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Reviewed by:
  • Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund
  • Philo A. Hutcheson, Associate Professor
Marybeth Gasman . Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. 288 pp. Cloth: $45.00. ISBN: 978-0-8018-8604-1.

One of the rapidly growing fields of historical research in higher education encompasses the experiences of African Americans, and Marybeth Gasman's new book on the United Negro College Fund is an invaluable contribution both to that field and to the general area of the history of higher education. She combines careful archival research, oral history interviews, and a clear interpretative framework in providing a readable and convincing work.

The United Negro College Fund began as the result of efforts by Frederick Douglass Patterson, then president of Tuskegee Institute, to overcome the multiple financial challenges faced by almost all of the private Black colleges in the 1940s. As Gasman points out, to some degree those institutions shared the financial straits of small colleges in general, but those conditions were sharply accentuated by racist assumptions about Negroes (a term both Gasman and I use to highlight the historical nature of agency of the time, when other terms, deeply insulting, were rampant).

And in a telling irony about race and education in the United States, she offers an extensive discussion of the curious ways in which John D. Rockefeller Jr., one of the most powerful captains of industry in the 1940s, supported the fund. He typically urged fellow capitalists to support the fund primarily on the basis of furthering social control; but as Gasman argues, the colleges and universities were able to use the ever-increasing monies from the fund to slowly and surely develop curricula as well as extracurricular activities that celebrated equality, the humanity of the oppressed Negro, and eventually, activism in the civil rights movement. Presidents at private Black colleges cooperated in ways that would be surprising for college presidents then and now, such as sharing donor lists, to ensure the survival of key institutions for higher education.

Gasman also provides readers with a curious aspect of the early years of the fund, the powerful efforts of wealthy White women in New York City. Led by Catherine Waddell, those women crossed racial boundaries by hosting integrated dinners in their homes and pressured other women and men to contribute to the fund because they saw segregation as abhorrent. Fortunately, Gasman examines this part of the fund's history with acuity, noting not only the women's remarkable commitment but also their possible excitement about the exotic—crossing racial lines for reasons of equality and curiosity. In this latter sense, both White men and women too often expressed amazement at how intelligent the Negroes were, or even at the fact that they were well-educated. Furthermore, public (and some private) events were often carefully segregated, so that brushes with equality were only that—moments that did not extend to everyday life.

As the fund moved into its second decade of existence, the nation slowly experienced a revival of the integrationist movement of the 1940s, from which the fund both benefited and suffered. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision placed substantial pressure on Black colleges to justify their existence because of the legal assumption, too eagerly grasped by too many scholars and politicians, that not only was segregation a social evil but also that the separation of races necessarily entailed inferiority, a notion that saw an ugly highlight in the late 1960s with Christopher Jencks and David Riesman's declaration that by and large Black colleges were "academic disaster areas."

Gasman writes extensively about their work, critiquing their scholarship and their elite perspective and arguing that the visibility and scholarly responses eventually put Black colleges in a stronger position, although the notion of "second-best" continues today in some circles. Perhaps the most convincing part of her argument is that a nearly contemporary scholarly study of Negro colleges, conducted by Earl McGrath, received virtually no attention at the time and continues to be ignored by many scholars and policymakers.

Internally, the fund consistently moved from an almost entirely White staff to...


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