Encyclopedia Brunoniana

African Americans

African Americans first came to Brown in the 1870s. The first known African American graduates were Inman Page and George Washington Milford in the class of 1877. Elizabeth Buffum Chace, who was active in the anti-slavery movement in Rhode Island, wrote in her book, Anti-slavery Reminiscences, that although colored children had been admitted to the public schools of Rhode Island, “yet, about the beginning of the war, a lad of rare excellence and attainments was refused an examination for admission, by the authorities of Brown University, on account of the color of his skin.” Whether there were African American students who entered and left before graduation is unknown, but the account of Class Day in the Providence Journal in 1877 stated, “Mr. Page is the first colored graduate from the University. The theme of his oration was the ‘Intellectual Prospects of America.’ ... Mr. Page did not receive his position as class orator from a chivalrous recognition of his race by his white associates, although the choice is none the less creditable to them. He is an orator of rare ability, speaking with weight and sententiousness without effort at display and at times rising to a profound and impressive eloquence. The scope of the essay indicated grasp of thought and the language was often remarkable for elegance and power. There is no doubt but he fairly earned his honors.” Page’s classmate George Milford (who would have preceded him alphabetically in graduating) later received an earned an LL.B. degree at Howard University and became a lawyer in Washington. Gabriel N. Grisham 1878, who entered in 1874 and left college during his sophomore year, received his bachelor’s degree by special vote in 1900, after he had taught mathematics and astronomy at Lincoln Institute in Missouri and had become principal of Lincoln High School in Kansas City.

Although the number of African Americans educated at Brown in the nineteenth century was small, those who did come had a great impact on the higher education of African Americans. Between 1877 and 1912, Brown graduated five black men who were to become presidents of black colleges, who thus passed their education on to innumerable others. Inman Page 1877 was president of Oklahoma’s Agricultural and Normal University, Western Baptist College in Missouri, Roger Williams University in Tennessee, and Lincoln University in Missouri. John Hope 1894 taught at Roger Williams University and at Morehouse College and was president of Morehouse and of Atlanta University. John William Beverly 1894 was president of Alabama State Normal School, from which he himself had graduated before he came to Brown. John Brown Watson ’04 taught at Morehouse and became president of Leland College and of Arkansas A. & M. Twenty-five years after his graduation, Watson, who was determined to repay his financial aid, was able to make the last payment of the $225 he had received to the Alumni Fund. William Dinkins ’12 spent most of his life at Selma University and was its president from 1935 to 1950. Another Brown graduate who had an impact on black education was Joseph T. Robert 1828, a white ordained minister and holder of a medical degree, who took over the care of Augusta Institute for colored ministers in 1871 and moved with that institution when it merged with the Atlanta Baptist Seminary under his presidency. Of this venture John Hope said in his class day oration in 1894, “From this small beginning has grown a strong school in the state of Georgia. ... No Negro preacher is now so ignorant but that he might have been more so but for the coming of Dr. Robert.”

African American women also had their influence. Two sisters were among the early students at the Women’s College. Ethel Robinson ’05 taught English at Howard University, and while there, was instrumental in the founding of the first black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Cora Robinson ’09 taught English at Tuskegee. Among other black women students were four sisters, daughters of a newspaper editor from Pawtucket, Imogene ’18, Rosa ’20, Carolyn ’32 and Beatrice ’36 Minkins.

The first African American to receive an advanced degree from Brown was John Wesley Gilbert 1888, who received his A.M. degree in 1891. He had been recommended for a fellowship by Professor Albert Harkness and his thesis was the “The Demes of Attica.” He was later professor of Greek and English at Paine Institute in Augusta, Georgia. Samuel M. Nabrit was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Brown in 1932. A graduate of Morehouse College, he was encouraged to apply to Brown by John Hope 1894, who, as Nabrit said, “had a fantasy that one of his students would go back to Brown and indicate that he had developed a college – Morehouse – that enabled students to have the strengths to make it at an Ivy League school like Brown.” Nabrit, however, received a letter from the Biology Department which acknowledged his credentials, but did not accept him, as it was felt that he would not fit into the family atmosphere of this department. John Hope was not willing to accept this decision and his telephone call to President Faunce resulted in Nabrit’s acceptance. Nabrit was disappointed at not being allowed to teach, but managed to earn his doctorate in three years. Brown awarded him an honorary degree in 1962, and he was the the first African American trustee, elected in 1967. The next four black Ph.D. candidates at Brown were students whom Nabrit had trained at Morehouse. After twenty years as professor at Atlanta University, Nabrit became president of Texas Southern University in 1955. He was appointed to the National Science Board and the Atomic Energy Commission. The Nabrit Fellowships at Brown were established to help minority graduate students and to create for the future a larger pool of minority faculty members.

