Sonya Bernard-Hollins Publisher Community Voices Magazine Research Focus: The Life of Merze Tate
During the Jim Crow era when African Americans were fighting for the rights to sit on the front of buses and eat in restaurants, Merze Tate was traveling the world. She would become the first African American to graduate from Oxford University in 1935, and go on to earn a Ph.D., at Harvard University; the first African American to earn such a degree in social sciences. Her profession as a history professor, expert in disarmament, political author, and journalist led her to places many of us in the 21st century have not yet visited. Her expertise in disarmament led to her being the only African American invited to council Gen. Eisenhower during a UNESCO conference, and her desire to live beyond limits led to her purchasing a reservation card for the first passenger flight to the moon by Pan Am. It never happened, however Tate desired the possibility to venture into space as she had traveled the world, twice.
As a reporter, my passion also is history. With every story I write, I attempt to find some sort of historical connection to educate and inspire my readers. While working as a reporter at the Kalamazoo Gazette here in Michigan, I was assigned to write a story about the First African Americans of Western Michigan University. As I went through the list I discovered Ira Murchison was the first WMU student to win Gold in the Olympics, and that a woman named Merze Tate was the first African American of the university to earn a Distinguished Alumna Award. Her name intrigued me to learn more. When not much was found on the internet, I contacted the university archives. They said in addition to the more than $1 million she left to the university and a center being named in her honor, she had left her personal scrapbooks to the university. When I went to view them I was told no one had gone through them to see what was there. When I opened the first of three boxes, I felt like I had found a lost treasure. There was a letter to her from Mary McCloud Bethune inviting her to the White House; there was a ticket from the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, there was a degree from Oxford University and thousands of photos from around the world! I was fascinated and six years later, still hooked! Why had we not heard of a woman with such a remarkable life, who contributed so much to the world through her world political research? And more over, she was an African American woman from my own state of Michigan.
I have always had a desire to travel, so when I discovered the photos and news clippings of her many travels, I was intrigued. How could a woman who was born in 1905 travel the world twice during an era when many African Americans, and women, were domestics and homemakers? What led to her drive and desire to do so? When I learned she held a press card with the Afro-American newspaper to be their international reporter when she was abroad, it connected with me, a journalist even more. As a child I knew the world seemed to be open for journalists to meet new people and see exciting places so she and I are kindred spirits. When I discovered her love for photography, a passion of mine since a child, I felt like I had met an old friend. And, to top it off, my love for engaging youth into experiences of travel clinched it all. In her papers I discovered a travel club she founded for students of Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, ID, her first teaching job. She took those students (1928-32) to places such as Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Niagara Falls. Imagine, in those days, Negro students traveling? Even newspaper articles stated how Tate was doing something unusual by taking colored kids traveling. I founded a travel club for young girls in her name to expose them to the interesting people and places within their community and beyond. My goal is to get them to Oxford University.
I admired her tenacity to achieve when so many racial obstacles were in her path. One of the quotes she says is, “I don’t have time for the folly of racism.” I love that. She encouraged students in her classroom and as a speaker at graduations to students at graduation to use their talents overseas and not to let Jim Crow laws of the South and even some northern areas, prevent them from achieving. When she graduated from Western Michigan University in 1927, she had the highest academic record in the school’s history at that time. Still in all, she could not get a job in Michigan because she was African American. The president of the university Dr. Waldo, helped her get interviews; one at Crispus Attucks High School, which she accepted. The school was founded the year she graduated by the Ku Klux Klan of Indianapolis to keep “Negro” students segregated. The school’s instructors, like Tate, were hired by an African American principal who wanted to show the city that African American students were high achievers. The school has produced Tuskegee Airmen, inventors, authors, and more with Tate as a part of that foundation. Her ability not to use her race as an excuse and to live without limits are impressive.
I grew up reading, and loved history; particularly anything about African American women. However, the usual suspects were always Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, maybe Fannie Lou Hammer. There seemed to be so many other women not included for various reasons. When I learned about Tate and talked with others about her, everyone seemed so fascinated. Why hadn’t we heard more about her? My desire was to bring her name into the history books and inspire other young woman that if Merze Tate can accomplish what she did in the 20th century, we have no excuses in the 21st century.
a. Did she join any organizations?
