Black and white students as minutemen in 1960.

Harvard students Travis Williams (from left), Frank Bardacke, Tony Robbins, and John Woodford, an integrated group of “minutemen,” enacted “The Second Shot for Freedom” on May 17, 1960 at the Old North Bridge. The event was to mark the sixth anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.

Credit: Ted Polumbaum/Newseum Collection

Campus & Community

As the nation shifted from ‘Negro’ to black

long read

Chronicling the lives of the groundbreaking 18 African American members of the Class of 1963 during a pivotal time in American history

Kent Garrett ’63 and Jeanne Ellsworth are authors of the new book  “The Last Negroes at Harvard: The Class of 1963 and the 18 Young Men Who Changed Harvard Forever,” which is equal parts memoir, group biography, and history of a turbulent era. They will speak at the Harvard Coop on Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. Following is an excerpt.

Arrival Day, Sept. 18, 1959. The new boys trudge along with their suitcases; attentive fathers carry trunks, mothers in flats and autumn coats tote desk lamps and portable typewriters, and kids trot along carting bags and boxes. Harvard Yard is a verdant quadrangle of well-tended but simple elegance, boxed in by fine old American buildings, sequestered behind sturdy ivied brick walls and wrought-iron fences of fine design. Even on a busy day like this, the Yard is serene, as if over 300 years of arrivals have inured it to any disturbance. Proud parents walk confidently into the epicenter of the American aristocracy, in the footsteps of some of the most illustrious feet in American history. Half of this year’s boys have gone to private schools, and they watch out for familiar faces, letter sweaters, or school ties. For the many fathers who are Harvard alums, this is a ritual and a homecoming: They greet old classmates with backslaps and inside jokes. Other fathers tip their hats, secure in the knowledge that as of this day, through their sons, they have joined one of the most elite clubs in the world. Mothers exchange the polite smiles of privileged sisterhood.

Just after one o’clock that afternoon, another family comes across the Yard. Heads turn, eyes widen, a mother whispers behind her hand, a father shushes a child. Now treading on the Puritan soil and patrician pathways of Harvard Yard are eight dark-skinned, Sunday-best Negroes, one of them a tall thin boy carrying a suitcase. That boy is me, and this is my family, my very Negro family, stepping onto the very white, very Old New England, very exclusive grass and gravel of Harvard Yard. We know we are being watched. We stick closer together, say less, and walk more stiffly than the other families. Aside from my 14-year-old sister and me — who were born in Brooklyn — the others in our party, my parents and aunts and uncle, were all born and raised on sharecropper farms in Edgefield, S.C. They lived more than half of their lives in the rural Jim Crow South. They were just two decades distant from driving mules and picking cotton, from the indignities of segregated schools, parks, buses, and water fountains, from violence and hatred, degradation and fear. They had clear memories of having stuffed Cousin Emery into the trunk of a car to escape the Ku Klux Klan. Considering their beginnings, their struggles, and the history of Harvard and of the United States, my family’s arrival in Harvard Yard that cool early fall day was one of incalculable dimension.

Kent Garrett in 1959.
Kent Garrett in 1959. Courtesy of Kent Garrett

But the truth is I wasn’t thinking about those incongruities on that day. I was 17 and awkwardly and tentatively confident. I hadn’t thought much about Harvard at all, in fact, except that it was a good school and famous. The only connection I had to the place was a distant cousin of my mother, Ida Thomas, who worked in one of the kitchens. Had I wondered how many Blacks would be here? I don’t think so. For that matter, had any of the white boys who were arriving that day thought about having Black classmates, or even roommates? Not likely. But here we were all together, and some of those white boys and their families no doubt were shocked to see me.

I was by no means the first Black at Harvard. That was Richard Theodore Greener, who graduated in 1870. From then until the mid-20th century, there were sometimes one or two in a class, and often none. “The official view,” according to one history of the university, “was that African Americans who had the grades and money to come to Harvard were welcome, but that there was no call to do anything more … African American students during the 1930s and 1940s were a not unwelcome sign of Harvard tolerance, as long as they were small in numbers and of acceptable demeanor. But by the mid-1950s, genteel liberal integrationism was the norm.” A white member of the class of 1959 remembered that back then “there was no Black visibility in the college at all, save for an occasional boy from Boston Latin who commuted between Roxbury and Harvard Square. If you were Black at Harvard in the late 1950s, you kept a low profile, did your work, and moved on quietly to the business of real life.”

That was pretty much how I had managed school — keeping a low profile, doing my work. I had grown up with little need or desire to have contact with whites outside of school, and so I didn’t. Nor did my family — I don’t recall a white person ever setting foot in our home, in the homes of our relatives or anyone else we kept company with, or at our church. I encountered white kids only in school or Boy Scouts, and almost the only white adults I ever spoke to were teachers and shopkeepers. That day at Harvard I was facing four years of not only going to school with almost exclusively white people, but also living day-to-day, elbow-to-elbow with them.

“There in that beautiful theater in the grand hall on the sacred ground of American power and privilege sat 18 Negro boys. … We had made it through the needle’s eye of admission, and on that day in 1959 we had made it onto campus.”

