Between the 1930s and 1960s, the University of Iowa sought to assert its modernity, cosmopolitanism, and progressivism through an increased emphasis on the fine and performing arts and athletics. This enhancement coincided with a period when an increasing number of African American students arrived at the university, from both within and outside of the state, seeking to take advantage of its relatively liberal racial relations and rising artistic prestige. The presence of accomplished African American students performing in musical concerts, participating in visual art exhibitions, acting on stage, publishing literature, and competing on sports fields forced white students, instructors, and administrators to confront their undeniable intellect and talent. Unlike the work completed in traditional academic units, these students’ contributions to the university community were highly visible and burst beyond the walls of their individual units and primary spheres of experience to reach a much larger audience on campus and in the city and nation beyond the university’s boundaries. By examining the quieter collisions between Iowa’s polite midwestern progressivism and African American students’ determined ambition, Invisible Hawkeyes focuses attention on both local stories and their national implications. By looking at the University of Iowa and a smaller midwestern college town like Iowa City, this collection reveals how fraught moments of interracial collaboration, meritocratic advancement, and institutional insensitivity deepen our understanding of America’s painful conversion into a diverse republic committed to racial equality. SUBJECTS COVERED Edison Holmes Anderson, George Overall Caldwell, Elizabeth Catlett, Fanny Ellison, Oscar Anderson Fuller, Michael Harper, James Alan McPherson, Herbert Franklin Mells, Herbert Nipson, Thomas Pawley, William Oscar Smith, Mitchell Southall, Margaret Walker CONTRIBUTORS Dora Martin Berry, Richard M. Breaux, Kathleen A. Edwards, Lois Eichaker, Brian Hallstoos, Lena M. Hill, Michael D. Hill, Dianna Penny, Donald W. Tucker, Ted Wheeler
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About the Author
Lena M. Hill is an associate professor of English and African American studies at the University of Iowa. She is the author of Visualizing Blackness and the Creation of African American Literary Tradition and is the coauthor of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: A Reference Guide. Michael D. Hill is an associate professor of English and African American studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of The Ethics of Swagger: Prizewinning African American Novels, 1977–1993 and is the coauthor of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: A Reference Guide. They both live in Iowa City, Iowa.
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African Americans at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era
By Lena M. Hill, Michael D. Hill
University of Iowa PressCopyright © 2016 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
"EXCELLENT WORK AND SUPERIOR TRAITS OF PERSONALITY"
Composing an Integrated Music Department
In April 1942 Albert Walter Dent, the president of Dillard University in New Orleans, wrote to the director of the University of Iowa's Department of Music, Dr. Philip Greeley Clapp, inquiring about graduate student Oscar Anderson Fuller. President Dent sought a director of music and had heard that Fuller, who less than three months later would become the first African American to earn a PhD in music, "would be a good person for the position." He explained to Clapp his desire to develop music appreciation among his university's students and other African Americans in the area. Far from limiting his inquiry to Fuller's musical qualifications, Dent clarified that his real concern regarded the thirty-seven-year-old Fuller's ability to interact interracially. "The director," wrote Dent, "should be a person who is not so conscious of being a Negro that he is uncomfortable with white people."
In his lengthy response to Dent, Clapp extolled Fuller's skills as a composer, leader, and pianist and his grasp of music application and theory. Based on his student's academics and personality, Clapp predicted that Fuller would attract students to the chorus and orchestra, enthusiastically develop their skills, and produce "a superior group of performers." He commended Fuller's doctoral thesis, an original oratorio based on a poem by James Weldon Johnson. The distinguished mentor clearly viewed Fuller as one of his most talented students.
Yet Clapp understood that Dent's interest in Fuller's fitness for the position at Dillard had less to do with music than issues of race. "You may be sure that I understand the racial and personality problems which you discuss," wrote the aging white director from the North to the young African American president in the legally segregated South. "I am happy to say that I believe Mr. Fuller is exactly the person you are looking for in this respect as well as musically." Clapp devoted the final five hundred–plus words of his letter to describing his community's own brand of segregation and how Fuller and his spouse possessed traits that enabled them to thrive under such conditions. While acknowledging regional differences in opportunities for African Americans, such as the total exclusion of black students from southern state schools, Clapp implied that the Fullers' skill at handling race relations in Iowa prepared them to handle them in Louisiana. Praising Fuller by damning his school, Clapp wrote:
The University of Iowa admits colored students, but the student body as a whole does not fraternize with them, and the faculty members do not make protegées [sic] of them; for better or worse what personal recognition that a colored student here receives he has to earn by excellent work and superior traits of personality.
