With quiet grace, two black men change the heart of Harvard in 1941.
Every great institution has its moments of shame and its moments of honor. For Harvard, in the spring of 1941, those moments were nearly one and the same. Drue King was a sophomore, a gangly good-humored lad and Harvard's finest tenor. "Lucky" Lucien Alexis was a junior, quiet, kind-hearted, and more determined than skilled on the lacrosse field. One thing more: Both young men were black, and upon that single fact hangs the entire tale.
In the sea of white faces that was then Harvard, it was inevitable that the two would find each other and become fast friends. Both were from the Deep South -- King from Tuskegee, Alabama, Alexis from New Orleans. Both adored the movies. Both had their hearts set on becoming doctors. For a time, they even dated the same Wellesley coed. And they shared something else: Both were focused on the upcoming spring break. For King, the only black in the 60-man Harvard Glee Club, that meant a concert tour of the South. He had been practicing for months. For Alexis, the lone man of color on the lacrosse team, it meant facing tough opponents in the South, none more feared than the United States Naval Academy.
But the true test of King and Alexis that spring would have little to do with song or sport. It would cement their friendship even as it forced those around them to examine the meaning of loyalty. And it would put America's oldest, most revered university on public trial as it chose between conscience and accommodation, courage and collusion -- hard choices the rest of the nation would face soon after. That spring, a Harvard more hesitant than heroic would break ranks with its brethren and put itself in the forefront of what was to become an epic struggle, the civil rights movement.
The first signs of trouble surfaced just days before the Glee Club was to depart. The Kavanaugh Hotel in Harrisonburg, Virginia, wrote to say that it could not put up a Negro, though King was welcome to stay with the bell captain, "one of the most respectable colored men of the town." Another school fretted about King's presence at a dance with white girls. Then came the coup de grace: Duke University let it be known that no colored man would be allowed to sing in its chapel.
Glee Club director G. Wallace "Woody" Woodworth was crushed. One of the nation's foremost choirmasters, he and his staff had invested months preparing for and promoting the tour. Now he faced a stark choice: Cancel the tour or abandon Drue King, one of his most devoted singers.
Glee Club members were themselves divided. Some said it made no sense to disappoint so many for the sake of one. Others, like tenor R. Bruce Stedman of Maryland, said they could not leave a classmate behind. Woodworth listened. No racist, he was a trustee of Fisk University in Nashville, a prominent school for African-Americans, and had long encouraged black singers and showcased Negro spirituals alongside classical music. But he feared canceling the tour might embarrass his beloved Harvard. Ego, too, was involved, and the chance to extend the Glee Club's renown into what he called "unknown territories."
There was another reason. As a Harvard student and Glee Club accompanist, Woodworth had toured war-torn Europe in 1921. He had performed in churches whose roofs were still split wide open from shelling and before audiences desperate to be reassured that culture itself had not been wiped out by war. Were a few Southern bigots now to silence the music that a world war could not?
The Glee Club, he argued, was about music, not race. The concert tour would go on - even without Drue King. Those who resisted found themselves summoned before a prominent Boston attorney, a former member of the Glee Club, who reiterated Woodworth's message: "`Your cause is to spread good music, not to solve race-relations problems. That's somebody else's problem.' We heard him and registered our dissent," remembers Stedman.
Drue King listened to the debate without uttering a word. He revered Harvard but never expected it to take on the world, and certainly not on his account. It was not the first time that race had surfaced. When they had performed in New York City a year earlier, Glee Club members had stayed at the Harvard Club or the Royalton Hotel. King alone was directed to take a room at the Harlem YMCA. There had even been grumblings at concerts in Boston's own Gardner Museum. And when Woodworth honored King with a solo, it was always the same Negro spiritual, "Sit Down Servant."
On Sunday morning, March 30, 1941, the Glee Club departed from South Station for New York and a concert at Town Hall, the first stop along the way, and King's last. In Manhattan, he said his goodbyes and wished his classmates well.
