What Was Black College Life Like in the New Deal?

A photo exhibit exploring life through the lens of Kenneth Space

By U.S. National Archives

Dillard University, Student Body (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

The Great Depression exacerbated the hardships of many African Americans, who already dealt with poverty, segregation, disenfranchisement, and racial violence. In spite of the many social and economic obstacles of the New Deal era, many African American men and women were able to pursue a higher education.

Xavier University, Student Body (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Thousands of African American students enrolled in what is today known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). These fortunate men and women were considered to be part of the "Talented Tenth" - the elite top 10 percent, members of the race who contributed to racial uplift and combated racism, paving the way for equality for the black community.

Fisk University, School Dances (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

From 1936-1937, the Harmon Foundation hired photographer Kenneth Space to capture African American life in the South. Throughout his tour, Space stopped at HBCUs and photographed student life, in and out of class.

The result, presented in this exhibit, depicts a unique reality of the black experience in 1930s America - young adults were members of vibrant social organizations, participated in sporting activities, and worked hard studying for classes.

Rural Scenes Near Calhoun, Alabama (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

This is in stark contrast to the other reality of black life in the South in the 1930s: one of rural living, poverty, lynchings, and Jim Crow.

Lois Jones, Artist and Teacher, Howard University (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Howard University

“Truth and Service”

est. 1867

Washington, DC

Dr. Alain Locke, Dean of Philosophy, Howard University (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Howard University, referred to as “the capstone of Negro education” boasts many notable alumni and employed leading African American academics during the 1930s, including: Lois Mailou Jones, Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, Sterling Brown, and Rayford Logan.

Howard University, Dental School (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Established in 1881, the Howard University College of Dentistry is the fifth oldest dental school in the United States.

Howard University, Ceramics Class (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Howard University, Ceramics Class

Howard University, Students of the Divinity School (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Howard University, Students of the Divinity School

Howard University, Dr. Charles Parker and Dr. Alain Locke (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Students also had the opportunity to study in the fields of art, engineering, American History, medicine, philosophy, divinity, law, and other sciences.

Howard University, President Franklin Roosevelt Dedicating the Chemistry Building (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

On October 26, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Howard to dedicate the newly erected chemistry building. Built with appropriations from the federal government, the chemistry building marked the first time a historically black college or university received more than $1 million (USD) in funds dedicated to a science facility.

"Its founding, many years ago, as an institution for the American Negro was a significant occasion. It typified America's faith in the ability of man to respond to opportunity regardless of race or creed or color. ...Today, we dedicate this new chemistry building, this temple of science, to industrious and ambitious youth. May they come here, to learn the lessons of science and to carry the benefits of science to their fellow men." -President Franklin D. Roosevelt, October 26, 1936

Howard University, Engineering Student (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

The student body often busied themselves with extracirricular activities such as athletic teams and fostering community in social circles.

Howard University, Women's Swim Team (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Fraternity and sorority life has long been a hallmark of campus life at Howard University. Five of the historical black Greek-letter organization were founded at Howard: Alpha Kappa Alpha (1908), Omega Psi Phi (1911), Delta Sigma Theta (1913), Phi Beta Sigma (1914), and Zeta Phi Beta (1920).

Howard University, Students in Women's Dorm (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Howard students were also politically active: in 1936 the football team went on strike before a game with Virginia Union because the University did not provide players with food (some players reportedly sustained themselves on a diet of hot dogs).

Virginia Union College, Various Classes (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Virginia Union College

“The Bridge to Intellectual Freedom”

est. 1865

Richmond, Virginia

Virginia Union College, Teaching Class (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Born shortly after the capital of the Confederate states was liberated at the conclusion of the Civil War, Virginia Union College was established as a private school to educate newly emancipated freedmen and women.

Virginia Union College, Employment Bureau (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Students attending Virginia Union in the New Deal era were witness to a steadily growing institution, as the school had recently established schools for education and law, promoted opportunities for missionary work abroad, and expanded their athletics program.

Virginia Union College, Campus Scene (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Noteworthy for their dapper style, Virginia Union students in the 1930s also became accomplished alumni: Spottswood Robinson III - civil rights attorney and federal judge; Robert Deane Pharr - acclaimed author; Bessye Bearden - journalist, mother of Romare Bearden; Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. - Vice Admiral, United States Navy

Fisk University, Social Science Class (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Fisk University

“Her sons and daughters are ever on the altar”

est. 1866

Nashville, Tennessee

Fisk University, Library (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Students at Fisk University excelled in courses taught by leading black academics of the era.

James Weldon Johnson, Writer (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Among the professors on campus was James Weldon Johnson, Spence Chair of Creative Literature. Before shaping young minds at Fisk, Johnson was recognized as a poet, author, critic, diplomat, editor, and a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Fisk University, Student at Library Card Catalog (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

In 1930, Fisk University became the first predominantly black institution to gain accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Fisk University, Sorority Bridge Party (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Fisk University, Sorority Bridge Party

Fisk University, Fraternity Easter Dawn Dance (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

While attending such a prestigious institution, the student body did find the time to let their hair down. Events like the Easter Dawn Dance, sponsored by Greek organizations on campus, was a popular social occasion.

