One of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. states “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” It causes me to think about all the hidden contributions people have made through time that have played a major role in constructing who I am.
After working with groups on campus to improve the livelihood of black students, I decided to explore this concept more by taking a class called "The History of Women and Men of African Descent At the University of Pennsylvania." As Penn’s history teaches us much about why our campus functions the way it does, this Black History Month, I will be showcasing the forgotten history of African American students and life at Penn.
This is our history, and as MLK stated, we are not makers of it, but we are made by it. By learning about these hidden figures, we learn more about ourselves and make sure that people who felt forgotten during their time at Penn are not anymore.
Did you know that the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal, John Baxter Taylor, was on Penn’s track team? I didn’t know that until yesterday and I’m on the track team. Between 1900 and 1920 there were a total of 7 black athletes that participated on Penn’s track and field team, most of whom received their degree from the School of Dental Medicine. At that time the Dental School had a quota of two black men per year.
Even though Taylor experienced numerous successes throughout his track career, there is much reason to believe that he experienced racism during his time at Penn. Due to a lack of interviews, archives and mention of Taylor in school publications at the time, much of Taylor’s personal experiences and life is hidden due to his early death at the age of 23.
However, athletes on the track who followed in Taylor’s footsteps were able to share their personal experiences on our campus. William Nelson Cummings (who graduated from Penn in 1919) was the first black captain of a varsity team not just at Penn, but in the Ivy League. As per tradition, every picture of the track team featured in the yearbook shows the team in rows with the captain in the middle. However if you look at the yearbook of 1918, Cummings is nowhere to be found.
Furthermore, many of the varsity letters Cummings had earned during his time at Penn were lost (and oddly recovered) in 1935, as the University refused to acknowledge his successes, similar to that of Taylor. Even though Cummings was named to be the first black dentist to be elected to Omicron Kappa Upsilon, the national dental honor society, he was not invited to the inaugural dinner that confirmed one’s membership to the group.
Another intriguing story that showcases black history at Penn is that of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first black woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the first African-American woman to practice law in Pennsylvania and the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, serving from 1919 to 1923.
Alexander was also a victim of racism on campus. “Let us imagine you came from Outer Space and entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Education” she stated. “You spoke perfect English, but no one spoke to you. Such circumstances made a student either dropout or a survivor so strong that she could not be overcome, regardless of the indignities.”
At the time there were no lunchrooms on campus that served black students, and when Alexander confronted the provost about the issue he stated that, “he did not have the authority or the influence to solve these problems nor did he have the financial means.” In other words, the first thought of the provost when being asked about providing black students with a cafeteria was constructing an entirely new building for blacks, rather than letting black students eat with white students. Alexander stated that “I and all other students of my race suffered through no lunch, if we had no one to prepare sandwiches.”
Later in life, Alexander went on to work on President Harry Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights. She was also the first African American woman appointed as assistant city solicitor for the City of Philadelphia. She eventually went on to serve on President of John F. Kennedy Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in 1963.
While no one spoke to Sadie Alexander during her time at Penn, we must do our duty to make sure her voice is heard today, as it often feels like not much has not changed.
CALVARY ROGERS is a College sophomore from Rochester, N.Y., studying political science. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Cal’s Corner” usually appears every Wednesday.
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