Both ambition and tragedy had brought King to Boston. His father, Drue King Sr., was a physician at the veterans hospital in Tuskegee, where he and his wife, Evie, had raised Drue Jr., Abram, and a daughter, Jennie. King's mother, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, lost most of her hearing after giving birth to Drue, but she and Jennie routinely played duets on the family piano. When Jennie announced that she was in love with a hospital orderly, Dr. King turned his back on her. She eloped and returned pregnant and stricken with blood poisoning. She died the morning of June 22, 1935. She was 16.
Dr. King refused to attend the funeral, refused even to allow his wife to use the car to visit the cemetery. For a year, Evie King wore black. Then she moved the boys to Boston to pursue their education -- and to put some distance between herself and her grief. Her husband stayed behind in Alabama.
They first settled into an apartment at 558 Massachusetts Avenue, the Farwell Mansion, its parlors long a focal point of black Boston's social life. Fugitive slaves had once sought refuge there on the underground railroad, and years later, a music student named Coretta Scott - future wife of Martin Luther King Jr. (no relation to Drue King) - would help pay for her room by scrubbing the landings and stairs. In 1936, 16-year-old Drue was admitted to Boston Latin School. "A fine type of colored boy," wrote the headmaster. Graduating 32d in a class of 268, he entered Harvard in September 1939, defying racial expectations. "A mighty unusual Alabama negro, pleasant, distinctly civilized, who intends to go into medicine like his father," wrote his freshman adviser.
To understand how different Harvard was then, one need only consider that in 1939, no professor was more celebrated than anthropologist Edward Hooton. "Hooton of Harvard" was featured on the cover of Life magazine. That same year, Harvard published a book by Hooton positing a relationship between racial types and crimes and concluding that blacks could be natural-born killers. Hooton illustrated the book with his own crudely drawn cartoons, one of which featured a black man with flaring nostrils, clutching a knife beneath a card table. Such works provided the intellectual scaffolding from which racists sought to draw legitimacy and did little to make Harvard more hospitable for its few blacks. Overt racism was rare, blindness to its inequities rampant. Black and white seldom moved beyond surface pleasantries.
"I knew all the colored fellows," recalls Drue King. "I didn't know the white fellows. We weren't hostile, but we weren't chummy."
On April 3, 1941, the Glee Club arrived at Duke University -- without King. That afternoon, Harvard singers were feted at a tea dance. At 8, their voices filled Duke's grand Gothic chapel.
That same day, Harvard's lacrosse squad arrived at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. No sooner had the team arrived than the 18 students found themselves quarantined. The presence of a Negro, LucienAlexis, was instantly reported to the officer of the watch. The mess hall was cleared, the academy's superintendent, Rear Admiral Russell Willson, alerted. The admiral confronted Harvard coach Dick Snibbe, insisting that Alexis be withdrawn. He would not ask his midshipmen to take the field with a colored man.
Meanwhile, the Harvard team huddled in the field house debating what course to take. Bob Strider -- Robert E. Lee Strider II, a reflective young man whose grandfather, Isaac, rode in the Confederate cavalry alongside J. E. B. Stuart -- felt more than most the tug of past and future, North and South. But all were torn. Alexis had never been outgoing, and some teammates found him standoffish. None had taken the trouble to get to know him. As a player, he was dispensable. As a person, he was a cipher to whom few felt indebted.
But Snibbe refused to withdraw him, arguing to the admiral that to do so would embarrass Harvard. Some of Snibbe's own players suspected that he had scheduled the match to provoke just such a confrontation. A social activist, Snibbe made no secret of his contempt for segregation.
Ultimately, it was up to Harvard's athletic director, William J. Bingham, to withdraw Alexis or forfeit the game. Bingham, like Woodworth, was a Harvard legend, a man of sterling reputation. In 1936, he had managed the US Olympic track team in Berlin when Jesse Owens and other black athletes competed in defiance of Adolf Hitler. Would a man who, in the name of racial equality, challenged Hitler on German soil accept any less on American soil?
