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  • Between Washington and Du Bois: The Racial Politics of James Edward Shepard by Reginald K. Ellis
  • Douglas Bristol
Between Washington and Du Bois: The Racial Politics of James Edward Shepard. By Reginald K. Ellis. (Gainesville and other cities: University Press of Florida, 2017. Pp. xii, 146. Paper, $18.95, ISBN 978-0-8130-6491-8; cloth, $74.95, ISBN 978-0-8130-5660-9.)

Whereas historians such as Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore have depicted James Edward Shepard, the founding president of North Carolina College for Negroes (NCC; today's North Carolina Central University), as an opportunist who thwarted attempts to integrate higher education so he could expand his segregated institution, Reginald K. Ellis reexamines Shepard's leadership in the context of his times. The results are surprising. For example, Ellis notes that, when African American newspapers asked their readers in 1945, "Who is Our National Leader?," Shepard received about 250,000 more votes than A. Philip Randolph, whose proposed March on Washington movement had compelled President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 (p. 104). Ellis argues that Shepard was a race leader whose response to white supremacy [End Page 496] evolved from protest to diplomacy because he thought his college provided the best chance for African Americans to enter the middle class.

The book is organized chronologically, examining Shepard's turning points as a leader. Ellis demonstrates Shepard's skill at networking by showing how Shepard exploited the connections of his father, a prominent minister, to forge relationships with patrons, including members of the Duke family, but the young Shepard still cast about for a livelihood. Working as a field secretary of the International Sunday School Association, he became aware of the illiteracy of most African American ministers, which inspired him to found the school that would become NCC.

Ellis contends that Shepard developed an ideology for racial uplift in his school—"moral education"—that fused classical and vocational forms of education, an approach fitting between the philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois (p. 23). By acknowledging that race leaders in the Jim Crow era had complex motives, Ellis underscores Shepard's pragmatism. He observes that Shepard's advocacy of the liberal arts distinguished his school from other African American institutions of higher learning in North Carolina, which helped him get the state to take it over.

Ellis argues that Shepard's pragmatism explains why, as the NAACP pivoted from lobbying for a federal antilynching bill, which Shepard advocated publicly, to desegregation, he lost favor with civil rights leaders. During the Great Depression, supporting lawsuits to admit African Americans to graduate programs at white colleges meant risking state appropriations for African American colleges. Shepard confronted this dilemma in 1933 when a graduate of NCC, Thomas Hocutt, volunteered as a plaintiff for the NAACP. Shepard blocked the case by withholding Hocutt's transcript. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938) that African Americans must be given equal access to higher education, Shepard favored upgrading segregated institutions like NCC. He lobbied successfully in 1937 for increased state appropriations that let him hire faculty with more advanced degrees, construct nine new buildings, and establish graduate programs. According to Ellis, many in the African American community—at that time—favored Shepard's choice of providing opportunity for many in segregated institutions rather than for a few in integrated institutions.

Ellis's book contributes to the trend of questioning the framework of the long civil rights movement. Admittedly, Shepard is a flawed case study because he was alone among black college presidents in endorsing the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Judge John J. Parker, who supported African American disenfranchisement. Ellis writes that Shepard endorsed Parker because of Shepard's loyalty to the Republican Party. This fealty to institutions and white allies such as the celebrated southern liberal Frank Porter Graham, president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ellis contends, also explains Shepard's gradualist stance on civil rights. Although Ellis's research is narrowly focused on Shepard, drawing on his papers and newspaper coverage, readers interested in the decisions of race leaders who wielded influence...


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pp. 496-497
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