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  • A Black Man's Journey from Sharecropper to College President: The Life and Work of William Johnson Trent, 1873–1963 by Judy Scales-Trent
  • Sam F. Stack Jr.
A Black Man's Journey from Sharecropper to College President: The Life and Work of William Johnson Trent, 1873–1963. By Judy Scales-Trent. ( Deadwood, Ore.: Monroe Street Press, 2016. Pp. [xviii], 366. Paper, $25.00, ISBN 978–1942545-38–5; cloth, $41.95, ISBN 978–1942545-46–0.)

Judy Scales-Trent writes that her work "contributes to our understanding of how some in the postslavery generation of black people lived their lives, using education to move from the farm to the middle class and working to improve the lives of other African Americans" (p. viii). Scales-Trent has taken on the difficult task of writing a biography of her paternal grandfather, William Johnson Trent. Good biography must engage with an interdisciplinary approach—which may include history, psychology, sociology, and even literature—and the biographer must decide what to include in the narrative, what archival [End Page 191] materials to pursue and include, and what questions about an individual's life can and cannot be answered. Scales-Trent makes extensive use of secondary and primary sources to help us understand the life and work of William Johnson Trent. Apparently, Trent did not leave behind personal papers or a diary and penned few written reflections on his work, which likely made it much more difficult to capture the man. Scales-Trent makes good use of Trent's letters and speeches, as well as interviews with family, friends, and former students, to bridge this gap. She tells the story chronologically, beginning with Trent's early life as the son of a former slave. She explores his family's experiences as sharecroppers, his love and passion for education, his sense of determination and hard work, and the inspirational role of religion in his life. It seems that William Johnson Trent was driven by a strong Christian ethic, which remained with him throughout his life and was nurtured by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church and the Social Gospel. Scales-Trent explores William Johnson Trent's life and education at Livingstone College, an institution the AMEZ Church founded in 1882 in Salisbury, North Carolina, that offered a classical liberal arts curriculum and, in effect, challenged Tuskegee Institute's industrial education model. Livingstone emphasized securing black teachers and administrators for black students. Trent envisioned education as a means of uplifting others, as it had uplifted him. This sense of uplift was characteristic of his work in the Colored Men's Department of the Young Men's Christian Association and with the Third North Carolina Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War. After the war, Trent led the Young Men's Institute, an organization that George Washington Vanderbilt founded for black people working on his Biltmore Estate just outside Asheville, North Carolina. Scales-Trent also explores Trent's return to Livingstone College as its president and his work to found the United Negro College Fund, which his son, William Johnson Trent Jr., later directed.

The elder Trent's life can be described as one of struggle, but he was persistent and determined to enhance the possibilities available to African Americans through education. Trent was no radical; he preferred to work within the system, fighting for access and equality, but he seemed to realize that successes such as the NAACP's victory in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) could challenge conceptions of community and identity among African Americans and bolster their commitments to public schools and colleges. It is unfortunate that Trent left few reflections on his work and accomplishments, but perhaps this was due to his spirit of humility and his belief that his reward was not part of this life but the next. It appears that William Johnson Trent, as characterized by Judy Scales-Trent, was a true visionary who sought to provide a quality education for African American youth and who fought oppression and racism in his own way. One hopes this book will stimulate other scholars to research African American leaders who, like Trent, seem to have been left out of...


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