‘A hero to me’: Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge’s first African-American student

A couple of years ago, I received a phone call from Henry Louis Gates Jr, director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard (and a friend), telling me that he had just been offered an honorary doctorate from Cambridge university.

He was thrilled, not least because he reckoned it was the first time that an African-American man had received this type of honorary doctorate — and he pledged to “pay it back” by creating a foundation in the name of Alexander Crummell, another Cambridge graduate.

I had never heard of Crummell, even though I spent years studying at Cambridge myself. Gates explained that Crummell was the first African-American to have graduated from the university. I guessed it was probably after the second world war. Not so: this happened in 1853.

Why, I wondered, were there no statues of Crummell in a university town brimming with monuments? And how did he end up studying here 170 years ago?

The tale, as I later discovered, is a tangled one. But this week, Gates’s wish came true. A plaque was unveiled in Cambridge in honour of Crummell and two other black pioneers: Gloria Carpenter, the first black woman to graduate from Cambridge (in 1948), and George Bridgetower, a mixed-race violinist awarded a bachelor of music degree in 1811. A foundation to champion minority students has also been established (to which I am one of the contributors).

Henry Louis Gates Jr at Queens’ College this week. Photographed for the FT by Sandra Mickiewicz

This will finally give the name Crummell the prominence it deserves. But the fact that it has taken more than a century to honour him speaks volumes about the way history is conceived and commemorated at educational establishments in both America and Europe. It also raises a question that should challenge us all: in an era when statues of historical figures are being torn down because they are now deemed racist or sexist, is it time for us to put more energy into finding new heroes and heroines to celebrate?

Crummell’s tale casts such questions into particularly stark relief because his own story broke many boundaries. He was born in 1819 in New York, the son of a freeborn black mother and slave-born, illiterate father, and as a teenager he started running errands for the New York office of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

One day, when he was 14, he overheard a conversation in that office that changed his life. It concerned John C Calhoun, the senator of South Carolina, who was such a prominent politician that several educational establishments later bore his name — including the Yale college where Gates himself resided in the early 1970s.

Calhoun was a slave-owner and unrepentant racist; so much so that he told friends he would only “believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man . . . if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax”. That was a rigged test: in the southern states of America, education for African-Americans was illegal.

When Crummell heard about that conversation in the Anti-Slavery Society, he was furious. “Just think of the crude asininity of even a great man!” he later wrote, in an essay. “How was the Negro to learn the Greek Syntax [when laws banned this] . . . to evidence to Mr Calhoun his human nature?” 

So he decided to prove Calhoun wrong. First he attended the Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire, with the hopes of mastering that “Greek syntax”. Then, when local white people who opposed racial integration burnt that school to the ground, Crummell went to the Oneida Institute in the more liberal region of central New York State, and graduated, hoping to become a priest.

The General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church refused to admit him on racial grounds. But Crummell was educated by sympathetic clergymen in Boston and Providence. He then tried to create a congregation among the large free black community in Philadelphia, but the local bishop told him that “I will receive you into this diocese on one condition: No negro priest can sit in my church convention and no negro church must ask for representation there.” Crummell declined. 

In 1847, the frustrated priest sailed to England with his wife, to raise funds for his would-be church. It was an enticing destination because the country was seeing a surge of abolitionist activism, partly linked to the evangelical wing of the Church of England. Cambridge university was one focal point for this. “People think of Cambridge as an ivory tower but in the 19th century the university was central [to the movement] because it had a strong evangelical group,” says Keith Hart, a former Cambridge anthropology professor.

The President’s Lodge at Queens’ College . . . © Sandra Mickiewicz
. . . which today has an Alexander Crummell scholarship programme © Sandra Mickiewicz

Some abolitionist activists, among them Benjamin Brodie and William Wilberforce, then suggested that Crummell should enter the university. It was a bold idea, given that in the 1850s many Victorian elites were as racist as Calhoun. And, aside from the mixed-race Bridgetower, who apparently never fully matriculated, no black student had ever enrolled.

But Crummell joined Queens’ College, and after several bumpy years — during which he and his wife became ill, and also lost a child — he passed his final exams in 1853, on his second attempt. When he finally attended the graduation ceremony, it created a storm. The Queens’ College official history notes: “A boisterous individual in the gallery called out, ‘Three groans for the Queens’ n*****’ . . . A pale slim undergraduate . . . shouted in a voice which re-echoed through the building, ‘Shame, shame! Three groans for you, Sir!’ and immediately afterwards, ‘Three cheers for Crummell!’ This was taken up in all directions.” 

