Revisiting the Talented Tenth: On Black Ivy League Activism

*This post is part of our joint online roundtable with the Journal of Civil and Human Rights on Stefan M. Bradley’s Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League

Alexander Hall, Princeton University (Flickr: Harshil Shah)

In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about a small group of educated Blacks that he called the Talented Tenth, stating famously, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the best of this race that they may guide the mass away from the contamination and death of the worst, in their own and other races.”1

Although Du Bois later discarded this idea, because of fears of it leading to a corrupt, moneyed Black elite, it was an idea that many future generations took seriously. Stefan M. Bradley’s Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League tells their story.

Bradley’s subjects are what Maya Angelou may have meant when she said in her poetry, “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.” All the aspirations, all the dreams, all the pennies saved, all the toil of the past, all the broken backs, all the worn-out hands — cleaning someone else’s house or taking care of someone else’s children — so that their children could one day stand in halls of Ivy are realized here.

Bradley is able to capture the youth and fragile optimism of these future leaders. We come to understand the often brutal indignity of the Black experience in the Ivy League. When one reads that they poured urine on Black students on their way to classes at Princeton University, we are reminded of this.

Upending the Ivory Tower makes clear that the presence of African Americans at America’s oldest citadels of higher learning was a profound sacrifice — one that was born not only by ancestral generations of family that made it possible, but of the students themselves. They innocently, but bravely, began to find their way onto the most distinctive of proving grounds laden with so much symbolism, significance, and finally, as we will see, opportunity.

The manifestation of the ideology of white supremacy forms the backdrop for this study. The presupposition that Black people were biologically inferior, also known as pseudoscience, was being hatched in the very Ivory Towers in question. Racist theories of African Americans known as scientific racism argued for a biological notion of race. And so the Black presence in these spaces — where the planned demise of African Americans was so often decided, plotted, and planned — becomes noteworthy, especially Black presence in positions of power in those hallowed corridors of knowledge.

Knowing what we do today about the intricate manner in which some of the Ivy League institutions were involved in the slave trade, from works like Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivyand because so many of the ideas that bolstered slavery were birthed, hashed out, and defended in those hallowed halls of Ivy helps us to understand something not only about the interior lives of those precious few that made it, but also about their roles in fulfilling the symbolic promise and potential of American democracy.

Meticulously researched and elegantly written, Upending the Ivory Tower builds on Bradley’s first book Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s. Like that work, he manages to capture the nuanced differences that made each selective experience unique in significant ways, at each of the schools. Bradley painstakingly deconstructs the slow but inevitable process of bringing African Americans to each campus. The author is brilliant here at sketching out precisely how and why this process took place differently at each school.

Princeton University stands out in one’s mind — what Gerald Horne in a beautifully moving foreword to this volume called “the hallowed Halls of Ol’ Nassau,” as it was and still is known today. Bradley makes the point quite effectively why Princeton, called the “Northernmost Southern University,” was one of the last institutions to integrate. With its legacy of Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson as its president, Princeton at once encapsulates both a bellwether of a new world order, with its role in the formation of the League of Nations, while simultaneously being a space where the confederate flag was flown openly “in the nation’s service, and in the service of all nations.” 2

New Jersey was the last of all Northern states to abolish slavery, and its disparity and seeming dissimilarity is explained by the phenomenon captured in Matthew Countryman’s book on Philadelphia, Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia. This points to another, perhaps unintended role of this work, to more fully flesh out the at times contradictory nature of the development of what Jeanne Theoharis, Komozi Woodard (who spent some time at Princeton), and Brian Purnell have called the “Jim Crow North.”3 The universities Bradley documents, in particular, come to serve as harbingers of this hidden-in-plain-sight phenomenon of at first appearing to be liberal bastions of Northern progressivism but behind Ivy-draped walls, really serving not only as the duplicators of Southern ways, but as the originators of them. In this way, Bradley pulls back the veil on “the Ancient 8.”

And so this becomes a study in elitism parting the door just enough such that large scale change is initiated. Because of their telescopic involvement in shaping future leaders for everything from government, to business, and the academy, Bradley convincingly proves that by simply making this change — opening the doors in the post-King era —  that the possibilities for democracy itself are widened.

Oral history as a method is put to excellent use here as we are regaled with stories of shame, indignity, and triumph that illustrate the wide range of reactions, emotions, and strategies employed by those first few pioneers as they stepped onto campuses of Ivy. This, finally, is the most potent and memorable part of Upending the Ivory Tower: the “Green Book” nature of it all — having to rely upon the hospitality and friendship of Black families who opened their homes because in almost every case, African Americans could not live on campus. Bradley describes in eloquent terms what turned out to be such a cold reception — being spit on, being despised — artfully illuminating both the loneliness and the solitude of being one of those first trailblazers.

