tv History Bookshelf Kent Garrett Jeanne Ellsworth The Last Negroes at... CSPAN April 27, 2021 5:32am-6:20am EDT
are with us today courtesy of tom and margaret morse. mr. garrett graduated from harvard in 1963 he has had a 30-year emmy and peabody award-winning career in television news and documentaries. jean ellsworth has a phd in social foundations of education from the university of buffalo and has devoted her life to teaching from elementary school to prisons to universities. the authors live in roxbury, new york please give a warm savannah. welcome to kent garrett and jean ellsworth.
well, thank you for inviting us and well, as you know, the book is called the last negroes at harvard and 61 years ago harvard admitted 18 negroses, and that's what we recall then and we were the largest number at that time ever admitted to harvard. we were from all different parts of the country north south east and west and we came from different economic and socio-economic backgrounds and we here before they had been letting admitting blacks to harvard but only two or three at a time and most guys would just go and do their four years and then get out of town leave cambridge but for us it was different in the sense that we had numbers the 18 and we could form an individual racial identity as well as a group
identity and we were able to become actually a force for change at harvard and harvard. we changed harvard and harvard changed us and that's essentially what the book is about and it's about our four years there. and what happened before and and and after harvard we want significant thing we did is we formed the first black student. a group organization at harvard. and again, we were 18 and the whole class was 1100 so we were like one point five nine five percent of the class. so it was you know, wasn't that significant anyway? so i'll tell you about my life a little bit real fast. my parents are from were born in south carolina and in the 20s, and they went to school in aiken got high school degrees from
aiken south carolina and my dad they were part of the great migration coming up to the north. they came up here in about 1941 and i was born in 42 and we lived in brooklyn new york in the housing federal housing projects. my dad has always had three or four jobs and he ultimately became a subway motorman up in new york. i have a sister who's four. is younger and she we both did pretty well in school and i went to boys' high school in brooklyn new york. and from there. i went on harvard after harvard. not really realizing what i wanted to do. i went to medical school for a year, which i really hated. and so that and i was sort of part of my mother's my son the doctor syndrome. so, you know, we didn't do that. and from there i went into what i do i went to. actually, you know, i'm still
sort of looking for a calling and i went to advertising. i worked at the company called ted bates in new york and making ultimately ended up making tv commercials which was fun and interesting and i learned about film and tv and writing commercials in all that but ultimately is not that great for the mind. so i found something else to do and that was black journal which was a journalism, and that was my calling black journal was the first black nationwide network black show in the country and it was by four and about blacks and i worked there for about three or four years and it was you know, groundbreaking show and after that i went to my my life became sort of series of tenure things. i worked at cbs with dan rather for 10 years and then nbc news broke off for tom brokaw for 10
years. and then this is about 1997. i got really tired of news and in many ways the news was changing in that it became more focused on ratings and marketing and stuff, so i left that and decided. had my sort of back to the land moment and i went upstate new york and milk dairy cows for 10 years. we had these asher scottish cows which were really great and so i did that for 10 years milking twice a day. but what happens there? is that as you get older the cows realize you're getting older too and they sort of take advantage of you. so i got out of that and what happened one day harvard sends out to all its domestic alumni this thing. will harvard magazine every two months or so. and most people get it and they look at a few of the articles and then go right to the
obituary to see who surviving in your class. so i did that one day and real and saw that a guy who i'd been in i guess he'd been about two years ahead of us had died and i started thinking about what happened to the 18 guys, you know in in my class and who had what they had done who had been happy who had been sad etc and i knew i'd been in touch with two or three of them, but i didn't know what happened to the others and so we decided to do a gene would do a documentary would be a good idea to documentary as to to what happened with these guys. that's where i came in. i didn't know kent when he sold the cows i didn't get to do any milking but i too i was newly retired from the state university of new york and wondering what i was going to do. so we were both also single we
lived about 40 minutes away from each other but chances are we never would have met except for what online dating? so we both put our little profiles up there and i am not lying harvard the word harvard in kent's profile. yeah, okay. he said would i like to have dinner and i said yes and at that first date in 2007 we talked about this project. and he told me he wanted to know what happened to his classmates and i know we had a lovely dinner and i had about an hour drive home and i was thinking i didn't know if we'd have a second date, but i knew he had a great story. and my background is history of education. so i knew i was thinking a little mental calculations. i knew these guys were born in the early 40s. they came from all over the country. therefore they had lived under the shadow of jim crow.