The summer before I left for college had gone by in a steamy blur, with New York City hot and humid as usual. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom, slouching around, thinking about girls, listening to Lloyd Price sing about his girl who “walked with personality, talked with personality.” No such luck for me — by my teenage reckoning, it was the light-skinned boys who got the girls, and brains were useless for my social life. I was a studious, dark-skinned, gangly kid who did well in school and was still a Boy Scout. Others rose on the neighborhood social ladder by expressing disdain, or at least a jokey tolerance, for square boys like me. Even though I had trained myself to walk pigeon-toed like my hero, Jackie Robinson, those other guys were cool, and I was not.

The day came to leave for Harvard, and as if signaling the changes to come, the heat broke, and we were up at dawn on a morning that felt like fall. Two cars full of family were going up to Cambridge to see me off. My parents; my sister, Velma; and I would ride in our Pontiac, and in the other car would be three of my mother’s sisters — Aunt Estelle, Aunt Mag, and Aunt Carrie with Aunt Estelle’s husband, Kaiser-Bill, behind the wheel. I had rolled my eyes at the prospect; the thought of going to college and having the aunts pinch my cheeks or call me Butch, as they typically did, was a horrifying prospect for a boy who already felt hopelessly uncool. But all my complaining had proved useless. On that early morning, the men debated the pros and cons of various highways and settled on a route. The women wrapped sandwiches in waxed paper and packed them into shoeboxes. It was unlikely that we’d be turned away from a roadside restaurant, as we would be if traveling in the South, but we could be deliberately made so unwelcome that we’d wish we hadn’t gone in. We would find a shady turnout and enjoy our sandwiches there.

By early afternoon, we were driving past the ivy-covered Harvard Stadium at Soldiers Field, then across the Charles River and right on up to the Harvard campus. Upperclassmen did their best to direct cars in and out and pointed us toward the freshman dorms. Since the early 20th century, all freshmen had been required to live in one of the Yard’s red-brick, ivy-covered Georgian-style halls: Wigglesworth, Weld, Grays, Matthews, Lionel, Stoughton, or Thayer, all named after Brahmin New England families. They are handsome but plain, reflecting the kind of Puritan stoicism thought best suited to the scholarly life. George Santayana described their style as “the architecture of sturdy poverty, looking through thrift in the direction of wealth.” The little black-and- white photos of the campus that I’d seen did this place no justice. I had seen the neighborhoods of New York City, mostly from bus windows, and I’d seen all kinds of cities and towns and countrysides from the windows of trains, but to actually be walking into Harvard Yard with the thought of soon going into one of those fine buildings — we might as well have landed on the Champs- Élysées, or the moon.

We made our way cautiously across the Yard to Thayer Hall South. I located the room on the first floor that corresponded with the number on my room card and fumbled the door open. The eight of us filed in and stood there. Aunt Mag planted her fist on her hip, her eyes scanned the room from floor to ceiling, corner to corner, and she hurrumphed theatrically, “What is this?” The tension was broken. I thumped down my suitcase, and we were alone to smile and breathe — dear sassy Aunt Mag had gotten the jump on any judgment Harvard might make on us! It was true that my room, especially after the grandeur of what we’d seen so far that afternoon, looked pretty old, small, and bare. We associated high status with oversized, ostentatious luxury, and the idea that the Spartan might be chosen for its own sake, or that simplicity could be more prestigious than extravagance, was simply not part of our concept of social class, which had been shaped by life in the rural South and in the poor districts of New York City.

Eventually the hour arrived for my family to return to Queens. It was early yet, but my parents and aunts and uncle were too fresh from the South to be confident traveling after dark. They couldn’t easily forget about the “sundown towns” where to be Black after dark was to be in danger of your life. The aunts had finished making and installing the fine set of curtains I would one day pass on to the next freshman duo. The women kissed and hugged me, probably even pinched my cheek and called me Butch. Kaiser-Bill shook my hand and then gave way so that my father and I could have a moment. “Your granddaddy,” my father said. “One of the things he always said to us was that we had to think for ourselves, nobody has the power to think for you, think for yourself. And always listen, listen, listen, and don’t say too much, and think before you speak.” We were not a family who went around saying “I love you” all the time — in fact, pretty much never — but he shook my hand in both of his. And then they were gone.

Kent Garrett graduating at Harvard.
People eating lunch in Harvard Yard.

Kent Garrett receiving his diploma at Eliot House and later having lunch with his mother and sister, Velma.

Courtesy of Kent Garrett

By early afternoon, most families had had similar scenes and left their sons with roommates chosen by the college whom they’d never laid eyes on before but would live with for the next 10 months. I already knew my roommate, Ezra, so I was spared the suspense. We’d been classmates at the selective public school Boys High, and when we found out that we were both going to Harvard, we decided to room together. Ezra was Barbadian, and for the first 15 years of his life he’d lived the outdoor life in a tropical climate — playing cricket and soccer, zipping around the island’s roads and paths by bicycle, swimming in the sea, and enjoying breadfruit roasted on a beach fire. His childhood was shaped by colonialism, race, and racism, but Ezra’s parents were usually able to sweep poverty and racism under the rug of a loving home and their love for Barbados itself.