Upending the Ivory Tower brings a new perspective that also adds to our understanding of Black Power. Bradley’s expanded interpretation of Black Power flies in the face of the myth so often casting it as a Northern phenomenon that emanated from the streets. Bradley recasts it as an intellectual movement that remade every institution in American life, including the ivory tower. Much like Rhonda Y. Williams’s newer articulation of Black Power in Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century, this is Black Power Studies 2.0 — a second wave of the work reignited by Peniel E. Joseph’s Waiting ‘Til The Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America. Black Power in Bradley’s work is a movement that is largely theorized — indeed envisioned at those citadels of higher learning — by the best-qualified architects of it: students in the midst of a period of self-discovery, learning, and self-realization.

As Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton define it in their classic work Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, “Black Power means proper representation and sharing of control. It means the creation of power bases, of strength, from which black people can press to change local or nation-wide patterns of oppression — instead of from weakness.” As such, Bradley’s subjects became activists on the vanguard, remaking and rethinking race, inequality, and injustice in the grand experiment of American democracy.4

The chapter on Harvard, for example, exemplifies this well, as it tells of student activists at Harvard that had a ready-made and much-needed constituency right outside of its walls in Roxbury and Dorchester, where the Black community was sorely in need. The Northern Student Movement, which was also conceived at an Ivy league school by Yale undergraduate Peter Countryman and William Strickland (who attended Harvard), became a force to support and bolster the emerging Civil Rights Movement in the South.5 Often referred to as the “SNCC of the North,” the NSM is a good example of the kind of critical organizing that happened in the student movement to reshape the real world. So many of the students, like Robert Hall, Chuck Turner, Bill Strickland (a Roxbury native), and Byron Rushing, who came to Boston, stayed and made lasting contributions to the struggle for civil rights in the “Cradle of Liberty.”

And finally, this necessarily becomes a story about the founding and early conceptualization of Black, African American, Afro-Americanand Africana Studies. Robert Hall, one of the many that Bradley interviewed for this book, tells a story of intellectual struggle and tumult at “Dear Harvard” that paved the way and created the space for the important incubator that Harvard and other Ivies became for the fledgling discipline that would rethink all of Black higher education.

One comes away from reading this work convinced that the Ivy League played a central role in formulating — indeed creating the need for — the ideology of Black Power. Moreover, it formed not only an elite that was willing and able to walk through the door when it opened, but one that was committed to making a difference once they got on the other side of it. Bradley shows that they did much with their varying degrees of success. It certainly flies in the face of previous views that the Ivy League didn’t have much to do with the founding of Black Studies and that elites in the academy and elsewhere were inimical to the burgeoning Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Bradley demonstrates convincingly here that they were always an essential part of them. This work demonstrates that they kept faith with and reimagined Du Bois’s notion of the Talented Tenth.6

  1. The Negro Problem, New York: James Pott and Company, 1903.
  2. Princeton’s motto
  3. See Theoharis, Purnell, and Woodard, The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside of the South (2019)
  4.  See Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ‘Til The Midnight Hour.
  5. See Martha Biondi’s The Black Revolution on Campus.
  6. A conference was called in Boston. As Bradley writes, Hall “as well as black students from Dartmouth, Boston University, Northeastern University, and Wellesley College joined SNCC activists in the area to organize a symposium called ‘Black Power and the Talented Tenth.’ Cleveland Sellers, Michael Thelwell and a number of members of the symposium called together the privileged black campus learners from the Northeast and people from the local community who struggled against institutional racism.” See Stefan M. Bradley’s Upending the Ivory Tower. (NYU Press: 2018), p. 336.
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Zebulon Vance Miletsky

Zebulon Vance Miletsky is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and History at Stony Brook University. He specializes in African American history, history of miscegenation, interracial marriage, urban history, African Americans in Boston, and mixed race and biracial identity. Originally from Boston, Miletsky received his PhD in African American Studies with a concentration in African American History from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. His teaching and research interests include the Northern Civil Rights Movement, the long civil rights struggle, Black Power, the Afro-Latin diaspora, and hip-hop. His articles have appeared in the Trotter Review, The Historical Journal of Massachusetts, and the Journal of History. He is currently completing a book manuscript on the Civil Rights Movement in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @ZebulonMiletsky.

Comments on “Revisiting the Talented Tenth: On Black Ivy League Activism

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    In his superb review of Bradley’s excellent Upending the Ivory Tower, Prof. Miletsky notes that “Racist theories of African Americans known as scientific racism argued for a biological notion of race.” Ironically, the “biological notion of race” then argued in some Ivy League schools is today being hatched in some of our Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The idea of post-traumatic slavery disorder is taking hold with a questionable assertion of epi-genetics, claiming that some aspects of racial dysfunction have become part of our DNA.

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