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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Asa T. Spaulding, April 13, 1979. Interview C-0013-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Academic excellence breaks down racial barriers

A mentor at NYU encouraged Spaulding to pursue a career as an actuary, going so far as to persuade his employers at North Carolina Mutual that they needed his services. He began his studies at the University of Michigan in 1930. There, his academic accomplishment broke down racial barriers and allowed him to forge friendships with whites.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Asa T. Spaulding, April 13, 1979. Interview C-0013-1. 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

ASA T. SPAULDING:
My last class in the afternoon was from three to four. And he was my instructor, my professor. He was a parttime teacher there, while he was a consulting actuary for some of the insurance companies. And he also wrote books and published them. As a matter of fact I used one of his texts of casualty insurance down at the Wall Street Division. And I had done well in his courses. So he focused his attention on me.
WALTER WEARE:
His name was Ackerman?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
Yeah. S-A-U-L. Saul B. Ackerman. A-C-K-E-R-M-A-N. And this was about three weeks before school closed. He made an announcement that he was going to do something that he had never done before, and it was to have exemptions from the final examination. And there were four students who qualified for exemption. And he read the names, and I was one of them. And when the class was over, he asked me what I was going to do after class. I told him I had to go to the post office; I had to be there at six o'clock. He said, "Well, I'd like very much for you to drop by my office. There's a matter I'd like to discuss with you." I said I'd be happy to. So, I went in and he asked me to be seated. His first remark was: he knew he had learned of my connection with North Carolina Mutual, of my working there during the summer. He had had that much interest to get some background on me. And I guess being a black student and all, he wanted to get some background on it, too. He said, "I'd like to take you and make you the first Negro actuary in America. You can work in my office and get your practical experience, and I'll teach you the theory on the job." In other words, on the job training. The thought had never entered my mind. Because I was there to be a CPA, and the courses I had taken were to prepare for that. This presented a challenge. And I always responded favorably to challenges, and I said, "Gee, I appreciate that. But the officers of North Carolina Mutual are expecting me to come back there the first of June, full time." He said, "Well, I'll be glad to go down there and talk with them, and tell them what I'd like to do." Well, without belaboring it, I mentioned it to them, and they said they'd be glad to have him come. And he came. Took the train, came down in the morning, and went back that afternoon. Met with the exec. committee and told them just what I told you. Of course, C.C. Spaulding was president then, and they expressed their proper appreciation and so forth, for the interest he had shown, and they'd take it under consideration, and hear from them. So, Mr. Spaulding went over to Raleigh to see the insurance commissioner, Dan C. Boney. Well, there was a question in their minds whether or not, if I went and got the training, I'd be able to practice it. Because North Carolina Mutual was operating principally in Southern states. And the actuary society being a closed society anyhow, whether it would be time wasted or not. So, anyway, Mr. Spaulding went over there, and they met with him. And he was very open and very fair about it. He said, "Your company has reached a point in its development, where it needs its own actuary." See, up to that time, we had used all consulting actuaries, all white consulting actuaries. As a matter of fact, the actuary for the Durham Life Insurance Company, E.T. Burr, was consulting actuary at that time. He had been the actuary for the insurance department before he went to the Durham Life Insurance Company. And he and Mr. F.B. Dilts, who was then actuary for the Home Security, had come to the Home Security from the insurance department. And he was a consulting actuary, too. So he told him, "Your company has reached the point where it needs its own resident actuary. If you have anyone in your organization who has the appitude for it, and the interest in it, by all means I would recommend that you encourage it. The only difference I would make was, instead of him following the course that has been suggested, that he go to the University of Michigan." Because the University of Michigan was one of the two schools in the country then that was preparing, scholastically, the actuaries. See, some of the insurance companies, like Metropolitan, were training their own actuaries. They'd take a liberal arts person, finish his liberal arts course, and bring him in there and carry him through [unclear] . It so happened at that time, that the actuary for the North Carolina Insurance Department was a Michigan product, too. So he had a double reason for suggesting the University of Michigan. "If he goes there, he'll get all the formal training and everything else, and will do it quicker, than going through this on-the-job training. Naturally it'll be to the benefit of the company to get it as soon as possible." So he came on back and told me what had happened. And I applied to Michigan immediately—the next day. And fortunately I was accepted, and went there in September.
WALTER WEARE:
This is what year now?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
1930. I finished at NYU first of June, 1930. I borrowed the money to go there, with the understanding that it would be deducted from my salary.
WALTER WEARE:
The money was borrowed from the Mutual?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
From the Mutual. And it would be deducted from my salary each month until it was paid off. I signed bills receivable for it. So that was it. Now: my experience at Michigan. I remember the first morning I walked into my class. There was a young man from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I was sitting in the seat next to the aisle on one side; he was sitting in the seat next to aisle opposite me. I walked in and took my seat. I was the only black in the class. He gave me his back. And I saw what he did. But I paid no attention to it. The first week, of course, they'd make the assignments. The course was in mathematics. And the method was to have you go to the board and put your problem and the solution to it on the board. Of course, it couldn't have been a better course for me (laughter) than mathematics. I would always be amongst the first to get the problem solved. And you know, within six weeks, that guy was studying with me. And I remember—I'm trying to remember whether it was a course in finite differences or what—but there was a problem there. And the equation went all the way across the blackboard on that wall. And he was calling it out to me, the problem, as I was putting it on the board. And I had it, and I started with the solution. And he stopped me. He said, "Mr. Spaulding, I hope you will pardon my interruption, but I have a confession to make. This is the first time that I have ever had anything to do, or have met, a Negro, except the maids in our home."
WALTER WEARE:
This is the professor saying this?
ASA T. SPAULDING:
No. This is the fellow from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Student. And he said, "I just am so embarrassed. You know, I wish you could go home with me Christmas and could meet my parents." And so forth, and so on. And from then on, the ice was broken, I mean all the bars were down. And the other fellow was from Amarillo, Texas. Art Roberts. We got to be such chums.