In September 1959, 18 black students matriculated at Harvard College, 1.5 percent of the entering class, at the time the largest number of blacks ever admitted into a freshman class at the nation’s flagship university. Kent Garrett was one of those students, and in “The Last Negroes at Harvard” he (with the assistance of Jeanne Ellsworth) chronicles their collegiate and subsequent experiences.

Cover courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Garrett is the son of refugees from rural Jim Crow South Carolina who settled in New York. Through diligence, discipline and an almost fanatical faith in the power of education, they created a loving but striving household from which they were able to send both their children to college; Garrett’s sister attended Boston University. Garrett’s father was a motorman for the New York City Transit Authority who, for years, ate alone at meal breaks because white colleagues refused to share a table with him. Garrett notes, though, that his father stayed clear of the toxic resentment, defensiveness and sense of inferiority that racism often generates. He writes about his parents, but especially his father, with evident admiration. “My dad,” he observes, “simply refused to let racism rain on his parade.” Paradoxically, the son’s response to racism, even as its power diminishes, is more equivocal. To some extent, he did let it rain on his parade.

Recalling his introduction to campus, he writes: “The wide lawns of Harvard Yard say to the privileged few who have been chosen, You belong here, you are important, you are granted a generous share of space and time in this world, while my family and just about everyone I had spent time with in my seventeen years on earth had been told, You don’t belong here, you’re not very important, and what little you are granted we will begrudge you.” Remembering his work on the dorm crew cleaning toilets, he recalls racializing his experience, even though most of the other students cleaning toilets were white. “For several hours a week, I was a Negro doing Negro work – I was in my place. I had a gut-level awareness of being just another chapter in the long history of Blacks serving Harvard’s white faculty and students as janitors, custodians, cooks, and waiters.”

Dramatic racial developments erupted in the background of Garrett’s college years: the sit-in movement, student defiance of repressive administrations at historically black institutions, the Freedom Rides, James Meredith’s desegregation of the University of Mississippi, the assassination of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” oration at the March on Washington. By contrast, at least according to Garrett’s narration, he and his black colleagues’ grapplings with race were rather tame. How to respond to a white student who said he wanted to talk because he had never before spoken with a Negro? Should they deliberately sit together for meals at a black table? Or should they deliberately disperse themselves?

Garrett suggests that the most controversial race issue that arose during his time at Harvard involved an effort to obtain university recognition for the African and Afro-American Association of Students (AAAAS). For a while, the university refused, maintaining that inasmuch as AAAAS limited its membership to blacks, it engaged in wrongful racial discrimination. Garett wishes he could go back in time to respond. If he could, he would say: “To suggest that our desire to have a Blacks-only club is somehow the same as Jim Crow is intellectually indefensible, historically wrong, morally weak, and just crazy. AAAAS is not part of an elaborate and centuries old machinery of laws and customs specifically designed to oppress. … Sometimes, for some things we (black students) just want to be alone.”

At the time, though, Garrett was mainly a spectator. He kept a distance from anything that might mean trouble. He did not allow himself to get swept up in any alluring rebellious enthusiasms – sex, drugs, ideology. “My family had played by the rules,” he notes. They “kept their heads down and their minds on work and family. They had come too far from racist South Carolina to risk sticking out in a crowd. … I was just a young, hardworking, shy kid from that family who still ate chitlins.”

Garrett’s memoir offers an instructive peek at a Harvard that has been transformed. Back then when applying for housing, there was a box to check indicating a willingness to accept a roommate of another race. Now, of course, there is no such option. Back then black students were barred from membership in the Finals Clubs, coveted bastions of prestige where students eat and party. Now blacks are among the members of them all. Garrett quotes the head of the house where he lived after freshman year: “Harvard is the best place in the world, and Eliot House is the best place at Harvard – so let’s all be happy.” Nowadays no one in authority there would be caught dead luxuriating in complacency so openly. Now there are at least 10 to 15 times as many black undergraduates at Harvard as when Garrett attended, not to mention the extraordinary proliferation of other students of color. An Asian American student would have been a rarity back then; Garrett mentions none. Now nearly a quarter of the undergraduates are Asian American.

In 1959, Harvard was an all-male institution. Its all-female sister institution, Radcliffe College, was physically nearby but psychologically distant and definitely subordinate in the eyes of the Harvard administration and student body. Racially Radcliffe was even more homogeneous than Harvard; only one black woman was in its freshman class of 1959. By contrast, women now approach half (48 percent) of Harvard undergraduates. The previous president of the university was a woman, while the current deans of the faculty of arts and sciences, the graduate school of education, the Radcliffe Institute, and the school of education are all black women.

One hopes that the intellectual environment of Harvard today is more fascinating than the one that hardly makes an appearance in Garrett’s memoir. He discusses no class that left an impression him, no book to which he was introduced, no idea that grabbed him, no teacher with whom he was enthralled. He describes excitedly a dinner that he and some classmates shared with Malcolm X. He says that on account of that meeting, “something shifted inside my young mind and soul.” Perhaps so. But I would more confidently credit the claim if it was substantiated by some contemporaneous evidence.

A difficulty in interpreting a memoir is separating history from memory, distinguishing actuality from imaginings perhaps inescapably influenced by what the writer currently believes he should have noticed or felt in the time being recalled. Now in his late 70s, Garrett is a “pissed off black man” whose assessment of Harvard’s initial steps toward substantial racial diversity is rather barbed. “Nobody seemed to have given a second thought to whether we would be the targets of racism,” he complains. Furthermore, he notes indignantly, “I don’t believe anyone at Harvard was particularly concerned that by recruiting specifically in the South and the ghetto they had pulled some of us into an unknown world.”

What many would see as a remarkable stroke of good fortune is eclipsed in Garrett’s telling by the recrudescence of fears and frustrations that he had briefly consigned to the past. “It seems to me,” he concludes, that the lives of the 18 black freshmen at Harvard College in 1959 “have been bracketed by the hard realities of racism in America – the obscenities of Jim Crow defined our childhoods and the obscenities of Trumpism are defining our old age.”

Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard University.

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