A new public database of African American students created by the University of Michigan documents students who attended U-M between 1853 and as recently as 1970.
A comprehensive compilation of this nature did not previously exist at the university and remains very rare for universities across the country.
In the process, hundreds of compelling stories have been uncovered surrounding segregated housing, relocation after slavery and “segregation scholarships,” which originated in the 1920s.
“What we have discovered is that it was African American students, their organizations, the local community and African American alumni who carved out lives for themselves on this campus, often with no help and with opposition from the university itself,” said Terrence McDonald, director of the Bentley Historical Library.
“For most of the university’s history, African American students’ experiences were a combination of institutional barriers and the determination to overcome them,” said Angela Dillard, the Richard A. Meisler Collegiate Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies and a member of the Bentley’s executive committee. “The database gives context for this by providing data while also showing photos, stories, maps and more.”
The U-M African American Student Project has been working toward documenting and understanding the Black experience at the university through years of research, archival materials from the Bentley Library and personal stories. The project has identified more than 5,800 verified African American students, their cities or states of origin and their degree types.
Points of origin
More than 2,200 of the students in the database came from Michigan with the top points of origin including Detroit representing more than half of this student population, Ann Arbor, Flint, Inkster and Grand Rapids.
Among out-of-state students, the top states were North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Louisiana and Florida. Many of the southern out-of-state students received financial support to come to Michigan from those states which, in the pre-Civil Rights era, refused to integrate their university programs. Many of these states were forced to integrate their programs by future federal court decisions.
A substantial number of those receiving graduate and professional degrees from Michigan were graduates from historically black colleges and universities, with the largest number coming from Fisk and Howard universities.
While work is still being done to collect more stories and journeys of U-M Black students, some notable alumni have already been identified:
• Heman Sweatt attended graduate school at U-M in 1937-38 and went on to successfully challenge the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation established by the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson in his own U.S. Supreme Court case, Sweatt v. Painter. His case was presented by Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter after Sweatt was denied admission to the University of Texas law school due to the Texas State Constitution prohibiting integrated education. During the term of the trial, the subject matter prompted Texas Southern University to establish its own law school for Black students, becoming what is now known as the Thurgood Marshall School of Law.
• A.T. Walden was a civil rights activist and lawyer who earned his law degree at U-M and later went on to become the first Black judge appointed in the state of Georgia since the Civil War. He played a critical role in achieving equal pay for black school teachers in Atlanta in 1943, served as a local lawyer for the NAACP in some cases with national leadership, and actively led efforts to get Black citizens registered to vote in Atlanta.
The work is not over
Now the university is putting out a call to action to its community. The African American Student Project has identified the “who, when, where” of thousands of Black students, but they recognize there is more to be added to more deeply understand their experience and their stories.
“This is a long-term project that is still in an early phase,” McDonald said. “We will need help from the public to make this data as robust as possible, and to add additional archival sources on the African American experience to our holdings.”