By Paul H. Mills
When President Barack Obama’s tenure is eventually portrayed in books or the silver screen, an appropriate title could be, “Black Man in the White House.”
Too bad it’s taken. It was claimed 46 years ago by a man with Maine ties, Fred Morrow.
Published in 1963, “Black Man in the White House” was Morrow’s memoir as the first black appointed to an executive position in the White House, as administrative officer for special projects under President Dwight Eisenhower.
The six years he spent with Eisenhower were frustrating for Morrow, due to the failure of his boss to proceed as aggressively as Morrow would have liked on civil rights.
Morrow’s White House career might have made him wish to return to Maine, for it was here this son of a Hackensack, N.J., minister spent nearly four years at Bowdoin College.
Though a family financial emergency caused him to drop out shortly before graduation in 1930, Morrow cherished Bowdoin enough that he accepted its honorary degree in 1970.
Nevertheless, life at Bowdoin was not without its share of racial snubs.
One such episode would be administered to Morrow by none other than Hodding Carter Jr. During an intramural basketball game in Morrow’s freshman year, Carter, as a member of an opposing team, refused to participate because of Morrow’s race. It’s a gesture Carter no doubt later regretted as he championed civil rights as a newspaper publisher in Mississippi.
Morrow is but one of many African-Americans who spent their college years in Maine, well before the dawn of the civil rights era. He was also by no means the first.
That laurel rests on the head of John Brown Russwurm, a Jamaica native raised in Portland. In 1826, Russwurm became, at Bowdoin, the third black to graduate from any American college. A few months later, Russwurm co-founded the country’s first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, in New York City.
Maine’s other colleges also afforded African-Americans opportunities at an early time. A black student enrolled at Colby College in the 1840s, befitting the alma mater of civil rights martyr Elijah Parish Lovejoy, who was killed by an Illinois mob in 1837. Blacks were also welcomed at Bates College in the 1870s, not long after classes started there in the 1860s.
The early admittance of blacks by Maine colleges is somewhat ironic for one of the nation’s most monochromatic states. It’s no surprise that blacks came here, because Southern schools did not provide integrated education.
Which institutions adhered to exclusionary practices, however, is surprising. Though Dartmouth College admitted its first black in 1824, Harvard did not until 1865.
Even more dramatic was Princeton, which barred its doors to African-Americans for more than 120 years after Russwurm was received at Bowdoin. Princeton’s color line was not broken until several months after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s in 1947.
Yet even after most other Northern colleges opened to blacks, Maine’s continued to appeal to African-Americans. Among the first black students arriving at the University of Maine, for example, was Frederico “Dick” Matheas. In 1903, Matheas became one of the first Bangor-area blacks to matriculate at the Orono campus. After earning an engineering degree, Matheas went on to public works and public safety positions in Philadelphia.
But all African-Americans at UMaine did not by any means experience smooth sailing. As with Bowdoin’s Morrow, they would encounter prejudice. During the first part of the century, several blacks seeking teaching degrees from the university encountered obstacles in gaining state certification. This was because so many public school systems that hosted student teachers from the university and other teacher training programs in Maine adhered to policies that precluded blacks from instructional positions.
The 20th century also saw Maine’s institutions of higher education draw blacks from out of state. Arriving at Bates from South Carolina in 1916, for example, was Benjamin Mays. Mays, who graduated with honors in 1920, would later win renown as president from 1940 to 1967 of Atlanta’s Morehouse College. Among his students was a young Martin Luther King Jr., for whom he was also a personal mentor.
Like many of his black predecessors at Bates and other Maine schools, Mays was drawn to the Lewiston institution by a desire to attend college with white students, an experience denied him in the segregated South.
After Mays, other notables include famed broadcaster Bryant Gumbel, who graduated in 1970, and John Jenkins, from the class of 1974. Unlike Mays and Gumbel, however, Jenkins stayed in Maine, where he has become one of its most intrepidly spirited public figures.
The motivational speaker has won accolades as mayor of Lewiston, a Maine state senator and as the current mayor of Auburn.
So far, Jenkins has been the first and only black to hold these positions.
It is, of course, unlikely he will be the last.
Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.