In a society that separates groups of people for extended periods of time, two distinct cultures often emerge. Yale is no different. In the early 20th century, African-Americans made up about 1 percent of Yale’s student body and were scattered among the University’s various schools. They were excluded from many campus activities and had to devise their own forms of entertainment and means of socialization. Their stories are often left out of Yale’s history.
African-American alumni come up twice in the commonly told story of Yale University. Edward Bouchet became the first African-American graduate of Yale College in 1874 and the first African-American to earn a doctorate, also from Yale, in 1876. Next comes the set of African-Americans in the late 1960s and early 1970s who created the many organizations that represent the African-American community on campus today: the Black Student Alliance at Yale (1967), the Afro-American Cultural Center (1969) and the African American Studies Department (1969).
Little is known of the almost hundred-year gap of African-American Yalies between Bouchet’s graduation and the creation of the BSAY. Many of the names, stories and experiences of early African-American Yalies have been forgotten. However, the stories that have been uncovered show that, through its African-American population, Yale University has played a major role in the history of African-Americans in Connecticut.
African-American students in the early 1900s carved their own niche to make their time at Yale more enjoyable. In lieu of a network of support on campus, students developed strong connections to each other and the city of New Haven. Many of these early Yalies frequently participated in events around the city, from public debates and mock trials to church Christmas plays. Yale students also taught classes, mentored high school students and invited prominent African-American figures of the era to campus.
In October 1915, for example, Booker T. Washington spoke at a symposium in New Haven. Washington fell ill and passed away not long after appearing at the event, making the visit to New Haven his last public appearance.
In May 1925, members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, a Black Greek Letter Organization that chartered a chapter at Yale in 1909, brought author and leading Harlem Renaissance figure Countee Cullen to Yale.
African-American students of the early 20th century followed New Haven politics closely. The decisions made in City Hall often had a profound effect on students’ close friends and neighbors. Although New Haven’s African-American population was sizable, it did not include any elected officials until 1921. Harry G. Tolliver was a 1908 graduate of the Yale Law School and a successful New Haven attorney. At the New Haven Republican caucus in 1921, Tolliver received the Republican nomination for Ward 19 alderman. He was elected, becoming the first African-American alderman in New Haven and the first African-American elected to a position of prominence in Connecticut.
During football season, African-American students organized receptions where they could mingle with students and alumni of color from rival institutions. One such event was organized at the Yale-Harvard game in 1916. Noted author and Harvard alumnus W.E.B. DuBois traveled from New York City for the festivities. Yale Law student John Francis Williams LAW ’22 later recounted that “football songs and cheers by members of the rival colleges lent proper tone to the occasion.”
The festivities continued at away games. For the 1923 Yale-Harvard game, for example, African-American Harvard students hosted a reception for the visiting students and alumni of color from Yale. On Thanksgiving 1916, Yale students traveled to Brown to support friend and frequent guest of the Yale football receptions Fredrick Douglas “Fritz” Pollard. Pollard was the star running back for Brown in a season that would make him the first African-American All-American running back and the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl.
The Yale history we know does not often include the experiences and accomplishments of its African-American alumni. Maybe Yale believes that admitting a segregated history would be closely followed by negative press. However, there could also be an outpouring of support and admiration for such a great step in the right direction. Whatever the reason, the exclusion of the African-American experience from the history of Yale is most disheartening. As we observe Black History Month, we should commemorate the full history of Yale, which includes the experiences of African-American Yalies of the past.
Jeremy Harp is a 2010 graduate of Trumbull College.