Atlanta University, Business School Student (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Atlanta University

“I'll find a way or make one”

est. 1865

Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta University, Music Department Student (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Atlanta University fostered an environment of academic excellence. In 1930, the University began offering graduate level programs in social and natural sciences and liberal arts.

Atlanta University, Student Painting in Art Class (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Also during the New Deal, Atlanta University began to foster close ties with Spelman College and Morehouse College to form what would become known as the Atlanta University System.

Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

One of the most influential professors to teach at Atlanta University was W.E.B Du Bois, head of the sociology department. Du Bois was the first African American to earn a Ph. D. from Harvard University, co-founder of the Niagara Movement, and author of the influential work "The Souls of Black Folk".

Atlanta University, Practice School for Teachers (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Atlanta University, Practice School for Teachers

Atlanta University, Founder's Day Drill (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Founder's Day, a tradition celebrated across many historically black colleges and universities, is a day for students, alumni, faculty, and staff to honor the people that established the institution. The annual program consists of a keynote speaker or speakers, musical performances and ceremonies. Founder’s Day is a time to reiterate the history and legacy of the school, inspire students, encourage alumni to stay active, and discuss the future of the institution.

Atlanta University, Founder's Day at the Chapel (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

During the New Deal, Atlanta University celebrated with speakers in the school chapel, drill routines, and a parade.

Tuskegee Institute, Agriculture Students (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Tuskegee Institute

“Knowledge, Leadership, Service”

est. 1881

Tuskegee, Alabama

Tuskegee Institute, Trade School Student (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Tuskegee Institute, when founded by Booker T. Washington, was established as a vocational school that focused heavily in agriculture and teacher training. After World War I, the school's curriculum expanded into industrial fields with the establishment of a trade school.

By the 1930s, students demanded more academic courses in order to receive a well rounded education on par with other American colleges and universities. The purpose was shifting from a job training center to an institution where African Americans could be immersed in an environment of learning.

Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington Monument (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

"He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry." In the New Deal, the Tuskegee Institute was also the home and training ground for the famed Tuskegee Airmen, who first served during World War II.

Tuskegee Institute, Students in Class (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Tuskegee Institute, Students in Class

George Washington Carver, Chemist (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

George Washington Carver was head of the Agriculture Department. In his long tenure at the school, Carver conducted his groundbreaking research in botany, chemistry, and agriculture - notably inventing over 100 products and uses for peanuts and soybeans.

Tuskegee Institute, Football Game (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Athletics was an important part of student life.

The Tuskegee Golden Tigers football team was coached by Cleveland “Cleve” Abbott, who lead the team to victory in the Prairie View Bowl in 1936.

Tuskegee Institute, Marching Band (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

The Marching Crimson Pipers have provided halftime entertainment at games for over 100 years. At many HBCUs, the band's halftime show is often more memorable than the final score.

Xavier University, Student in Chapel (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Xavier University

“If God be with us, nothing is to be feared.”

est. 1915

New Orleans, Louisiana

Xavier University, Queen of Honor at a Formal Dance (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Xavier University is unique as an HBCU as it was founded by Saint Katherine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament - the only historically black Roman Catholic school in the nation.

Numa Rousseve, Artist and Teacher (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Numa Rousseve, Artist and Teacher

Xavier University, Chemistry Class (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Xavier University, Chemistry Class

Dillard University, Biology Class (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Dillard University

“Strong through Faith”

est. 1935

New Orleans, Louisiana

President William Stuart Nelson, Dillard University (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

President William Stuart Nelson

Dillard University, Child Study Class (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Dillard University, Child Study Class

Dillard University, Long Jumper (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Dillard University, Long Jumper

Talladega College, Sports Activities (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Just as today, black college life in the New Deal was a balancing act. African Americans students had to find harmony in the spaces between work and play, campus and home life, and broader social issues and personal development.

Howard University, Graduating Student (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

In the 80 years since these photos were taken, enrollment of African Americans in college has increased from a select, affluent, couple of hundreds to a more diverse base of over a million.

The photographs in this exhibit are all from the series Kenneth Space Photographs of the Activities of Southern Black Americans, 1936 - 1937 (National Archives Identifier 559211), located at the National Archives at College Park.

For more information and updates about records at the National Archives relating to black history, please visit the Rediscovering Black History blog (http://rediscovering-black-history.blogs.archives.gov/).

Credits: Story

Curator — Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist, RDTP
Curator — Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Lead Archivist, RDTP
Research Assistants —
— Rutha M. Beamon, Archives Specialist, RDSS
— Sharon Culley, Archives Specialist, RDSS
— Theresa M. Roy, Archives Specialist, RDSS
Say It Loud! The African American Employee Affinity Group —

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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