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Black Philosopher, White Academy

The Career of William Fontaine

By Bruce Kuklick

Publication Year: 2008

At a time when almost all African American college students attended black colleges, philosopher William Fontaine was the only black member of the University of Pennsylvania faculty—and quite possibly the only black member of any faculty in the Ivy League. Little is known about Fontaine, but his predicament was common to African American professionals and intellectuals at a critical time in the history of civil rights and race relations in the United States.

Black Philosopher, White Academy is at once a biographical sketch of a man caught up in the issues and the dilemmas of race in the middle of the last century; a portrait of a salient aspect of academic life then; and an intellectual history of a period in African American life and letters, the discipline of philosophy, and the American academy. It is also a meditation on the sources available to a practicing historian and, frustratingly, the sources that are not. Bruce Kuklick stays close to the slim packet of evidence left on Fontaine's life and career but also strains against its limitations to extract the largest possible insights into the life of the elusive Fontaine.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-4

In the spring of 1947 the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia appointed William Fontaine to a one-year visiting lectureship in its Department of Philosophy for the academic year 1947–48. The black man at once took leave of Morgan State College, an African American school in Maryland that had hired him after World War II as a professor and the chairman of its Philosophy Department. Pennsylvania repeated the arrangement for ...

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Chapter One: A Cultured Education

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pp. 5-19

Fontaine’s family hailed from Chester, Pennsylvania, an industrial town on the Delaware River, just southwest of Philadelphia. Europeans first settled the area in the seventeenth century. When the Quaker William Penn arrived in 1682 to oversee his ‘‘Holy Experiment’’ in the English colony of Penn’s Woods (Pennsylvania), he had hoped to make Chester the capital. But Penn moved thirteen miles upstream to Philadelphia, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the hamlet of Chester grew very slowly. ...

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Chapter Two: A Student of Philosophy

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pp. 20-40

Fontaine took his degree from Lincoln in the spring of 1930, just as the United States was entering the Great Depression. Over the next six years he earned his living as an instructor there, one of several part-timers. He just preceded the first black professors whom the institution hired as standing faculty. Fontaine taught Latin, and from elementary Latin—the learning of the grammar of the language and the reading of Caesar’s Gallic Wars—he ...

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Chapter Three: Ambition Constrained

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pp. 41-52

Southern Louisiana had a French (Cajun) and Spanish heritage reflected in mixed European and African American (Creole) cultures. These cultures were centered in New Orleans, a large and thriving metropolis with a permissive flavor. Black Catholics abounded. The one Roman Catholic black college, Xavier, was located in the city. Up and down the Mississippi, on which New Orleans sat, oil refineries made Louisiana a wealthy southern state. It also ...

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Chapter Four: The Sociology of Knowledge

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pp. 53-63

Eager to leave Southern, Fontaine still knew that Louisiana’s social setting had jelled inchoate ideas about he what wanted from life. Disliking the South, he was motivated to write, to make a reputation as a thinker, and to publish his way out of Scotlandville. In any case, the period brought his most sustained intellectual success, a time in which he thought most coherently about the problems of race in America. Over these years he wrote four essays ...

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Chapter Five: Social Change and World War II [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 64-81

Fontaine had left Louisiana in the middle of a war. In 1940 and again in 1941 he applied to the Julius Rosenwald Fund for support of a project called ‘‘The Mind and Thought of the Negro,’’ the title that he gave to his 1942 essay. An illustrious Jewish philanthropist, Rosenwald had made a fortune in retailing at Sears, Roebuck and Company. In the 1920s he had symbolized the rapprochement between American Jewry and African Americans ...

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Chapter Six: The Ambiguity of Success

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pp. 82-94

The low-level appointment at the University of Pennsylvania held momentous long-term prospects should Fontaine thrive. When African American scholars taught at the college level at all, they had careers at black institutions, all of which were economically constrained. The white scholar now rarely taught at them and left when he could. Howard University and its tradition of African American research epitomized the desires of most ...

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Chapter Seven: Social Philosophy and Civil Rights

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pp. 95-106

As a Pennsylvania faculty member, Fontaine oversaw instruction in the beginning course in philosophy. His ability became more apparent when his health improved. ‘‘Fontaine and staff ’’ stamped this first course, Philosophy 1, ‘‘Intro to Phil,’’ with his own wide-ranging and learned vision of the history of ideas in the West from the time of the Greeks. He made this initial experience famous at Pennsylvania among undergraduates. Quiet and soft-spoken, Fontaine ...

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Chapter Eight: Conservative Pan-Africanism

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pp. 107-115

In the twenty years of the Cold War that Fontaine witnessed, the U.S. government displayed almost no independent interest in Africa, or its connection to American citizens of African descent. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, when the European powers gave independence to many of their African colonies, the United States adjusted its view of what was called the developing world, the third world, or the southern world. American ...

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Chapter Nine: White Racism and Black Power

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pp. 116-134

From the late 1950s politics had a claim on Fontaine’s life. Ferment at home and overseas drew his attention. He felt most comfortable in the early 1960s when exhortation and political pressure combined to move the Kennedy administration in the correct direction, both in foreign and domestic affairs. Kennedy’s intellect sided with progressives in racial matters. Black activism, including the work of Fontaine’s former acquaintance Martin ...

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pp. 135-136

Almost every scholar in the last quarter century who has written about race in America has adopted a similar narrative stance, and I am no exception. Especially in biographies, the story recounts the toil of African Americans— sometimes successful, sometimes not, but always never ending—for a measure of equality. By now convention utterly drives the story. But even though simplified, overly heroic, and less ambiguous than truth, the story forces ...


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pp. 137-159

Bibliography of the Writings of William Fontaine

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pp. 161-163

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Sources and Acknowledgments

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pp. 165-166

A number of scholars have assisted my efforts in African American history, among them Robert Engs and Mary Berry. In what to him was an offhand remark, Clem Harris roused me to write the book. In 1978–79 Leonard Harris, now of Purdue University, began his own research on Fontaine. Harris interviewed many people now dead, and photocopied material in the Philosophy Department at the University of Pennsylvania that was later destroyed. ...


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pp. 167-171

E-ISBN-13: 9780812205411
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812240986

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2008

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Philosophy teachers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Fontaine, William, 1909-1968.
  • African American educators -- Biography.
  • University of Pennsylvania -- Faculty -- Biography.
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