But Bingham's decision was tempered by experience. The son of an illiterate janitor, he had gone to work in the mills of Lawrence at age 12. At 17, he went straight from the mills to Phillips Exeter Academy. His first year, he was elected president of his class. When he graduated, he was pronounced the greatest natural leader in its history. He was also one of the fastest runners in the nation.
At Harvard, too, Bingham was elected president of his freshman class. An Olympic hopeful, he watched as the 1916 games were scuttled because of World War I. Politics, he swore, must not be allowed to taint sports. Like music for Woodworth, sports for Bingham were to be kept pure and above worldly travails. Berlin merely reaffirmed the rightness of his decision -- that the games should go on, though others argued it would legitimize an evil regime. Besides, in the present instance, it would be unthinkably rude not to accede to the customs of the host. Such gentlemen's agreements were seen as sensible and civil solutions to unsavory problems. "We were guests of the naval academy," said Bingham at the time. "I had no choice in the matter."
Bingham directed Snibbe to withdraw Alexis and place him on the night train to Boston. Alexis did not protest. He wished his teammates luck and suggested that the decision had been his. "Alex, God bless him, said, 'Look, you guys got yourselves down here, you guys play, and I'll take the train home,'" recalls George Hanford, son of a long-serving Harvard dean and the team's All-America goalie. "I get tears in my eyes when I think about it." The next day, Navy crushed Harvard, 12-0.
At his New Orleans high school, Lucien Alexis had ranked second in his class. But then, his father, Lucien Sr., was the principal. As a young man, Lucien Sr. had worked in the mail cars of trains, saving for his own education. At 27, he had set aside enough for four years of college and was accepted by Harvard. But first he was asked to take a year at Exeter. That meant he had only enough money for three years, so he graduated from Harvard a year early -- cum laude. Nicknamed by some the "Negro Einstein," he had no less grand ambitions for his son. "Lucky" Alexis was 14 when Harvard accepted him, but he persuaded an admissions officer to allow him to first spend a year, then two, at Exeter.
Like his father, Alexis was not permitted to live in a dormitory at Exeter but was housed with the track coach, Ralph Lovshin, himself banned from a faculty position because he was Catholic. A letter from Exeter to Harvard described Alexis as among the "homo sapiens of mediocre ability," as if even his species were in question. Immature and away from home for the first time, Alexis struggled, finishing 213th in a class of 222.
He entered Harvard in 1938, accompanied by 52 Exeter classmates. He was treated politely, but it was as W. E. B. Du Bois, the university's first black PhD, had said decades earlier, "I was in Harvard, but not of it." His freshman adviser observed: "Alexis is pretty definitely `lost' at Harvard." A note on his transcript describes "a colored boy with inferiority complex, probably justified - family feels he is a latent genius but SK [a dean] thinks he just hasn't got what it takes."
After the ordeal in Annapolis, Alexis had little taste for returning to an empty campus. Not one to sulk, he weighed his options.
So, too, did Drue King. After his Glee Club classmates left for the South, he found himself alone in Manhattan. But there were movies to see - Tobacco Road, Gone With the Wind, Meet John Doe, The Great Dictator. At one of those theaters, as the lights dimmed, who should take a seat beside him but his friend Lucky Alexis. The two were overjoyed to see each other but spoke little of the events that had brought them together. For them, the great divide between North and South seemed not so great. They spent the week exploring the city, going to movies and clubs, and putting their common disappointment behind them. They returned to Cambridge convinced it would be as if nothing had happened.
They were wrong. Their quiet dignity and sacrifice proved to be a potent agent for change. Word seeped out of what had happened. Knots of students gathered. They were, by turns, stunned, ashamed, then angered.
Less than a week after the Annapolis game, 15 student leaders demanded that the Harvard Athletic Association swear never again to bend to discrimination. Some 175 freshmen signed a petition within 15 minutes. The number swelled to 600. Among the signatures was that of Langdon P. Marvin, Franklin D. Roosevelt's godson and president of the student council. The Harvard Teachers Union - more than 100 faculty members - issued its own condemnation, signed by its president, literary critic F. O. Matthiessen.
