Hamilton’s rich historic legacy provides much of the 21st-century College’s strength and vision. It also comprises a wealth of fascinating stories that illuminate the College's changing place in the region, the nation and world. “The Hill in History” shares some of those stories in a regular column.

African-American Students in 1920s 'Not to be Insulted'

By Maurice Isserman

Joseph Spurlarke, Class of 1889The Hamilton-Oneida Academy began as an experiment in interracial education, which proved an abject failure. Its successor institution, Hamilton College, made no claims to interracialism and indeed was a largely white institution throughout its first century of existence. The College enrolled only a single African-American student, Joseph Spurlarke, Class of 1889, in the years between its founding and the conclusion of the First World War. Following his Hamilton graduation, Spurlarke received a divinity degree from Auburn Theological Seminary in 1892, and was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church. He died two years later of typhoid fever.

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, however, Hamilton began a new, if informal and unannounced, experiment in interracialism, admitting six black students between 1919 and 1921. Frederick Augustine Browne was the first, arriving in the fall of 1919 as a member of the Class of 1923. Roy A. Ellis arrived the following year as a member of the Class of 1924, along with his friend Maynard Smith Garner. (Garner was a transfer student from Howard University and thus entered as part of the Class of 1923.) Three more black students arrived the next year.

Why this sudden influx of minority students occurred remains unclear, although Ellis seems to have chosen to pursue a Hamilton education while working as a Pullman porter on a passenger train and encountering a friendly group of Hamilton students who were traveling back to the College. All six incoming black students in the early 1920s came from the Washington, D.C., area and were graduates of Dunbar High School, a prestigious, all-black public high school.

There is no record of what life was like for the few Native American students who came to the Hamilton-Oneida Academy in the 1790s, although the fact that they soon stopped enrolling is suggestive. But two documents preserved in the College archives reveal the experience of the African-American students who came to Hamilton in the early 1920s. They did not feel welcome.

Maynard Smith Garner, Class of 1923In November 1921 Ellis sent a letter to Elihu Root, co-signed by Garner of the Class of 1923, as well as two other black students, Charles Sayles Scott, Class of 1924, and Charles Woolford, Class of 1925. “We know that the entrance of four Negro students last year did not meet with the unanimous approval of the Faculty,” Ellis wrote on behalf of his co-signers.

Frequently throughout the year there occurred certain demonstrations on the part of students which certainly cannot be overlooked by us. Garner played basket-ball on the varsity team, he sacrificed his time and gave his efforts to make a name for Hamilton. On one occasion, a Hamilton man on the sidelines used the term “nigger” referring to Garner. Is that the proper spirit for a Hamilton man? The term “nigger” was used in the Hamilton Literary Magazine last year. The college Glee Club, at a smoker, sang in our presence a song about “The nigger went fishing one day”.

Ellis conceded that the racial slur had been in long and widespread use in the United States, but familiarity did not excuse its repetition by white students at Hamilton in 1921.

To the American Negro of today, it is a gross insult. Garner and I were in the United States Army during the World War. We risked our lives for Democracy; we are American citizens, and are not to be insulted or ridiculed because of the unfortunate conditions of servitude of our forefathers or because of the hue of our skin. Least of all, we do not expect this at Hamilton College, here, where a man's ideals are supposed to be more elevated than among the common pack.

Root responded with friendly concern, but failed to comprehend the gravity of the issues involved, at least from the perspective of the African-American students.

I need not say that I am exceedingly sorry to read of instances in which white students have used the term “nigger” in your presence — the use of the word under any circumstances is seldom to be condoned; but I am right, am I not, in assuming that these are, after all, isolated instances and that they arise out of the thoughtlessness and insufficient experience of youth?...What you must consider is whether the College as a whole has treated you with the politeness and kindness with which, on your own records, you undoubtedly deserve to be treated

These letters must, of course, be read in the context of their own time, an era when few historically white American colleges were going out of their way to recruit or accommodate black students. (Up to 1899, a grand total of only 390 African-Americans graduated from predominantly white colleges and universities, one-third of them from Oberlin). It is also worth noting that one of the letter's signers, Maynard Smith Garner, would subsequently be elected captain of the basketball team by his white teammates. But the exchange between the black students and Elihu Root preserved in these remarkable documents speaks to us across a space of many decades of good intentions gone awry, of racial pride and insensitivity, and foreshadows the long and complicated path that Hamilton College, along with its peer institutions, would follow before approaching the goal of racial diversity. Of the signatories to the letter to Elihu Root, and, indeed of the six black students who came between 1919 and 1921, Ellis alone went on to graduate from Hamilton. Garner died in 1923 before having the opportunity to graduate; the reasons why the others failed to do so are not known. Black students did, however, continue to enroll in ones or twos in the years following; two would graduate with the Class of 1929.

Excerpted from a forthcoming history of Hamilton College by Maurice Isserman, the James L. Ferguson Professor of History, to be published in conjunction with the College’s bicentennial in 2012.

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