay “Before Their Time” by Ron Howell ’70, in our May/June issue, on black men dying too early. It pointed up “the importance of this time,” Rhines says. “So many of the people from the ’70s out making those breakthroughs for people of color were dying.”

The recollections, in mostly chronological order, go all the way through 1993. Six of the 19 pieces are reprints; Du Bois’s essay originally appeared in the Massachusetts Review in 1960. To gather the rest, Rhines wrote to all the African American alumni of Yale and Harvard he could find.

It’s a collection with extraordinary historical resonances. The overt segregation of Du Bois’s time had a façade of kindliness by the mid-1930s, when Muriel Sutherland (later Snowden) was refused a room in the Radcliffe dorms because she wouldn’t be “happy.” At Yale, Robert J. Randall ’43S took meals in his residential college with his classmates for three weeks—until the college master had Randall’s student job scuttled so he wouldn’t be able to afford the dining hall.

By the ’60s and ’70s, officially engineered segregation was falling away, and the longer-term issues of social separation were coming to the fore. Ronald Machett ’70 brought the total number of black members of Scroll and Key, over its 130-year history, to two—“the moral equivalent of zero.” Charles Martin ’74, ’88PhD, knew “white kids who … felt comfortable only so long as the circle of friends was mainly white” and also “students who, simply, wanted nothing to do with whites.” But for Erica Turnipseed ’93, Yale in the early ’90s was “a safe place to explore difference” and even learn to “appreciate dissimilar life styles”—a place where separations broke down.

Rhines had hoped to find an editor along with a publisher, and he didn’t edit the memoirs. Some are by professional writers, most not, and their style and quality vary wildly. At one extreme is a scintillating essay by the celebrated Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. ’73, reprinted from his 1996 book with Cornel West, The Future of the Race. (Gates is equally incisive on the excess attention he received from his college dean—“Do you find our courses difficult? Are you studying enough?”—and the excessively ideological definition of “black enough” that developed in those years of “da revolution.”) At the other extreme is a heartfelt poem that still needs a lot of work.

It doesn’t matter. Black Harvard, Black Yale is invaluable lived history. Some who broke ground understand that the rest of us need them to write down their experiences: Nathan Garrett, one of four black men in the Class of 1952, recently self-published his autobiography. But not everyone does. Rhines sees his book in part as an homage to those early students, up through the ’60s and the first years of the ’70s. He hopes it will move more memories into print.  


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