Boston's newspapers, The New York Times, the Associated Press, and others across the land turned an eye to Harvard. Massachusetts congressman Thomas H. Eliot, class of 1928 and grandson of former Harvard president Charles William Eliot, weighed in. US Senator David I. Walsh, chairman of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs, pledged to investigate the matter. Appeals went out to prominent Harvard graduates, including President Roosevelt. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People demanded an explanation from both Harvard and Annapolis. So, too, did labor unions, alumni, and ordinary citizens.
Thomas J. Perry, a Harvard alumnus and former Glee Club member, wrote a scathing letter to Woodworth, calling the club's decision "a disgrace." A wounded Woodworth fired back: "If you know anything about the South, have ever been there, or ever talked with any Southern people, you know that it is not possible, things in this unhappy world being what they are, for a negro to participate in a joint concert and to be a guest of these colleges."
Woodworth's letter went on to say: "When you consider that 60 men had an exceedingly good time at these four concerts and that there were any number of significant results from the musical point of view in this first excursion in the South, I think that your suggestion that we should have refused to sing is a little bit hot-headed. Is it not asking of the Harvard Glee Club a pretty large price for the sake of making a public demonstration on the race question?"
Meanwhile, the Harvard Crimson hammered away at Harvard's decision to exclude Alexis: "Annapolis officials have been reminded that Harvard is not accustomed to having such alternatives offered to it by any man, even if he is one of the three full admirals in the United States Navy. Moreover, those officials here who asked the negro to return to college should explain the reasons for their actions, by which Harvard has kowtowed to Jimcrowism. Finally, Navy bigwigs should be taught that when this country, this college and the navy itself declare their faith in democratic equality, they mean to practice what they preach."
Harvard's senior administrators and the conservative Harvard Corporation that governed the university were all feeling the heat of public scrutiny. And still Harvard refused to admit any error of judgment. An internal memo by an unidentified senior administrator +reveals how the top echelon viewed the matter. An April 8, 1941, note reads: "Reported on developments to staff meeting and stated view that I thought Bingham had made essentially the right decision in withdrawing the boy, the mess having arisen, rather than telling the entire Navy and the entire South to go to Hell on an insoluble matter of prejudice."
For the memo's author, it was not a moral dilemma but a practical quandary: "To my mind, a flat statement of policy against playing any southern team simply because they may object to our playing a negro would tremendously damage the prestige of Harvard as a national university in the deep south. A good deal has been accomplished in this direction in the last ten years. On the other hand, an open statement of policy, saying the whole question was of no importance, would probably antagonize many liberals in other sections of the country.
"Query: Can we not hold our position as a broad-minded catholic institution, knowing the facts of life about various sectional differences in this country, or must we start fighting the Civil War all over again?"
But the pressure continued to mount. Within days, the Harvard Athletic Association, under direction of the corporation, formally announced that it would no longer countenance discrimination. Henceforth, everyone entitled to compete would be allowed to do so. No one would ever again be left behind. And on May 21, in a fractious meeting of the Glee Club, a resolution was introduced to ban discrimination. It passed, 55-8, with Woodworth still in opposition. Members elected Drue King vice president.
Because Harvard was Harvard, its decisions resonated well beyond Cambridge. When the lacrosse team arrived by bus for a game at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, black cadets were waiting to greet Lucky Alexis, to offer their support, and to demonstrate that their academy was a cut above their Southern cousin.
That fall, Harvard played football against Navy, fielding a black player, Ray Guild. The Crimson held the vaunted Middies to a scoreless tie. But to many at Harvard Stadium, it felt like an outright victory, and a comeuppance at that. It was not just home-field advantage that favored them, but justice itself.