probably they went to some of them at least went to segregated schools. they just started high school when brown versus board of education was decided. and i figured they had some pretty interesting stories to tell so we did have a second date and more dates after that. and before i knew it he was teaching me how to use a boom mic and we got in his car and went around the country. we live in as kent said in upstate new york. so we started with kent's best friend and roommate at harvard who lived about two hours away. and we just kept widening the circle and looking for the guys and little by little we did it took a long time the you know, maybe eight or ten of them being harvard grad. they had a lot of you know letters after their names and they had high profile jobs. so we googled them and they came right up others were more difficult. but and sadly we did learn that four of the man had died before
we even started the project, but then we went and looked for their widows and their children and friends and you know started to a enough probably data for a 2000 page book and the years went by. but we did. yes gather some great life stories. and of course everybody always asks us i bet you had some surprises along the way. oh, yeah. ken's going to you about a couple. yeah, well, i mean the challenge actually in doing the video and the challenge in writing. the book has been that there's been so many characters, you know having to deal with 18 entities, but i'll tell you about four of them that were really surprises to me well in terms of figuring out who was who we would be interviewing they had taken these little black and white photos of us 50 years ago in you know in the in the class book the freshman class book and i use that to
figure out who who i would be interviewing because i didn't know, you know some of the guys and we we assume that there were 17 and we actually had a sort of a title for the video. we would call it the black the harvard black 17 and we the harvard class is 63 they put at it every i guess every quarter a newsletter to all of the people in the class and they we put a note in there saying that we were working on this video project and we'd like to if you had any funny stories or anecdotes about the black eyes in our class. let us know so we got a note back from a guy saying hey wait there might be 18 or maybe 19 or 20 guys in your class that were negro as we were called back then so i naturally panicked about that having based this project on all 17. so the question was how do i
find out if somebody is black or not? so being an intrepid reporter i decided to just make the call so i would call one name i got was a guy named jerry sikundi so i called jerry and we had a little small talk and at the end i said by the way, are you black and he said yeah, i am. yeah, so that was one down. and so i had two more to go, but i talked to jerry when i talked to him, you know when we were doing the movie. he said that he looks very light skin. i mean he's very difficult to tell that he's really black. it turns out that his mom was from trinidad and his dad was jewish and they were out of out of washington and we'd kind of all forgotten about him after that first day. but anyway, he told me that he he went around back then saying i'm hi. i'm jerry sikundi and i'm a negro and he would say that right up as soon as he met you because he didn't want to have to deal with the you know,
derogatory negro jokes or the derogatory jewish vote. wanted to kill two birds with one stone, i guess could say and the interesting thing about him is that he lives in california now and he has two sons and he has and it's a sort of a study in the complexities of race in the sense that he has two sons and one son looks white and identifies his black and the other son. he has looks black but identifies as white and they're all very happy. i mean, it's a happy family, but that's how it worked out. another surprise lowell davidson was a guy in our class who was a vet avalon card pianist pianist and he became a protege of one that coleman the jazz musician and they did an album lowell did one album called the lowell davidson trio and when we got looked at the album the drummer
on the on the album was a guy named milford graves who i'd gone to boys high school. and had written the subways of new york and buses of new york every day for about three years. so it was very very surprised to see him and it was nice to have so we did at an interviewed him. he was out in bennington college and that was a surprise and the third surprise. was that one of our classmates was gay and he had had the suppress that his whole time at harvard and he was from atlanta and he tells in the book you'll see he tells some sort of harrowing stories about being in the closet at that time at harvard and how it how do we wanted to sort of keep that away from us that sort of thing and the third the fourth i guess surprise which is not in the book. but is that one of our classmates was while we were there worked for the cia and his
job was to you know, keep an eye on us and we valve we vowed not to it's not in the book and we vowed not to tell his name. so those were some of the surprises. of course along the way there are discoveries being an academic myself. i couldn't wait to get to the harvard archives. and so we started looking for everything we could find in the archives to the point of we paged through the harvard crimson for every day, and it was a daily newspaper for the year before they arrived right through when the last guy graduated. but also i found in the archives to student papers that had been done about the 18 so i know that the guys at the time we they said well what what are we doing here? is this an experiment at poverty? are we anomalies are we