Armed with that degree, Crummell continued to break the mould. From 1853 to 1873 he worked as a missionary in Liberia, trying to turn that country into a new home for African-Americans. When those efforts largely failed, he returned to America and became a prominent campaigner for black rights and black education, pioneering the concept of “pan-Africanism”. Then in 1897, shortly before he died, Crummell joined forces with other prominent black intellectuals such as WEB Du Bois to found the American Negro Academy. The aim was to raise a whole new generation of black intellectuals. Or, as Gates says, “to prove Calhoun totally wrong! For that Crummell is a hero to me.” 

So why, I asked Gates, was there no memorial to Crummell in Cambridge before? It was a question that also baffled the American professor. Back in early 2020, when Stephen Toope, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, had offered him an honorary degree, Gates had asked who was the university’s first black graduate. “When I heard it was Crummell I went ‘holy mackerel!’” he recalls; by an odd coincidence, Gates had always been fascinated by the man, not least because when he went to Yale he had been irked by the use of the name Calhoun. 

Gates, like many of the African-American intellectuals who emerged during the civil rights campaigns of the late 20th century, was keenly aware of the power of linguistic and visual symbols. When he entered Harvard University to create an African-American studies centre, for example, he says that “one of the first things I did at Harvard was to create a bust of Du Bois — it is important that the [black] kids see images of their predecessors and commemorate the history of black people at Harvard.” 

Henry Louis Gates Jr and Dr Mohamed El-Erian, president of Queens’, with students (l to r) Rebecca Wistreich and Rumbidzai Dube, president of the Black Cantabs Research Society © Sandra Mickiewicz

But Crummell was overlooked, partly because almost nobody in America knew about his Cambridge degree. Indeed, Gates himself knew relatively little about this, even though he had done his PhD in Cambridge.

Why? One reason may be that Britain did not experience a US-style civil rights movement. Another is that British universities have put less emphasis on affirmative action policies for black communities than their American counterparts in recent years. Another (related) issue is that the black population of elite colleges has been shamefully low. In 2011, for example, Cambridge only admitted 26 black students. And while that has subsequently risen sharply as a result of campaigns (including one backed by the rapper Stormzy) to hit 128 in 2021, this is still just 3.5 per cent of the total.

Then there is another factor at work: the decentralised structure of Cambridge makes it harder for the university to develop a co-ordinated strategy about how to handle its own history, even (or especially) when this is being contested. Crummell is a case in point. About four years ago, some figures at Queens’ College realised that Crummell had been enrolled there and added a post to the college website about him. Then, two years ago, they created a dedicated foundation to support minority graduate research. “The Crummell story has really inspired us,” says the economist Mohamed El-Erian, president of Queens’ (and contributor to the FT). “Having Crummell scholarships is getting the name better known.” 

Tomi Akingbade (left), the inaugural Alexander Crummell PhD scholar at Queens’, with students Rumbidzai Dube and Rebecca Wistreich © Sandra Mickiewicz

But Gates and Toope did not know what Queens’ was doing, and the college was not aware of Gates’s passion either. “These matters tend to get decided at a college or departmental level,” as Hart notes. “Almost no attention has been paid to him before,” says Toope, who has launched a series of initiatives to support black students in the past couple of years. “Now it is overdue.” 

A critic might argue that this smacks of tokenism, given the racial disparities that remain in elite colleges. Fair enough. But Gates, for his part, remains convinced that some symbolic reordering is important, to inspire the next generation. “Doing this is one way to pay forward,” he says. 

And Calhoun? Five years ago, the leaders of Yale decided to rename the college where Gates once lived, as a gesture of disgust at Calhoun’s advocacy of slavery. Two hundred long years after Crummell decided to learn Greek, some kind of intellectual justice has occurred.

Gillian Tett is chair of the editorial board and editor-at-large, US of the Financial Times

Summer Books 2022

All this week, FT writers and critics share their favourites. Some highlights are:

Monday: Economics by Martin Wolf
Tuesday: Environment by Pilita Clark
Wednesday: Fiction by Laura Battle
Thursday: History by Tony Barber
Friday: Politics by Gideon Rachman
Saturday: Critics’ choice

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