The written exchange between Clapp and Dent followed from the premise that a southern black man could prove his ability to navigate race relations in the South at a northern university. It suggested that segregation shared more crucial similarities than differences across regions and shaped the role universities like the one Fuller attended played in granting graduate degrees to students excluded from higher education in their home states. Was the University of Iowa as unfriendly toward African American students as Clapp claimed? Rather than providing black graduates with the intellectual tools and credentials to chip away at a segregated society, did the music program at Iowa fail to challenge — or did it perhaps even support — systems of oppression? Or was Clapp simply playing the role of dutiful and wily advisor, who exaggerated the troubles faced by black graduates at Iowa in an effort to make the strongest case for his student? Was this a disingenuous attempt to get a star pupil into a promising academic position?
Such questions cannot be answered well without considering the historical circumstances that brought Fuller and other African Americans to the University of Iowa's Department of Music in pursuit of a graduate degree during the Jim Crow era. When Fuller and George Overall Caldwell, another African American from Texas, first entered the program in the summer of 1929 to pursue their master's degrees, Iowa became one of the early institutions of higher education to admit black students for advanced study in music. Their experiences in the North were intimately connected with their life and aspirations in the South since Fuller and Caldwell could not pursue graduate study in their home state. Segregation prevented them from entering institutions of higher education that served whites, and no institution in Texas open to African Americans offered a graduate degree in music.
The story of Fuller, Caldwell, and other early black students earning graduate degrees from the University of Iowa is largely, but not solely, about the triumph over southern exclusion. As Clapp's rather bleak epistolary assessment of local race relations indicates, students at Iowa confronted exclusion in the North as well. Yet the record suggests that African American graduates found at least a few crucial members of the white music faculty, fine arts administration, and student body to support their creative and intellectual development. Their master's and PhD theses, letters, interviews, and reminiscences attest to this support and an intellectual freedom that allowed the pursuit of projects steeped in a Western musical tradition and engaged in what it meant to be black in the United States. As one doctoral recipient put it in a 1950 letter to Clapp, "I sure do miss the Seminar." Although more socially isolated and constrained than their white peers, they found an opportunity in the integrated classroom, practice room, and concert hall to thrive intellectually. In this chapter, I argue that for a purposefully small, yet influential and interconnected group of southern African American scholar-musicians — who would not be sidetracked by northern race relations — Clapp's Department of Music at the University of Iowa stimulated their intellectual, musical, and professional development.
Fuller, Caldwell, and six other African Americans earned a PhD or MA degree in music at Iowa in the decade leading up to the 1950 desegregation of graduate and professional education in the parts of the South from where all of the graduate students to that point had come. This change in the law was made possible by the ongoing efforts of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a few brave, would-be law students in Texas and Oklahoma, and a US Supreme Court sympathetic to civil rights. All of the African Americans who engaged in advanced music study at Iowa until this point arrived as college graduates or as professors on temporary leave from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in these two neighboring southern states. While no direct correlation exists between the university's practice of racial inclusion and this landmark civil rights victory, there is no question that African Americans' efforts to achieve the highest educational degrees in Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa were intimately intertwined.
Integrating Higher Education In and Out of State
By the 1950s, the University of Iowa was well known among African Americans in higher education for its reputation as an institution of academic excellence that welcomed black students. New students discovered the university through what has been called "the Iowa network, an interwoven, interconnected 'pipeline' of African American alumni." With regard to the Department of Music, this pipeline flowed from Texas and Oklahoma alone for more than two decades, reflecting the positive experience and powerful influence of one of the first two graduates, Oscar Fuller. The students who followed Fuller confirmed the findings of a multidepartmental study that identified undergraduate faculty influence as the most significant factor in why black students chose Iowa for graduate school.