curiosities well to these at least these two students. they were anthropological specimens. so one of those studies was done by. senior at the time they were freshmen. he amassed. an unbelievable amount of data for an undergraduate paper, especially he submitted them to a 29 page questionnaire and interviews and he titled his paper rising sons of darkness. so yes cringing was our main activity during reading these things and but probably more interesting was a paper done by a white class, but the first guy was white this guy was too a white classmate of theirs. so kent's best friend at harvard. his freshman roommate was a guy named ron blau and he was a white guy from new jersey and it
actually was jack kent's roommates idea that ron do this paper and he interviewed. all 18 of the guys at some length and ask of course the questionnaire. so it was fascinating to me for a couple of reasons first of all. it was there was enough detail and enough quotes in ronnie's paper to for us to find out some things that the guys said about race at the time not after 50 years of you know change and fogging up of memory as it will on you. but what they said about themselves and their race at the time. equally important to me was i got to see what a typical student in 1959 would have read in sociology classes about quote the negro and the negro problem and that was pretty hair racing. actually, i think for both of us
it was quite disturbing. i mean for one thing just to think that can't for example was a social relations major. so knowing what? ideas were in the backs of the minds or what assumptions their professors had of them was creepy and i'm going to just give you a couple quotes to raise your hair about it. so for instance in one of the one of the books that ron blau quotes it was called the mark of oppression. by cantona and oversea, obviously, well, you know well respected sociologist. they said that their mothers were often loveless tyrants their fathers frequently either seclusive taciturn violent and punitive or submissive to the mother.
the marriages were multiple and discordant their families unsettled and their communities devoid of genuine religiosity. and he sums up in the end of the book by saying the negro has no possible basis for a health. of self-esteem and every incentive for self-hatred luckily ron in you know, because possibly because he actually knew the guys and lived with them. he said several times in the paper. these guys don't seem to fit this stereotype. unfortunately, ron's professor who was reisman, i forget his first name. david reisman author of the lonely crowd he tried to argue back with we all so had the comments that reesement had made on the paper and he tried to argue ron out of his position. it was it was upsetting to read but you know kent's going to tell you a little more about the paper now.
yeah, first off ronnie was blau was really a nice guy. we all liked them and as you know when college kids have to do a paper you just have to do a paper. so we were helping him out to do his paper and we're sort of kind of amused by it because his first suggestion was that he do a paper on the social life of the freshman negroes at harvard in our class and it was suggested that he would interview us during the week and then go out with us on the weekends to parties and take notes and and observe them like that. i mean the problem with that was that if he had chose to i mean he would have. perhaps gotten a couple of paragraphs given the dearth and the lack of social life that we had and i'll tell you about that later so good thing you didn't do that. but the thing he did do question and again, it's very different when you read something now, you
know in 2020 or 2019 versus 1959 and he had one question which we really, you know, didn't think when i read about it now i get ticked off about it but back then it wasn't the question was if you had a chance to be born again. would you want to be born negro or white and he asked everybody that and when i'm reading this a few years ago, i was very happy to see that everybody had said yes, we wanted to be born reborn as negroes one guy. freddy said that he would he said yeah if i were born white it would be less trouble but being negro is nice and then one guy he'll be armstrong football players said that he would. he thought about it and they said he'd like to try it for a year and see what happens, you know, so, you know, he yeah, i mean and the other thing that we set up there we had the i guess
it's ubiquitous or inevitable black table. i mean since there were 18 of us and the way harvard set up is that we all live in the yard and we have the freshman dining hall everybody each together, and we would have a table where we pretty much sit and eat together and for me it was kind of a refuge in a sense that i could sit with other blacks and we could talk about you know girls i guess so we could talk about culture we could talk about it was a where you could you didn't have to sort of speak the king's english you could you know, let your hair down as such and as a matter of fact, there's a guy there's a contemporary comedian named dion cole who has this riff where he talks about how blacks who kind of maneuver in the white world have to manage their blackness because they don't want to you know, get
people afraid or scared and that sort of thing. so i mean in many ways the black table was a place where you could go during the day and not have to manage your negroness and not have to worry about what you said and that's sort of thing and as far as dating goes, i mean we there was not much dating at all up there and the attitude of the harvard was that you know, we will they sort of like to keep keep the sexes apart and they had these mixers which everybody would go to but everybody hated. i mean the girls and and the guys and and that sort of thing they didn't mean at that kind of mixing. yeah, right sometimes fine. one black girl from the community there was one black woman a radcliffe at the time right? and you know, she couldn't have 18 dates. so the but i mean what we would do in terms of the dating thing