We hadn’t been close friends at school, even though we were almost the only Blacks on the scholarship track. Ezra had his own social group of West Indians, centered on their similar cultures and, in particular, on soccer. Ezra and I were both quiet boys who didn’t seek too much socializing, at least not in school. But right then, he felt like my best friend, and I was awfully glad to know that he was on his way.

Fifty years later, almost to the day, I would set out on what I’d begun to call my “journey”: trying to find Ezra and all the other Black boys who arrived at Harvard that day. As far as I knew, there were at least a dozen of us. Later I would learn there were actually 18. We constituted 1.595 percent of the entering class, more than any Harvard freshman class had included since the institution’s founding in 1636. I would later come to view our admission as reflecting an early form of affirmative action, though that was before the term had been applied to college admissions and before it acquired the contentious history it carries now. At least half of us were there because we were Black, but more so because we were Black and very capable.

We all had a lot to learn about the nuts and bolts of daily Harvard life, and the college had all manner of meetings and activities to get us acclimated. We had to stand in line to sign papers and fill out forms and get the “bursar’s card” that would admit us to meals and events, allow us to check books out of the library, and so on. At dorm meetings, we met our proctors and learned the rules, including the two that were perhaps most often complained about: that we wear a jacket and tie at all meals (inconvenient and irritating) and that girls were allowed in the dorms only during official “parietal hours” (always far too short). We also heard about the consequences of failing to follow the rules, one of which was to have your bursar’s card taken away until you’d had a conference with a dean or starved to death, whichever came first.

“As far as I knew, there were at least a dozen of us. Later I would learn there were actually 18. We constituted 1.595 percent of the entering class, more than any Harvard freshman class had included since the institution’s founding in 1636.”

Late in the afternoon of Arrival Day, we headed off for a formal greeting at Memorial Hall. Here we would officially become the class of 1963. Memorial Hall’s dramatic high Victorian Gothic beauty topped everything I’d seen that day, even without the tower that had burned a few years before. Built to honor Harvard students who had fallen in service to the Union in the Civil War, the building was meant also to serve as the central meeting place on campus, where boys “might be inspired by the pictured and sculpted presence of her founders, benefactors, faculty, presidents, and most distinguished sons.”

We gathered in Sanders Theatre, which put me more in mind of a church than a theater. Richly paneled in dark walnut, carved and gabled, the space was studded with 22 stained-glass windows, statues of famous orators in togas, portraits in oils of past presidents, benefactors, and famous sons, and scrolled with quotations in what I assumed to be Latin. It was hard not to be impressed or overwhelmed. I looked nervously around me, the way everyone did: We were all intensely aware of each other, some of us sizing up the competition, others simply looking for signs that everything was going to be OK.

In those last weeks and months before we had all left home for Cambridge, the Little Rock high schools reopened after being closed for a year to avoid continuing to integrate: the segregationists were out of tricks. Americans already frightened by the Cold War learned that the Soviet Union could launch ballistic missiles from submarines, and Khrushchev was visiting the United States. Explorer 6 sent us the first pictures of Earth from orbit, and the first two Americans were killed in Vietnam. In Washington, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued its first report, which detailed abominable situations in voting, education, and housing that were by no means limited to the South. C. Wright Mills had christened the new era “postmodern.” Miles Davis recorded “Kind of Blue” and was beaten by police outside his workplace. Mike Wallace profiled the Black Muslims in “The Hate That Hate Produced,” a series of half-hour documentaries that introduced Malcolm X, shocking white America and tripling the membership of the Nation of Islam in New York.

There in that beautiful theater in the grand hall on the sacred ground of American power and privilege sat 18 Negro boys. We were surrounded by over a thousand white classmates and innumerable ghosts of Harvard’s white past — John Kennedy had sat in this hall, as well as Robert Oppenheimer, Robert Frost, William James — presidents and Rockefellers, world-shakers and empire-builders. We had made it through the needle’s eye of admission, and on that day in 1959 we had made it onto campus.

Above the stage at Sanders Theatre is a triptych inspired by the Harvard shield: three open books, each inscribed with a syllable of the college’s simple motto: ve-ri-tas — “Truth.” The first two books, shown right side up, are said to represent existing knowledge, while the third, inverted, stands for what is yet unknown. It was into that unknown that we were bound. Some of us were downright afraid of the unknown; I know I was. The last speaker had spoken; we were officially the class of 1963, a spatter of polite applause rose and died out, and then with the scuffling of 2,000 feet and the rising buzz of conversation, we stepped out into the last of the September sun and went forth.

Kent Garrett and Jeanne Ellsworth will appear at the Harvard Coop on Feb. 12, at 7 p.m. Excerpt from “The Last Negroes at Harvard: The Class of 1963 and the 18 Young Men Who Changed Harvard Forever” by Kent Garrett and Jeanne Ellsworth. Copyright © 2020 by Kent Garrett and Jeanne Ellsworth. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.