Personal motivations, primarily with regard to professional aspirations, prompted the pursuit of an advanced degree in music. As one Iowa alumnus put it, "The Ph.D. degree was like a union card, and it was becoming impossible to achieve full professorship without the card." Judging by the notable track record of alumni who became professors at HBCUs, the MA degree also functioned like a "union card" that opened the institutional door to teaching.
The decision to pursue an advanced degree was not strictly a personal matter. Important external factors led institutions in the South to push their students and faculty toward graduate and professional schools. Most notably, administrators at HBCUs sought accreditation, which depended in part on the number of their faculty with advanced degrees. Until at least 1950, segregation prohibited African Americans from attending in-state institutions of higher education that served white students, and HBCUs tended to offer few if any graduate degrees. This meant that African Americans had to leave the legally segregated South for graduate and professional schools in the North, which posed a financial problem.
By the 1930s, many southern states responded to this problem by appropriating funds for use by faculty at HBCUs to defray the additional costs of attending graduate school out of state. Historian Jimmie Lewis Franklin, who was a beneficiary of such state funds from Mississippi when he attended the University of Oklahoma after it desegregated its graduate school, emphasized the insufficiency of these appropriations as well as the unfair burden they placed on black churches, fraternal lodges, and other black groups that picked up the students' extra costs. "In short," wrote Franklin, "blacks subsidized the system of segregation." Based on the actions of the African Americans who pushed for this educational aid and the students who received it, however, the alternative (i.e., no state financial assistance) seemed worse.
Of the two states from which black graduates in the music department at the University of Iowa came during the first few decades of this practice, Oklahoma first offered money for graduate and professional study out of state (although Fuller and the first students who used such funds came from the other state, Texas). Approved prior to fall 1935 university classes, Oklahoma Senate Bill 203 provided for payment of tuition, fees, and travel expenses of graduate study in educational institutions outside of Oklahoma to residents who could not attend the state university. Although the legislation made no mention of race, its reference to article XIII, section 3, in the state's constitution that forbade integrated education clarified the racially specific intentions of the bill. Eligible applicants for the award had to submit proof of their "good moral character and of ability to pursue the courses of study." The new law stated that the amount of money available to each student should mirror the amount that out-of-state students paid for in-state tuition in Oklahoma and was not to exceed a total distribution of $5,000 for either of the first two years of implementation. Over the fifteen years that funds were awarded, the funds reached more than 1,900 students, who individually each year received "somewhere between $111 and $170." According to historian Zella J. Black Patterson, in 1946 the state made payments to 22 music students and a total of 149 black students. By the mid-1940s the state was allocating a total of $25,000 a year but had doubled this amount by the late 1940s to ensure that all eligible students were funded.
Advocates for out-of-state graduate and professional school funds in Texas experienced slower legislative success. Two years after Oklahoma passed its education bill, the Texas State Inter-Racial Commission and the State Association of Colored Teachers sponsored a similar bill in the Texas Legislature, where the Committee on Education considered it. Dr. Richard T. Hamilton, chair of the Committee on Civics and Public Welfare of the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce, spearheaded efforts on the bill's behalf. He and his committee members attempted to get "an influential member" of the state house and senate to introduce the bill, but no one complied. The group instead paid a lobbyist, who succeeded in bringing the bill before the legislature. In a letter to NAACP special counsel Charles Houston, Hamilton asserted, "We have aroused considerable white public sentiment in favor of this legislation." Emphasizing reasons for optimism, Hamilton continued:
Every newspaper in Dallas has editorially endorsed it, also a number of outstanding educators in white colleges throughout the State, notably among these is the President of the University of Texas who holds advanced views toward Negro education. He went so far as to say to our committee that were it not for provisions in the State Constitution, forbidding, he would favor the admission of Negro students to the University of Texas for graduate and professional work.
In spite of the favorable media attention and support, along with the endorsement of Texas Governor James V. Allred and the efforts of noted white antilynching activist Jessie Daniel Ames, who met with legislators and spoke on the bill, the bill failed. This initial failure represented only a temporary setback: by 1939, the state was allocating $25,000 for out-of-state schooling. It was during this time that African American students from Texas arrived at Iowa to study music. Oscar Fuller, Lois Towles McNeely, and Edison Holmes Anderson completed their graduate degrees by the early 1940s, and the new scholarship aid presumably factored into their decision to enroll. "Southern states are becoming more and more conscious of their duty toward raising the educational level of its people," wrote McNeely in her MA thesis. "In a measure Negro state institutions are feeling the effects of this change in attitudes, and more and more state funds are being appropriated for Negro education." Herbert Mells, a professor at Langston University, arrived around the time the Texans left and would become the first African American from Oklahoma to earn a graduate degree in music at Iowa and the second with a PhD.