would be if the nearby colleges would put out, you know, bruce put out catalogs of their of the women in the college and every catalog there'd be a you know names of people who with no pictures we'd want to find out if this girl black or is she a negro and we would have friends at college. let's say for guy woman was from saint louis. we'd go to one of our friends from saint louis and say listen. look at this name and look at this address. and is there any chance that this woman might be black and she would say he would say nah not not living in that neighborhood, you know, so that that was our part of our system is to have it going. but what happened though? as we got to our junior senior years throughout the nation, i mean the whole civil rights movement was was exploding and kids here in the south were getting beat up and punished and
thrown in jail. so we felt that we had to try and do something up there. i mean and we were in kind of an ideal idealistic bubble. i mean, it's a very was a very liberal place if there's any kind of if there was any kind of sort of racism and was really benign in many ways in the sense that what we did get is like a lot of questions about what is it like to be a negro and then what is it like and then sort of what do you people want kind of question and those got tiring after a while and and after a while some of the guys stop asking us that as well. so what we did do is that we invited malcolm x to to come up, and he talked to us at elliott house. and that was a really mind-blowing for all of us in the sense that we were starting to think at that point that maybe integration was not going to work and maybe we should be more separatists and get into
the black power thing and that that changed a lot of minds and then we decided that we wanted to set up a black student organization and and again, we didn't have any particular radical ideas. we just wanted a place where we could all club where we could meet together and invite speakers up and talk and maybe publish a magazine or something and it would be called the the african the association of african and afro-american students and membership would be limited to people who are of african or african or african-american heritage. and we assume that it would be find that the university would agree. but when we propose it to them, they said no because they felt it was reverse discrimination and we claimed we were really upset about that because harvard
has these things called final clubs which are sort of social eating clubs where aristocratic families go like john f. kennedy all the roosevelt. all the presidents have been in them and they don't let in they don't let in women. they don't let in jewish folks. they don't let in people who have money, but if it's new money and whatever that means, but if it was new money you couldn't get in so we claim that what about those and they said well, they don't put that in their charter so, you know, they just base it on you know, who they picked the join and they wanted us to say, okay. well you guys take that out of your charter and then you can do whatever you want to do and we refuse to do that and it was a whole long drawn out fight which is in the book and you know, we ended up sort of winning winning kind of in the in the end.
okay. well that organization still exists. it's gone through a couple of name changes about five years after kent graduated. they were the group that kind of stormed the administration building and demanded more black faculty more black. students recruitment and the african-american studies and as i say it still exists today. and the other i guess we don't have much more time, but but to okay one thing is that i mean again, it was a very innocent time in many ways. and for example, i'll tell you a story one of the guys freddy easter one of a classmates was in the dining hall one time and white guy came up from minnesota and said listen, can i sit with you? and the rule at that time was it when anyone asked to sit at your table? you said? yes, and the sky sat down and he
said i've never talked to a negro before can i talk to you and he proceeded to ask freddy really reasonable questions and and it was a pleasant. you know pleasant interchange and they become good became good friends, and he invited fred to a lot of hockey games and and that sort of thing and it was that kind of innocence. that was also going on at the time and finally now finally it's you know people we part of the book is to find out where we fit into the historical arc of the civil rights movement and what our place was and i think we when we get down with it that finally look at it, you know, we sort of did our part and trying to move the movement forward freddy has a good quote where he says that he thinks that we all you know, because we're off our pressure was that if we all messed up maybe harvard wouldn't
let any more blacks in maybe they would say this is experiment that didn't work and this black community has no nothing to contribute to the harvard community, but we feel that we again a football analogy that we carry the ball. we didn't fumble and i like to think that we got closer to the post but unfortunately those goal posts keep kind of changing and going further and further away. so that's that's part of the problem. so if you have questions we've been asked to remind you to come to the microphone at in the middle aisle. hi in kent you touched on this but you know the question if you could have dinner with anyone who would it be mine is malcolm x and so could you elaborate on your dinner with him what it was like?
