The untold story of the Harvard class of ’63, whose Black students fought to create their own identities on the cusp between integration and affirmative action.
In the fall of 1959, Harvard recruited an unprecedented eighteen “Negro” boys as an early form of affirmative action. Four years later they would graduate as African Americans. Some fifty years later, one of these trailblazing Harvard grads, Kent Garrett, would begin to reconnect with his classmates and explore their vastly different backgrounds, lives, and what their time at Harvard meant.
Garrett and his partner Jeanne Ellsworth recount how these eighteen youths broke new ground, with ramifications that extended far past the iconic Yard. By the time they were seniors, they would have demonstrated against national injustice and grappled with the racism of academia, had dinner with Malcolm X and fought alongside their African national classmates for the right to form a Black students’ organization.
Part memoir, part group portrait, and part narrative history of the intersection between the civil rights movement and higher education, this is the remarkable story of brilliant, singular boys whose identities were changed at and by Harvard, and who, in turn, changed Harvard.
Former NBC News producer Garrett reflects on his 1959 arrival at Harvard University as one of "the largest group of Negroes admitted to a freshman class to date" and interviews 14 of his 17 fellow African-American classmates about their experiences in this vivid and perceptive debut. A Brooklyn native, Garrett spent his childhood summers in South Carolina, where his relatives conveyed "a visceral sense of fear" around local whites. At Harvard, Garrett's classmates included Wesley Williams, a member of the "elite Negro world" of Washington, D.C., and George Jones from segregated Muskogee, Okla. "Almost from the first day," Garrett writes, "we Negroes started noticing each other, making mental note of who and where the brothers were." He describes eating at the "Black Table" in the freshman dining hall and attending house parties in nearby Roxbury, as well as Malcolm X's 1961 campus visit to debate the merits of integration. Reconnecting with his classmates 50 years later, Garrett notes many educational and professional achievements, including the founding of the African and Afro American Association of Students at Harvard, but laments that their lives have been "bracketed" by Jim Crow and Trumpism. He and coauthor Ellsworth eloquently describe the pressures these students were under, drawing an insightful portrait of the limits of racial progress in America. Expertly blending memoir and cultural history, this outstanding retrospective deserves to be widely read.