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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Broadus Mitchell, August 14 and 15, 1977. Interview B-0024. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Advocating for the admission of an African American graduate student to Johns Hopkins University

Mitchell argues that the greatest regret of his life was that he did not do more to ensure the admission of an African American graduate student, Edward S. Lewis, to Johns Hopkins University in 1939. Mitchell had already roused negative attention for himself from University administration a few years earlier for his public statement against the lynching of a young black man. With the case of Lewis, Mitchell appealed to the University to admit him as a qualified student and he cited the admission of a black student in the 1890s as compelling evidence in his argument to break the color line. Ultimately, Mitchell feels that his advocacy for this student resulted in his forced resignation. While he regrets not having succeeded in this particular case, he notes that Johns Hopkins began not long after to admit African American graduate students.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Broadus Mitchell, August 14 and 15, 1977. Interview B-0024. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

It is the regret of my life that at Johns Hopkins University I did not pursue to the bitter end the defense of the proposal to admit a qualified Negro graduate student in the Department of Political Economy. He was Edward S. Lewis, who was the Secretary of the Urban League, of which I had been the first President in Baltimore. He was a graduate, I believe, of the University of Chicago and maybe of the Columbia University School of Social Work; I've forgotten. At any rate he was in every way a highly qualified, mature applicant for admission to graduate work. He was a leading black social worker in Maryland, where there's a large negro population with a much higher incidence of poverty, disease, and so on than the whites. And he had been doing graduate work in economics at the University of Pennsylvania, commuting weekends. He could only get weekends, because he was holding his position as Secretary of the Urban League in Baltimore. And this was unsatisfactory and costly and interrupted and so on, so why shouldn't he come to Johns Hopkins where we had every facility? The notion was mentioned first, I think, in a little article that I wrote for the alumni magazine, not mentioning Mr. Lewis because at that time I don't think he was a candidate, but just in general that we oughtn't to draw the color line. And this provoked a reproof from one of the trustees, who wrote me very bitterly that I had made a ridiculous suggestion and so on. And afterwards I think he was the occasion of my leaving the University. I pursued this, and my friend Norman Brown, who later was a distinguished professor of Sanskrit at the University of Pennsylvania, had an interval without an appointment, and he was asked to edit a directory of alumni of Johns Hopkins University, and he worked on that one winter. And we used to have lunch together sometimes, and I mentioned this to Norman. And Norman said that in preparing this directory of alumni, he found that an early student in the University was a black man. Professor Simon Newcomb, who was at the Naval Observatory in Washington, taught also at Johns Hopkins. He was an economist as well as a mathematician and astronomer. And he brought over to Baltimore a young black man who was one of his assistants, one of his mathematical staff. And he said, "Kelly Miller would like to come over and do graduate work here. What would you think of it?" And President Gilman said, "He may find that the environs are a little strange to him. The others are white. But as far as the facilities of the University are concerned, they are open to any qualified applicant." So Kelly Miller came. Well, when Norman was preparing the directory, somebody in the Registrar's office said, "Omit his name from the directory." Norman said, "I'll do no such thing. He was here." He took a master's degree, I think, in mathematics. And so he insisted, as of course he should have. I picked that up and cited that to the authorities of the University as precedent for admitting Ed Lewis. I did better. I think it was a little stroke, really, but it wasn't appreciated. At the time Kelly Miller was there, the University published the class lists of each class in the University. And I went back to the publications at that time and found Kelly Miller's name and, providentially, the name of Professor Robert Gaines, whom I had known as a child at Richmond College - he was Professor of Mathematics there - who was also a student, white. And I knew Gaines; indeed, we are remote cousins. And also, as it happened, both of these men were South Carolinians. One black, one white, both in the same small mathematics department at Johns Hopkins back in the nineties. So I wrote to each of them and said, "What was your experience?" Just such things as you are asking me now. And they wrote back, and they both said that, "Oh, it seemed a little strange at first, but we got to know each other and there was no friction," and Gaines said he and Kelly Miller had studied in each other's rooms and all that kind of thing. So I presented these letters to the Academic Council which was considering the question of admitting Ed Lewis, a black man. [Laughter] I thought that was about as good as you could offer, really, you see, a reversion to the earlier history of the University, which was generous and free. About that time I had a falling out with the President, and I left, but I wish I had stayed and seen it through. As it happened, Ed Lewis made his formal application. It was considered by the authorites of the University and rejected, to their shame. But if I had kept on, I think maybe we could have found a different termination of it. This thing provoked much discussion in the University, as you can think. And the head of my department, Professor Hollander, called me into his office one day, and he said, "I have it from high authority that if you would let this lapse for a year and not insist, and the University then refuses to admit this man to my department, I will resign." Well, that would have brought action, because he was one of the most prominent economists in the country and in Johns Hopkins University. Maybe I should have taken a different turn on it. I said, "In the first place, it's Mr. Lewis's application, not mine. I can't decide for Mr. Lewis what his rights are." Though, as a matter of fact, I suppose if I had urged Ed to let it lie over for a year, he might have done it. The object of the year was, apparently, some had come to Hollander saying they could avoid the impression of having been compelled to do this, that they had thought it over and they did it on their own. I said, "I don't see any reason for waiting a year. What's going to change? And Mr. Lewis needs the training and he wants it, and why not have it here?" So I kept on with it, and the situation became more and more tense, and I think that the President of the University felt that the easiest way to solve it from his point of view was to get rid of me. And so he became so abusive and overbearing and so on that I flared up and resigned. But if I had stayed on, I think we could have worked it out. And Lewis was the best possible candidate, unexceptionable. He later became Secretary of the Greater Urban League of New York and took his doctor's degree at New York University, and he is now Dean of one of the community colleges in New York. This had happened back in 1939, and some time after that Johns Hopkins did admit a black candidate to the Graduate School - she was a schoolteacher in the District of Columbia - in the English Department. And then others came. So that it wasn't futile by any means.