Tuesday, 1 September 2009
In 1946, Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed Howard University students for a LIFE magazine photo essay. From its outset, Howard University, situated in Washington D.C, was nonsectarian and open to people of both sexes and all races. By 1950, Howard was proud to be "America's center of Negro learning" (LIFE, November 18, 1946). However, as Rayford W. Logan states in "Howard University: The First Hundred Years 1867-1967", it was not an exclusively "negro" establishment, and although these photographs display an attractive (not least, to my retrogressive tastes, for the fashions!), positive and sincere representation of African-Americans engaged in academic life, they are still, for the time and readership of LIFE, "comfortably segregated".
Of course, in 1946, segregation in state-suported public schools was enforced by law, so the university's commitment to all people, regardless of race, was challenged by higher powers. The Supreme Court declared this unconstitutional in 1954, but it is interesting to note that by 1963 there had only been a slight increase in the number of white students at Howard. In the Board of Trustees mission statement from that year, the members asserted how the University accepted a "special responsibility for the education of capable Negro students disadvantaged by the system of racial segregation, and will continue to do so as long as Negroes suffer these disabillities." In a recent article on Michelle Obama's plans to work her own backgarden and bring change to the disadvantaged of Washington, it is made clear that Washington's underclass is still overwhelmingly black. As Michell Cottle writes, "The Washington of guidebooks is a land of gleaming monuments, glossy law firms and upscale restaurants where slick-suited lobbyists lunch cheek by jowl with players from the Capitol and the White House. “The other Washington” is mired in crime, drugs, violence, unemployment, Aids (the District’s HIV rate is among the highest in the nation), homelessness, and, more broadly, hopelessness. Rarely do denizens of either group venture into one another’s territory." As such, is it deeply saddening or encouraging to think that the Howard Mission Statement of 1963 still applies?
On a positive note, those associated with the University include Alain Locke, editor of The New Negro (published in 1925, the definitve collection of Harlem Renaissance writers) who was Chair of the Dept. of Philosophy, and law student Thurgood Marshall, who went on to bring the epic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case against the state law that denied black children equal education; a triumph ushering in the Civil Rights reform movements of 1955-65. And today, Howard produces more on-campus African-American Ph.D.s than any other university in the world.