First black profs recall challenges, successes

When Curtis Patton arrived at Yale to begin teaching, he found himself confronted with armed guards. Patton, one of Yale’s first black professors, had arrived in the midst of the Black Panther trials of 1970.

“When I arrived I was surrounded by people in fatigues and camouflage. It was an armed camp,” Patton said. “There were tanks, trucks, soldiers with guns. Once I drove into New Haven I had a hard time figuring out what way to turn.”

While Patton’s reception was not typical of his time, it was symbolic of it. Yale’s first black professors arrived in the midst of the social turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and found themselves with the daunting task of navigating both barricaded streets and the avenues of university life.

Yet despite their significant contributions to contemporary Yale, today it is difficult even to discover the names of the first black professors, in part because many of them have passed away in the intervening years. Gaddis Smith ’54, professor emeritus of history, said the honor likely belongs to Michael Cooke ’58, who earned a Ph.D. at the University of California Berkeley before returning to teach at Yale in 1962. Cooke died in the early 1990s in a car crash.

According to Robert Stepto, professor of English, American studies and African American studies, Cooke spent some time teaching away from campus at the University of Iowa before returning to his alma mater.

“He came to Yale from Jamaica in the 1950s, and he was an excellent student and a marvellous soccer player as I recall,” Stepto said. “I know he taught for a time at the University of Iowa, but when he did come back to Yale he was almost certainly the first person of color to be tenured by the English Department.”

Cooke returned from the University of Iowa in the midst of Yale’s first hiring wave of African American professors, a wave which included James Comer, now associate dean of the Child Study Center and professor of child psychiatry, and Patton, professor of epidemiology and public health.

Meanwhile, Yale College was busy acquiring the professors who would form the foundation of the fledgling African American Studies Department, including Charles T. Davis, an accomplished black scholar who spent much of his tenure at Yale developing both the African American Studies program, which is now a department, and a community of African American scholars on campus. Davis died of cancer in 1981.

“I really didn’t know who was here when I arrived,” Patton said. “I had no idea what black faculty were here — I very quickly met people like James Comer, who was here and … professor Cooke and Charlie Davis — of course they were on the main campus. But we found each other.”

While professors interviewed generally remember the process of integration as a painless one, it was not without its hurdles, Stepto said. Despite Davis’ program’s integration of both black and white professors, Stepto said, there were several other departments that wanted to separate themselves from the African American Studies offices.

“There were, in those times, departments that wanted to somewhat separate themselves and so forth, and sometimes this would happen physically,” Stepto said. “They would want an office that purposely was on the edge of campus, things like that. But I remember one of the things that Charlie Davis used to say, was that the best thing about [the program] being on College Street is we’re a block from the library and half a block from Woodbridge Hall.”

Davis, who came to Yale in 1971, inherited the African American Studies program from its first director, Roy Bryce-Laporte, at the time an assistant professor of sociology. Although Bryce-Laporte did not remain at Yale for very long, Smith said he helped shepherd the program through the troubled end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s.

“He was very much a kind of political activist, and Yale was doing its best to work out a program,” Smith said. “I think we did very well, because at some universities there was violence, and people were waving guns around.”

As the department grew in prominence, University officials launched a nationwide search to find the best person to serve as its director. They finally settled on Davis, then teaching at the University of Iowa. Earlier in his career, Davis had been the first black faculty member at Princeton.

“Charles Davis was a leader on campus — he was a very well-liked man, he was very personable,” said Gerald Jaynes, professor of economics and African American studies. “[Davis and his wife Gene] were wonderful people. Kind of ambassadorial, Charles Davis and Gene. Great personages that people would want to be among the first black professors at an Ivy League institution.”

Davis joined a community of black faculty at Yale, which grew to include Yale-educated professors such as John Blassingame, who assisted Davis in running the African American Studies program.

Davis’ position as master of Calhoun College permitted him to invite a large number of speakers to visit the university, even as he and his colleagues worked to increase the size and strength of the then-nascent African American studies program. Stepto, who was hired in 1974, remembers those days fondly.

“I had come from a small college, where I was one of three black faculty, and then all of a sudden I am at a university with, this might be the wrong figure, but you know all of a sudden I’m at a university with 20 or 25 [black] faculty, and even more to the point, faculty who are not black but are nonetheless participating in African American studies and in other things that interested me,” Stepto said.

Davis’ efforts to strengthen the social science elements of the humanities-heavy African American Studies program helped to gather a strong coterie of young black professors who would continue working with the department for many years to come.

“With Charles Davis and John Blassingame together, we had put together a strong cohort of young African American scholars, which I was really proud to be a part of,” Jaynes said.

Under the eyes of the first black professors, the situation gradually changed: the African American Studies program gained the strength in the social sciences Davis had hoped for it, and ultimately, in 1978, added a graduate school component. The program became a full department in 2000.

“It was just quite something,” Stepto said of his experience at Yale in the early years of faculty integration. “Important writers like Robert Hayden and Jay Wright and Toni Morrison, I met them here. That was my experience, and you can imagine how heady that was.”

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