oh, yeah. it was a great dinner. i mean he was charismatic. i mean he was actually charming and he was very different in many ways from the rhetoric that you would heard that he he would give and that he would. and i think at that time he was very religious too. i mean, he was really a great man. i mean and at the dinner what happened there was it was a time when there was controversy about martin luther king and martin luther king's womanizing. i mean as bit has had been exposed by i guess the fbi and that sort of thing and a big argument came up at the dinner about that between malcolm x and the faculty sponsor the guy who was sponsoring the dinner and it got so heated that they were going to call down to martin luther king in atlanta and and resolve it but but malcolm's
showed a real bunch of a lot of grace and just you know, smooth the down and yeah, i mean i left there on fire sort of after that dinner. you know, how you 18 chosen? and what was the process that you went through? yeah, but automatic is you apply there when? chosen by schools or how did that happen? okay, she asks whether we know how these 18 were chosen in particular how kent was chosen. i'll tell you a little bit about the 18 because we did we wanted to answer the question for ourselves was this some kind of early form of affirmative action affirmative action. the phrase wouldn't come around for a couple more years. but yes, it was harvard had or a couple of key men who you read about in the book in the admissions decided that it was the right thing to do and they
said about to make this happen. they one of the gentleman was on the board of an organization called the national scholarship service and fun for negro students, which was founded in the early 1950s. so working with that organization, they sent out feelers and they provided counseling some of the guys in kent's class were located in their high schools, and they were sent to a year or even two of of a fine new england prep school to get them ready, but for we don't know exactly what happened with kent because he doesn't remember and but i i suspect that nisfins or somebody admissions at harvard. how to connection with boys high because it wasn't just can't there were two blacks from his class that were admitted. you want to talk? yeah, i don't remember if i was
recruited. i think i know i was recruited by dartmouth, but i'm not sure about the harvard if there was but i know we did apply in all that and the big thing at harvard and i must say that they are really the good guys in this drama. i mean they were really ahead of the time and they were really trying to do the right thing and they really believed in diversity. i mean, so for example in my three three years i lived with i was in a suite with david rockefeller and another guy spencer borden from the borden. i guess it's milk company folks and they their theory was that i would make rockefeller a better banker and i'm not quite sure what they felt he would make me better at but but you know, maybe i would understand why it's more or the system or whatever, but but they were really the good people in this in this journey. i was wondering if harvard is tuition was wanted you to
succeed as you got out in 1963. did they try to get jobs for the 18 and get you in good spots to continue this success. if you go to harvard, you don't need any help. saying no. that's the thing. i mean it does give you an edge up. i mean what happened is like when i went into to advertising, i mean most of the and even even now if you look at some of the people in tv, i mean news, they're all from a lot of from ivy's ivy league schools, and it does give you a leg up even if it's sort of subconscious sometime, but you know if you like the 18 or did you find it they all had a nice start in a career? uh, yeah. oh, yeah. yeah, they all had nice thoughts some what swim went to law school. some are were pretty successful on wall street one gave up wall street and became an anglican priest and in saint thomas more than half of them continued to in some vein work for civil
rights and you know most were very successful in whatever field they chose. right, but not all there are some sad stories, too. thanks so much. i'm wondering after you spent four years in this sort of idealistic bubble as you call it. what was it like to go out in the real world? i mean it it had to have been very different than your experience at harvard. uh, yeah, i mean going out the real world. yeah, i think it was it was very different. but i mean they did prepare you i mean the thing about harvard is that you? they really emphasize critical thinking and you sort of challenge everything. so that really that was i think the best preparation for me in terms of going out into the world. you still walked out into a world where there was awful discrimination, right?
