John Hope (1868-1936), president of Morehouse College and Atlanta University, was born in Augusta, Georgia, on June 2, 1868, the son of a Scottish father and a black mother. His father died when John was eight years old. In 1881, when John became thirteen years old and finished eighth grade, he left school and took a job at Lexius Henson’s Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Restaurant to help support the family, beginning as a wine steward and progressing to keeping the restaurant’s books and selecting and purchasing food. Several years later he met the Reverend John Dart, the son of a slave, who had become a minister and teacher, and had been a minister in Providence. Encouraged by Dart to return to school, at the age of eighteen with one hundred dollars given to him by his brother, John Hope went to Worcester Academy. There he came under the influence of Reverend Daniel Webster Abercrombie. He joined a debating club called the Legomathenian “Learn the Right Use of Words” Club. He later became president of the club and also edited the school paper. It was Abercrombie who, as a trustee of Brown, encouraged Hope to go to college, arranged a scholarship for him, and collected one hundred dollars from well-to-do Baptists for his expenses.
In September 1890 John Hope, twenty-two years old, arrived at Brown and moved into Number 45 Hope College with Frank Trimble, a brilliant black student from Tennessee, the son of a Baptist minister. Hope supported himself as a waiter, first in a boarding house and then with a caterer, receiving occasional leftovers to supplement the food he was able to purchase. He delved into his studies with enthusiasm, considering himself fortunate to study the ancient languages with Professors Lincoln and Harkness in their last years of teaching. Early in Hope’s College career, John M. Langston, black member of Congress from Virginia and former Dean of Law at Howard University, visited Providence at the invitation of the Republicans of the city, who held a banquet honoring him. The black community decided that it should also participate, and John Hope was included. He recalled in a later speech in Nashville, “We secured a large hall, one of the finest bands of music and marched from the big hotel to the big hall. On that occasion I was a member of the committee of arrangement, rode in a carriage with a colored member of the Legislature and with the chairman of the state central committee, I sat on the platform ...” Langston was invited by President Andrews to speak at chapel at Brown the next morning. Hope was inspired by this “first colored man to occupy a seat in the pulpit of Brown University,” and was reinforced in his desire for closer companionship with the black community, which had not been possible when he was in Worcester. Following this inclination, he attended the Second Free Will Baptist Church and started an off-campus literary club, which was called the Enquirers and was made up of about fifteen young people who wore rings bearing a question mark to symbolize intellectual curiosity. He associated also with older members of the black community, visiting at the home of Edward M. Bannister, the landscape painter, and attending meetings of black veterans of the Civil War. He entered into the life of the college and in his sophomore year was elected class treasurer and president of the Worcester Academy Club. He wrote for the Brown Daily Herald from its beginning in 1891.
His roommate Trimble was not only a scholar, who was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, but also an athlete, a shot putter on the track team. He was a quiet person, and the fact that he was trying to subsist on syrup and bread and to do without warm clothing to save money for graduate work at Harvard went unnoticed until he died of tuberculosis in his senior year. The shock to John Hope was great. His new roommate was Heita Okada, who had been with him at Worcester Academy. In his last year, he roomed with Edward Delano Stewart and shared the room by day with two other black men who were living off-campus, T. Edward Owens and William Coleman. Desperate for money to pay his debts and continue his education, Hope went to Chicago in 1893, hoping for a job at the World’s Fair, but settling for employment at the Hotel Lexington. He paid his debts and returned broke, but he had met his future wife, Lugenia Burns of Chicago. He was able to finish college. His brother, Thomas Hope 1900, who received a bequest from a rich uncle of the same name, had an easier time financially.
On Class Day, June 15, 1894, John Hope delivered the class oration, in which he invited his classmates “to observe on this occasion, if we never have before, that to have been at Brown University is to have drunk in the unpretentious, unobtrusive, yet all pervading idea of liberty and brotherhood; and to have acquired a breadth of culture which means the erasure of all lines, be they of race, or sect, or class, and recognizes no claim other than that which highest manhood makes.” On the day before Commencement a committee of faculty members informed Hope that a position had been arranged for him at the Providence Journal. He was interested in journalism and had already done some reporting for the Journal. He was tempted by the offer, but had resolved to go back to the South. He also turned down Booker T. Washington’s invitation to teach at Tuskegee, choosing to teach at Roger Williams University in Nashville, which was sponsored by the American Baptist Home Mission Society. There he felt he was really needed. After four years he moved to Atlanta Baptist College. In 1906 he became president of Morehouse College, which at the time had twenty-one students. At the end of his administration in 1931 there were 359 students and he had begun what was to be a successful campaign to raise $300,000 in endowment to meet a matching offer of that amount from the General Education Board. In 1929 Hope became president of Atlanta University, which had been formed by the affiliation of Atlanta University, Morehouse College for men and Spelman College for women. There he developed the first accredited institution in the far South which was open to black students and offered a master’s degree. Atlanta University grew in physical plant and reputation during his administration. He died of pneumonia on February 20, 1936. He was buried on the campus of Atlanta University, which had been in his thoughts on the day before his death when he said, “I’d like to live long enough to tell my successor what I’m trying to do.” In an editorial in the Pittsburgh Courier, W. E. B. de Bois wrote of Hope’s management style:
“He was at his best when he could sit down about a table with three or six or twenty men of differing temperaments and different beliefs and divergent aims; and then out of this conference and further conferences, interspersed with little casual personal conversations, and perhaps a written note or so, and over all Time, Time, Time – while men waited and fretted – at last there came a wide basis of agreement. One seldom thought of giving John Hope credit for this agreement. Each one who agreed believed, and quite rightly that the basic thought was his.”
When the Spingarn Medal was awarded posthumously to John Hope, the chairman of the committee of award pointed out that only the fact that Hope had been a member of the committee had prevented him from receiving it during his life time. The citation read in part:
“John Hope was admired wherever he went for his wisdom, his tact, his skill in negotiation, his solid contribution to any conference in which he sat, his remarkable modesty, and his untiring services to both races in the United States. ... Dr. Hope proved to himself that there are no bounds nor limits to be set for men and women because of the accident of their color.”