You have to remember this is the 1920s, and not many African Americans were on the campus of Western Michigan University (then Western Teacher’s College). I did not see her in any clubs in the college yearbooks, or have I seen where she was a member of clubs. She did receive an overseas fellowship from Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., in 1932 of which she was a member. While there was not a AKA chapter on WMU’s campus at that time, I would have to wonder if she did this through some sort of other process. I am still investigating more on this fact.
b. Where did she live?
African Americans were not accommodated on the campus of Western State Teacher’s college at the time. Merze lived in the home of a man who was a prominent manager of a local paper company. She lived there and worked for room and board in the home, which is about two short blocks walk from the campus—less of a walk than the three miles she walked each way to school as a child in Blanchard, Mich.
c. What classes did she take?
She took the required course for teachers and focused mainly on history. That is what she would teach in high school and later at Howard University where she retired.
d. What problems and challenges did she encounter?
Merze graduated from Western State Teacher’s College with the highest grade point average in the school’s history at the time. Her challenges were not academic, however maybe more social; not having any noted friends or family in town (that I know at this point). Her family was not wealthy, so I don’t know how often she would go home or besides letters, what type of contact she had with them. Her mother rarely left the farm, and I have no photos of them together at any of her graduations. So, the challenge may have been the distance and willingness to get other family out of their comfort zones to visit her on campus. She was a boarder and maybe there was no opportunity for such a visit.
e. What persons did she get to know?
I don’t have any record of any particular person she may have grown close to for the record of a friendship. I also have not seen any mention of even the only other African American boy from her graduating class having been a friend either.
f. Who were her mentors?
Merze had the mentorship of administrators at the university, some of whom have college buildings named for them on WMU’s campus to this day. Her most influential mentor however was Dr. Dwight Waldo, the president of the university during her education there. His belief in her led to helping her gain employment as a teacher in Indianapolis after setting up three total interviews for her (Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Cleveland). When she could not get a job in Michigan, he made sure she had a place somewhere to use her talents and skills. Also, after she became a teacher in Indianapolis. they corresponded about students Tate provided scholarships to to attend the school. She left more than $1 million to the university which shows how its foundation and those who supported her played an important in her life.
g. What sorts of difficult decisions did she have to make before, during, and soon after her college days?
I don’t think anything was difficult to Merze Tate. She seemed to take everything as a challenge. I perhaps the most disheartening was being a pioneer in her family for education and travel; something not many others embraced or followed. She had to decide early if she was living a life for herself or others and chose to further her own opportunities in order to be a benefit to others.
h. How did she exemplify personal and/or social responsibility as a student?
With so few African Americans on the campus, it was not hard to recognize Tate and the others. However, it may have been just as easy to neglect them as well. Tate’s tenacity and drive were seen to those such as Dr. Waldo as a trait worthy of cultivating. Because of her academic responsibility and goals, her student career was admired by administrators. She felt education was the key to so many doors opening, and did whatever she could to get as much of it as she could.
She did this during the summers while teaching at Crispus Attucks High School. The teachers at Attucks were encouraged to take on courses which would add to their educational resumes. I have yet to research her experiences at Columbia.
The students of my Travel Club interviewed the historian David Smith at Oxford and asked him the same thing for their documentary on her life. Smith said the women in those days didn’t have dorms on Oxford’s campus and lived in homes off campus with a housemother. Tate met many friends who she would later meet in their home countries such as Russia and Australia. She attended the school’s yachting competitions, boat rides down the river with friends and they rode their bikes everywhere. One famous photo of Tate is her posed in front of Oxford on her bicycle. She met with her advisor, Sir. Alfred Zimmern, who also was an expert in the area of world politics. During her summers at Oxford she worked as a tutor in France for the daughter of a countess. During her time at Oxford it seems she took many opportunities to travel through Europe as her photos so elegantly display. While Tate was the only African American there, she was not the only person of a different ethnicity as Oxford students were from many places around the world. This may have been a plus for Tate during this era of Jim Crow in the United States. Europe has always been a “safe haven” of sorts for African Americans; particularly those in the arts. I believe Tate too felt good there. In her later years as she suffered from Dementia, one relative stated that she often talked as if she were still at Oxford. She kept in contact with advisors there over the years and even sent programs from graduations and other accomplishments throughout her life. From what I have gathered, she loved Oxford and her experience there.