that's true. that's true. but i mean, i think you feel that you can deal with it. i mean you feel better approaching it. yeah, i mean one one when you feel that you were able to compete and with the big guys and the big guys are these, you know lead like the rockefellers and the leaders of industry and all that. so it gives you a certain confidence that you might not have had if you had gone to not gone to harvard put it that way. you told stories of sort of being studied by students when you were there. there were two studies to write their senior papers or whatever research papers and you were doing yet another study of this group. did you get any resistance did people not want to be studied or was everyone very willing to participate in your project in terms of the book project? and oh no, i mean the thing is they were they were really happy. i mean we started the what
happened with the video project. we got a grant from a foundation mass humanities foundation to do a short documentary that we'd use to raise money to do a longer feature in documentary. so we went out we want sure whether these guys whether everybody still had their marbles and everybody you know, who was who was failing and who was but they were all articulate they had a lot to say and you know, i had a lot to say i mean, they'd been you know living black in america for like, you know, seven decades so they they had a lot to say. when one of kent's classmates who preferred not to be videotaped and i think he eventually responded to a number of questions we had about his life, but he preferred not to be in the documentary. this is an easy question.
um as freshmen where you all in the same house? and what did they still not move you to full houses until your sophomore year. that we were well harvard nowadays, there's freshman living and then you move into a house. oh, yeah. no, we were like the way was set up then and it's the freshman. they're about eight or nine freshmen dormitories kind of surrounded around the yard, right and each of us lived in some of us lived in there were five in my freshman dormitory five negroes and it was spread around but where we all would meet with the freshman dining hall right and then after your freshman year you moved to the houses and they're about 10 of those and that's really they're like little colleges and you know, that's where we would yeah harvard still does interesting things with room. my daughter had a muslim roommate from pakistan and an orthodox jewish roommate from from boston and there was a
cuban girl who was jewish and then my daughter is blonde hair and blue eyes and the four of them. it was interesting because but that's what i wondered when they blocked. they went in different directions. they didn't they didn't achieve any sort of balance by living. that way, but i wondered if you all so you had five maybe in a dorm because the lunch table you talk about it. that happens in every high school in america. yeah, right exactly. yeah. well, we we work curious about how harvard you know, they had these 18 negroes. what were they going to do about pairing them up with guys for their experience and what we eventually found out was that ronnie blau the author of the paper. he remembered that he filled out a paper that said would you be willing to room with a number of the of another race and he checked the box, so he ended up with kent's best friend now kent
in his roommate were friends in high school. there was another pair of black men who were friends before they got to or they had met each other beforehand and some of the other guys were matched up with white guys, but then there were two sets of both black guys his roommates. so my little mind is saying, maybe they maybe they got that few people who checked the box you so they find the guys that freshman who checked that box and they say okay we can put him with him and then they ran out. we don't know sadly. i would love to know. did harvard continue this in classes after years? they continue continue recruiting. yeah. yeah. they did they did. i mean, i think that the numbers went down a little bit, but they really exploded in in the 1968-69. i mean when there were 100s
admitted 100 or so, yeah. hey if you were starting harvard in this day and age, would your mission be the same would you still be pushing for civil rights, or would you be more career oriented? no, i think i i think i i think i'd be more into into civil rights. i mean the thing the thing, you know, i'm like 77 now. my dad's like 97 and we're still at their struggling and fighting. i mean, i i thought that by this time in my life things would have we might have been closer to you know, post-racial society and you know, everybody happy and all that, but but that that really has not happened so many of us we have taken our reporting tools down from the shed and into it again like i do a i do a from upstate new york. i do a daily new show from eight
to nine, but it's on the internet too. it's wyox radio dot org on the internet and i'm joined by two tier two my classmates. come on as well. so we're still out there trying to you know, do the civil rights and and essentially it's i shouldn't say civil rights, but it's just to change the consciousness of people and to sort of try and get them to. to change some of their attitudes. i mean we live in in delaware county upstate new york, and it's a very red, it's one of the red. est counties in the state. i mean very magna-oriented and what i do is on the music on the news show. i'll play a lot of country music and so my hope is that someone is driving through the area would hook onto the country music song and then stay the to hear a new story. okay. i don't know if that happens.
when did the documentary morph into a book? when we couldn't raise the money for the documentary, no it really that can't often is ask that question and he'll say well we thought it would make a better book. there was so many we wanted to go in the history, but you know, we were both retired. and as far as i i was like, i'm not spending these years trying to raise money. it's i did that. but do you want to help answer? yeah, i mean, i think i think in many ways i i think it would make it does make for a better book in the sense that you know, we were all in our 70s and it's not like we're running around doing interesting things. i mean, we're sort of you know, i mean, so not very cinematic. right? right. exactly. yeah, not cinematic things. thank you very much.