But rules change more easily than attitudes. Harvard's president, James B. Conant, had missed the entire tempest, away in England on a mission at Roosevelt's behest. But his sympathies were not with King or Alexis. Conant saw himself as a patriot and had placed the naval academy on a pedestal. It pained him to see the academy shaken, especially by his own institution. He wrote Admiral Willson: "I was away from my university post when the recent unfortunate incident in our athletic relationships occurred. I should like to have the opportunity to tell you in person that we are all hoping that the good relationships between Harvard and Annapolis will continue unimpaired, in spite of certain directions which Press comment has taken." Soon after, Conant was a guest on the admiral's boat and honored to review the academy's all-white midshipmen in parade dress.
As for Drue King, he had never sought confrontation and shunned whatever fuss others made over him. Still, some appeared to hold him accountable for Harvard's loss of face. In June 1942, King applied to Harvard Medical School. Harvard's letter of recommendation, superficially supportive, reeked of resentment. "I think it is fair that first of all you should know Mr. King feels rather definitely that the negro is unnecessarily oppressed and that he is going to do all he can to see that this condition is remedied thoroughly," wrote assistant dean Richard F. French. "The methods which he would employ are not those of insinuation but those of aggression - he is quite willing to make a cause celebre of the matter if the occasion arises and he thinks it necessary." King was rejected.
He spent the next years in the Army Medical Corps. He returned to finish his last year at Harvard, where the registrar described him as a "nice colored lad, with a slight nervous tick." When he applied to Tufts Medical School, Harvard seemed more forgiving. In a July 30, 1946, letter, an assistant dean wrote that "Mr. King is not brilliant by any means, but from our records has a good mental endowment which, when fully used, should bring the average of his work up considerably from that shown while he was here. Among other things, I think he was partially disturbed by the negro problem while here at College. I have talked to him recently and feel that this is now a subordinate issue to his becoming a doctor." King graduated from Tufts 50th in a class of 95. "He adjusted himself to the racial difficulties with which he was inevitably surrounded in a very satisfactory and pleasant way," wrote Dwight O'Hara, a Tufts dean.
In the years after, King's protests were private. Driving north, he would stop at a gas station and ask if he or his children could use the restroom. If the answer was yes, he would buy gas. If no, he would drive on.
Lucien Alexis faced greater disappointment. Decades after graduating, he confided in a New Orleans friend, Dr. Patrick Dowling, that he had applied to Harvard Medical School and been accepted, but that shortly thereafter he was summoned and informed that his acceptance had been rescinded. The school, he said, had accepted another Negro who was to have been his roommate but had withdrawn. Because it was unthinkable for him to room with a white, the school said it had no alternative. (The medical school says it keeps no record of those it has rejected.)
Alexis then applied to and was rejected by Harvard Law School. Finally, he applied to Harvard Business School and was accepted. On his application, he wrote, "I have had no social life which would interest the committee. I have been admitted to no club and to no fraternity." Even then, he yearned to practice medicine.
Years passed. Wallace "Woody" Wood worth retired as Glee Club director in 1958 but continued to teach. He felt betrayed by the turmoil of the sixties. Accustomed to being a campus pied piper, adored by students, he found himself sidelined, ignored, and even, at times, vilified. In the sweltering heat of a mid-July afternoon in 1969, he stood in Harvard Yard enraptured as a former student conducted the Chicago Children's Choir. Those young black voices were the last concert Woody Woodworth would hear. He was found slumped over his notes in the library the next day. He died on July 18, 1969.
Today at Exeter, the head of alumni relations is African-American, a classmate of one of LuckyAlexis's sons. The track is named for Ralph Lovshin, the track coach forbidden from being on the faculty because he was Catholic.
Eight years after Alexis was turned away from Annapolis, the academy graduated its first black midshipman, Wesley A. Brown. Before retiring in 1969, Brown held the rank of lieutenant commander. Rear Admiral Russell Willson served only one year at the naval academy, his tenure cut short by Pearl Harbor.
Of course, today Harvard is anything but a sea of white faces. Diversity is not merely tolerated but celebrated. And yet issues of race can still divide, as evidenced by the controversy over speech codes and racial epithets, and questions raised by eminent black scholars about exactly which black students are admitted and why. And though the ranks of the Glee Club are open to all, not a single black was in the Glee Club of 2003-2004.