While black leaders and even some white allies in Texas and Oklahoma pushed for educational bills to redress an inequality created by segregation, many whites only supported such legislation as a means for maintaining segregation. This change in perspective occurred when civil rights leaders made headway toward an even bigger goal: the desegregation of graduate and professional education. For years, civil rights advocates and some segregationists recognized the legal vulnerability of "separate but equal" education given the inequality between majority institutions and those serving black students. The NAACP's strategy toward dismantling segregated education rested on how such inequality violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Charles Houston's friend and fellow Harvard Law School graduate, Nathan Margold, recommended that the NAACP use the court system to force southern border states to either create equal institutions and provide equal services or to end segregation. Houston's legal advisory committee proceeded under "Margold's theory that the white establishment was not willing to pay for truly equal separation."
The 1938 US Supreme Court ruling in favor of Lloyd Gaines, an African American man who had been denied admittance to the University of Missouri Law School because of his race, emerged as a prominent early test of this strategy. Thurgood Marshall, who was trained at Howard University Law School and hired at the NAACP by Houston, represented Gaines. Marshall had previously argued successfully in front of Maryland's supreme court, which struck down segregation at the University of Maryland Law School in Pearson v. Murray. In Gaines v. Canada, the US Supreme Court ruled that Missouri had to either admit Gaines into the previously segregated law school or create a comparable law school for black students. Missouri chose the latter option, creating a law school at Lincoln University. Gaines mysteriously disappeared in the months following this ruling, thereby derailing Houston's plans to attack the legitimacy of the new law school in the courts. "With Gaines," asserts historian Gary Lavergne, "the idea of using out-of-state scholarships to meet the test of separate but equal legally ended forever and everywhere in the United States."
This outcome did not prevent southern states, including Oklahoma and Texas, from continuing to fund these scholarships. For segregationists, offering such funds to black graduate students potentially reduced the likelihood of new cases challenging the state's Jim Crow laws. African Americans understood that their efforts toward desegregation would be arduous, if not perilous; having access to state money that lightened the burden of out-of-state study made it that much easier to avoid the more difficult and dangerous path. But the strongest support for out-of-state funds came from predominantly black proponents of desegregation and those open to such change, such as University of Texas president H. Y. Benedict and University of Oklahoma president George Lynn Cross. The spirit in which well-positioned whites such as Benedict and Cross supported such appropriations likely signaled to black strategists that the time was ripe to challenge "separate but equal" education in the courts.
Excerpted from Invisible Hawkeyes by Lena M. Hill, Michael D. Hill. Copyright © 2016 University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Hidden Names and Complex Fates: Black Students Who Integrated the University of Iowa Lena M. Hill 1
Chapter 1 "Excellent Work and Superior Traits of Personality": Composing an Integrated Music Department Brian Halhtoos 17
Testimonial 1 I Never Thought of Myself as an Outsider Dianna Penny 45
Chapter 2 The Fine Art of Representing Black Heritage: Elizabeth Catlett and Iowa, 1938-1940 Kathleen A. Edwards 51
Testimonial 2 A Different Kind of Beauty Contest Dora Martin Berry 67
Chapter 3 Staging Authentic African American Character: Regionalism, Race, and UI Theater Lena M. Hill 75
Testimonial 3 Iowa Was One More Step toward My Future Lois Eichaker 103
Chapter 4 Obscured Traditions: Blacks at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, 1940-1965 Michael D. Hill 107
Testimonial 4 Going the Distance Theodore "Ted" Wheeler 135
Chapter 5 "Tireless Partners and Skilled Competitors": Seeing UI's Black Male Athletes, 1934-1960 Richard M. Breaux 141
Testimonial 5 The Two-Edged Sword Don Tucker 169
Conclusion: An Indivisible Legacy: Iowa and the Conscience of Democracy Michael D. Hill 175
About the Contributors 187