Just as early black graduates played a role in the development of black colleges, so did a number of twentieth-century African Americans who received their Ph.D. degrees from Brown have an effect on emerging Afro-American Studies programs. Charles H. Nichols ’48 Ph.D. was the first chairman of the Afro-American Studies program at Brown. The second chairman, Wendell Jeanpierre ’74 Ph.D., became chairman of the Black Studies Department at Rutgers University. Wilson J. Moses ’75 Ph.D chaired black studies at Southern Methodist University and later at Boston University, and Ann DuCille ’91 Ph.D. chairs black studies at Wesleyan University.

A Brown chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was established in 1955. The Afro-American Society was founded in the spring of 1967, when its constitution was accepted by the University upon agreement that white students would not be barred from membership. The objectives of the society were awareness of Afro-American culture, discussion and political activity, social interaction, and dialogue with the University. Glenn Dixon ’68, coordinator of the Society, and a seven-member delegation from the Society were granted a meeting with the president and other administrative officers to discuss the demands of the Society. The first Black Arts Festival, “New Souls of Black Folks,” was held in April 1968. In December 1968 65 of the 85 black students enrolled marched down College Hill to the Congdon Street Baptist Church, where they camped for three days in an attempt to force the University to increase the number of blacks in each entering class to eleven per cent, the percentage of blacks in the national population. After negotiations an agreement was reached that the percentage of black women admitted would be increased to 12.5 per cent and the University would set aside about 1.2 million dollars over three years for scholarships and recruitment programs in an effort to enroll an eleven per cent black entering class. The next year there were 128 black students in the entering class of 1973. Provision was made for a seven-week transitional program for about thirty selected entering students to improve their skills and ease the adjustment to college. About half of the students entered in the fall as regular freshmen. The others continued as special students during the first semester and received extra tutoring to prepare for their matriculation as regular students in the following January or June. On December 10 and 11, 1969 black students boycotted classes in a protest aimed at an agreement of specific goals to increase black faculty and administrators. The affirmative action report required by the federal government in 1972 indicated that Brown had 19 black faculty members out of a total of 607. The number of black students had risen from 85 (2.3 per cent) in 1968 to 417 (8.9 per cent) in 1972. New black administrators included James Tisdale, equal employment officer; Richard Nurse ’61, assistant director of admission; Nanette Reynolds, assistant dean of academic affairs; Anderson Kurtz ’70, assistant dean of student affairs; and William Brown, associate dean of student affairs. Black faculty and administrators formed an organization called Sankore after the first African University.

In 1969 the Afro-American Society was given quarters in Afro House at 227 Bowen Street, which for an annual rent of one dollar provided meeting rooms and offices on the first floor and living accommodations above. In 1972 the Society moved to Churchill House and changed its name to the Organization of United African Peoples (OUAP), The controversy over the change of name pitted those students who believed the organization ought to concern itself with University issues against those who felt it should be a black nationalist group concerned with community and even international issues. On April 24 and 25, 1975 members of the Third World Coalition led by the OUAP took over University Hall to protest cuts in financial aid, citing the effect on admission of minority students. The University reaffirmed its goal of increasing the numbers of African American students and faculty members. On February 1, 1978, Shaun D. Braun became president of the Undergraduate Council of Students and the first black woman to head the student body of an Ivy League College.

Although Brown did not have black fraternities, students belonged to local chapters off-campus. Alpha Gamma chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha was established in Providence by a few professional men and some Brown students in 1921. Its first president was Louis L. Redding ’23. The chapter became inactive during the second World War. In 1947 George Lima ’48 and Charles Bentley ’44 were initiated into Gamma chapter of Omega Psi Phi in Boston. Later in the year Theta Epsilon chapter of Omega Psi Phi with five members from Brown and Providence College was established. Theta Epsilon was for a time in the 1950s a graduate chapter, then gained more undergraduate members in the late 1950s, before becoming inactive from 1962 to 1970. Alpha Phi Alpha was reactivated in the 1970s. There are now seven African American fraternities and sororities at Brown. The Pan-Hellenic Council is an umbrella organization for these groups, which in addition to Alpha Phi Alpha and Omega Psi Phi now include Kappa Alpha Psi and Phi Beta Sigma fraternities and Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, and Sigma Gamma Rho sororities.

Enrollment of African American students has accounted for seven or eight per cent in recent years. The Class of 1993, admitted in 1989 had 111 African Americans, eight per cent of the class. There are over 40 student activities for minority students at Brown. The Organization of United African Peoples is an umbrella organization for all African American groups on campus. The African Students Association promotes awareness of Africa and unity among people of African descent, and provides welcome and counseling for new African students and a means of communication with African and other foreign organizations. Black Voices Alafia is a group of Third World Students who are interested in artistic expression in dance, acting, and singing. Onyx is an organization of black seniors which provides forums, resources and support for senior seniors. Shades of Brown is a performance theatre group which educates the community in traditional African American music and entertainment. Publications include The African Sun, a monthly publication which reports news of Black communities at Brown and elsewhere, and Uwezo, the official publication of the Organization of United African Peoples, which takes it title from the Swahili word for “unity and strength."