February 3, 2009

Prof lauds U of C’s early integration

The achievements of black students and faculty at the University of Chicago were highlighted at a symposium Friday in Regenstein Library as part of an ongoing exhibit charting gradual academic and social integration through the mid-twentieth century at the University.

Black students have pursued studies in undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs at the University of Chicago since its inception in the late 1800s. The exhibit, “Integrating the Life of the Mind: African Americans at the University of Chicago, 1870–1940,” presents documents that provide a paper trail of interlocking strands of gradual academic and social integration through the mid-twentieth century, including original manuscripts, rarely seen portraits and photographs, black publications, and books by black graduates of the University of Chicago.

The event kicked off with opening remarks from the University of Chicago’s Deputy Provost for Research and Minority Issues Ken Warren. Keynote speakers included Associate Professor Francille Wilson of the University of Southern California, Professor Jonathan Holloway of Yale University, and the University of Chicago’s Associate Professor Adam Green.

“Black students were drawn to the University of Chicago since the turn of the century,” Wilson said. “There was no distinction of race and color. Love and brains were the only criteria,” he added.

By 1943 the University of Chicago had awarded no less than forty-five PhDs to black students, more than any other university in the world. The work of these graduates shaped fields as diverse as sociology and cell biology and also helped create new academic fields such as African American history and literature. The University of Chicago was also instrumental in providing leadership for many historically black colleges including Howard University, Tuskegee Institute, and Morehouse College.

“When I think about all of the great African-American scholars that have passed through the University of Chicago it is truly humbling. It inspires me to work harder and to continue their legacy,” said first-year Edward James.

Holloway spoke about the effect of Native Son author Richard Wright’s prose on blacks living in Chicago.

“Wright was known for his disaffection for the black bourgeoisie and prompted many blacks to ask, why don’t you show the best traits of African-Americans?” said Holloway. “Wright introduced the 82 percent of the black race that others ignored,” she said, while “privileged blacks struggled against the uplifting of its veil.”

Third-year Angela Chestleigh felt that all students at the U of C benefited from the successes of fellow black students. “The past achievements of African-Americans at the University of Chicago affect not only people who are black, but also everyone who came to University to receive a well rounded education and to learn about people who are different from themselves,” she said.