Robert E. Lee Strider, whose Southern sympathies once competed with his loyalty to teammate Alexis, went on to become an esteemed president of Colby College in Maine. All-America lacrosse goalie George Hanford became a Harvard dean and president of the College Boards. Glee Club singer R. Bruce Stedman, who once argued that the concert tour should be canceled, went on to become assistant secretary of the United Nations. Dick Snibbe's foray into coaching ended after one year. He became an architect and lives in Maryland.
Athletic director Bill Bingham served Harvard for three decades. After several losing seasons on the gridiron, he was indecorously let go in February 1951. Conant told the press but forgot to inform Bingham. He learned of his firing from a reporter. For a time, he is said to have worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, recruiting Harvard students. In his later years, he contracted bone cancer. His wife had him taken to the emergency room of a Miami veterans hospital, where he was abandoned on a gurney without identification and admitted as a John Doe. It was days before anyone knew who he was. He died soon after, on September 6, 1971. Only his widow, one of two sons, and a preacher paid to read the 23d Psalm were in attendance when his ashes were laid to rest in a Virginia churchyard. Today, the Bingham Prize is one of Harvard's most coveted athletic awards, though few know anything of the man for whom it is named.
Lucien Alexis would go on to head a New Orleans business school for black students. His two sons, Lucien III and Llewllyn, attended Exeter, though neither went to Harvard. To them he expressed the importance of making friends at least as much as scholarship, a lesson he had perhaps come by the hard way. Decades later, he took them to the field house and showed them the photo of the 1941 lacrosse squad that still hangs on the wall. Alexis was as private as he was independent. He built his home by hand and much of the furniture as well. Like Woodworth, he resented the rudeness and rancor of the 1960s and was convinced that only Southerners could solve the problem of race in the South. Not one to lament the past, he often quoted Omar Khayyam:
The moving finger writes; and having writ, Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a line, Nor all your tears wash out a Word of it.
Alexis had two daughters. One, Luchelle Nwakogba, left the United States long ago to live in Nigeria. The other, Lurita Alexis Doan, a graduate of Vassar, is one of America's most successful black businesswomen, founder and owner of New Technology Management Inc., a $100-million-a-year-plus corporation. One of its first contracts was with the US Navy -- the very Navy that would not field a team against her father. As for Lucien Alexis, he died on February 4, 1975, at age 53 and is interred in the family crypt in New Orleans.
Drue King became an internist in Cleveland. He served on the faculty of Case Western Reserve University, became president of the Shaker Heights school board, and helped secure privileges for black doctors in the city's hospitals. Today, at 82, in frail health and in a wheelchair, he speaks with tenderness of both Harvard and his friend Lucky Alexis. He still savors the honor of having been asked to sing his solo, "Sit Down Servant," on graduation day, June 6, 1942, before a class of 800 about to go to war. Among them was Lucien Alexis. It was the last time the two friends would see each other or speak.
Education has remained a centerpiece in the King family: Daughter Judith holds a PhD from Columbia; another, Crystal, graduated from Mount Holyoke, from which their mother, Frances, also graduated, in 1942; a third daughter, Carol, holds a doctorate from Kent State University in Ohio. King's only son, Drue King III, graduated from Harvard in 1969. An outspoken advocate of black power, he published a newspaper called The Rebellion News. Two of King's granddaughters, Chaundra and Gail, also graduated from Harvard, making the King family one of a select few black families to boast three generations of Harvard graduates. Another granddaughter, Deja Lewis, a dean's list student, graduated last year from Duke. She was invited to perform as a pianist, playing Chopin's "Fantasie-Impromptu" at a graduation event, but one reserved for Duke's black students. It was held in the auditorium next to the chapel where her grandfather had been forbidden from singing. But the events of spring 1941 were utterly unknown to her. Grandfather had never spoken of them. History had come so far as to be forgotten.
Ted Gup is the author of The Book of Honor: The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives. A Guggenheim Fellow, he is on leave from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he is a journalism professor. He can be reached at email@example.com.