Tate saw this time in history as one of great importance. She has several clippings from her time at the U of Berlin. One relative told of a story of a letter she sent home during her time there. He said the letter stated how Tate visited (why I have yet to discovered) a rally of Hitler’s. She spoke five languages so understood German. She wrote how, “‘if this many comes to power, it’s going to be like nothing we ever seen.”
One of the stories I heard from a relative is that Merze was always taking classes and to take them at Radcliff and Harvard was an honor for her. When she was invited to the school’s 150th anniversary, alumni were lined up according to their graduation date; Tate ended up at the front of the line and on the stage! Relatives say that was a big honor for her. She left the school her book rights and stock.
Tate’s first record of learning languages began while teaching at Crispus Attucks. She would take night courses at Indiana University and other colleges to expand her language skills. I believe living in a multi-ethnic home in Oxford helped as well as her years a tutor in France.
I do not have too much information on that at this time. I do know Morgan State University archives have little on her life as a teacher there and are excited about my research in hopes to share more of her history with students.
During Tate’s time in India she visited places off the beaten path. She met and photographed women with leprosy, children, and even traditional ceremonies not open to many outsiders. Tate wanted to know about the people who lived in these countries she read about as a child. She took in everything she learned in order to be a better history professor. Some of her former students tell me that when she taught history, it was as if she had lived it. The vivid descriptions she had of the places and events, as well as the photos and other items she shared, made her a highly sought after instructor. Tate taught students to live outside the box before the term was coined. She could tell students because she lived it and emphasized the importance of education to opening doors such as international travel and career opportunities. Tate used her position as a journalist to follow Prime Minister Nehru, the first prime minister of India. She would have dinner with him and his daughter, Indira Ghandi. What history book can top that?
My goal is to get the photo biography out by next fall with other books on her life to follow.
My college experience is much different than Tate’s. I went to the military after high school and later became a single mother. My goal was always to become a journalist, and college was always in the plan. As a single mother attending college, life was much different that that of Tate’s. I attended Kalamazoo Valley Community College where I was active in organizations and as an editor for the school newspaper. I was in the Army Reserve on the weekends and worked odd jobs. I transferred to Western Michigan University where I was active on the school newspaper and held an internship at the local newspaper-the Kalamazoo Gazette in 1992—funny how that came full circle in my Tate experience in 2005!
It’s funny how life takes us on turns we never see coming. Ten years ago I would have never said I would be a self proclaimed historian and biographer of Merze Tate. Ten years from now I would like to have completed my Ph.D., have created the Merze Tate Travel Club into an international program, and be a best-selling author of biographies. There as so many stories out there, and many I have discovered about other African Americans with stories just as dynamic as Tate’s who have never been recognized for their contributions to the world. We’ll see if God says the same.
This research of a woman who traveled the world twice in the 1930s-1970s has influenced me to live without boarders. Life should be enjoyed in every part of it God created. From Tate’s photographs alone I have seen the beautiful Taj Mahal, the mysterious pyramids, and the great redwoods of California. I want other young girls, and my own daughters, to experience the world which is at their fingertips online. I want to bring that to life for them as I feel travel is a way to get students to experiencing life better than they could ever image. Tate talked with students in the 1950s about using their skills abroad. I don’t believe we have stressed that enough, particularly to our African American students as she did. Life opens up more when we are willing to be more open to it!
There are stories like Tate’s in archives in our local libraries, universities and even family basements! I encourage others to find those lost histories and share them with others. There are voices we have yet to hear from who have valuable knowledge and inspiration for us. Let’s find them together!