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The story of African American higher education is often relegated to single chapters, or even single sections within chapters, of works exploring the history of higher education. When book-length histories of African American higher education are written, they tend to focus on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) or are a much larger synthesis. Even less attention has been paid to specific programs at predominantly African American colleges, making Marcus Cox’s work on military training an important contribution to the historiography on higher education.
Cox has attempted to move away from a purely institutional approach to focus on the connections between higher education, military training and service, and the opportunities for full citizenship that all three offered. Cox argues that, by the late nineteenth century, military training and service began to be viewed as a pathway to social uplift for the African American community. According to Cox, military service [End Page 308] was promoted as a channel through which African American men could acquire political rights as well as economic and social mobility. Cox begins his work by examining the origins of military service as a means of social uplift by tracing African American participation in the Civil War and the formation of military training programs at newly founded all-black institutions of higher education across the South during the late nineteenth century.
Seeking to eradicate the oppression created by the legacies of slavery, Cox notes that “the military tradition in the black community was vigorously promoted at African American institutions of higher education, and at those schools racial uplift was the primary mission” (p. 20). In chapter two, Cox explores Southern University and the efforts of its president, Felton G. Clark, to establish defense-training programs there during World War II. According to Cox, Southern University and President Clark were illustrative of attempts by HBCUs throughout the South to demonstrate patriotism and national belonging through wartime participation and link them to demands for social progress. In chapters three and four, Cox examines the efforts of Clark to establish a ROTC program at Southern, as well as steps taken by the black press to promote military service. Across the United States during the immediate postwar period, black newspapers promoted military service as a pathway to social uplift, reinforcing the message of President Clark and other HBCU administrators. Cox notes that during the late 1940s and 1950s, military service was at its height of appeal within the African American community, with military training at HBCUs seeing its highest enrollment during this period. Cox uses the last several chapters of his book to explore military training during the civil rights and Vietnam War era. Cox observes that a growing number of students at HBCUs linked selective service policies and the war in Vietnam with their own experiences of inequality at home. Yet, according to Cox, military training still received wide support at Southern University during this turbulent period, demonstrating the durability of the connection between military service and social uplift.
In Segregated Soldiers we find the stories of individual agents who [End Page 309] promoted military training and service as a way to uplift all African Americans, with considerable attention given to Southern University and Felton G. Clark. For some, it may seem as though Cox has marginalized the alternative paths to full citizenship proposed by intellectuals like W. E. B. DuBois and C. L. R. James; however, it is clear that this was not Cox’s purpose. His work sheds much-needed light on the specific ways that HBCUs approached their mission in the early and mid-twentieth century, generously expanding the literature on higher education in this regard.
Timothy Smith is a PhD student at the University of Nevada-Reno. Smith’s research focuses on the history of higher education and cultural representations of the college experience in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.