Module I: “Before I’ll Be a Slave, I’ll Be Buried in My Grave”: Early Black Student Protest and Fisk University (1920s)

In 1917, there were 2132 black students enrolled at the HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).  At this point in time, the HBCUs, Oberlin, and Talledega are the only schools that accepted black college students.  In 1927, there were 13,580 and these greater numbers meant greater demands for social justice.  1917-1927 represents a period of black student protest that ultimately reshaped the college experience of the early 20th century.

Black college student protest in the 1920s was most often in response to strict dress and behavior codes. Colleges made these rules because the whites in control considered blacks “too savage.”  Needless to say, black students were enraged and had a host of black political figures, ideas, and movements on their side: the demands of black soldiers returning home from WWI, the Marcus Garvey Movement and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the Harlem Renaissance, new voting trends (one out of four Harlem voters chose the Socialist ticket in the 1920 elections), new black businesses and institutions such as the NAACP and Urban League, and a new black press (featuring publications like African Times and Orient Review, Messenger, Negro World, Crusader, Negro Voice, Challenge, and Crisis.)  Black College students had an important political presence in the 1920s and came to function as one of the most significant aspects of what was then called the New Negro Movement, also known as the Harlem Renaissance. In fact, scholars have argued that black college students actually considered themselves THE NEW NEGROES.

These videos provide some context to this history:

Black college students in the 1920s saw their battles for a critical education on college campus as part of the larger fight for black rights. An example of the pulse of the moment might be best captured by three articles from the policy statement of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA in 1920 called “The Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World.”

  • Article 30 demands an education that is prejudice-free for blacks as the only way to ensure prosperity.
  • Article 31 stands firmly against a majority white teaching force, called alien teachers, who are believed to inadvertently and deliberately teach that Negroes are inferior.
  • Article 49 demands that Negro children be taught Negro history for the sole purpose of their benefit.

These three articles are almost like a blueprint for 1920s black students’ challenges to higher education and very clearly relate to the demands of 1950 and 1960s protesters in modules III and IV.  Black students at Fisk, Howard, Lincoln, and Hampton Universities forwarded new race relations and discourses on U.S. college campuses.

Fisk College Students and Their 1920s Revolution

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Fisk University stands out as an example of the power of black students and communities to reclaim their education, no matter the costs to them. When the young white president, McKenzie, became the fourth chief executive officer of Fisk University in 1915, he had no idea what was coming and was forced out of the presidency by dissident black students and alumnae who were furious about his supra-genteel dress code, requirements to sing old-time spirituals at Jim Crow concerts, and suppression of the campus newspaper.  In November and December of 1924, the students took things in their own hands and brought in a brand new year in 1925.  According to one of the deans, the students broke curfew and bum-rushed buildings, breaking windows and overturning chairs, all while keeping up a steady chant of  “DuBois! DuBois!”  Their other popular chant based on their collective memories and rhetorics from an African American spiritual included:  “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave.”

The claim of students to prefer burial than the slavery of higher education’s learning was not simply clever word-play but a promise to create a new future for themselves with education. Remember, their parents’ and grandparents’ generation would have witnessed slavery. President McKenzie responded to them with brute force and had the Nashville police arrest seven random students for inciting a riot even though two of them were not even on campus that day.  The black community of Nashville as well as black alumnae did not support McKenzie’s decision, especially his use of a racist, white police force against black students.  2500 people from the black community of Nashville attended a church gathering the next day to condemn McKenzie’s decision.  The students themselves were incensed by McKenzie’s decision, boycotted classes for ten weeks, and applied to Howard University en masse.  The administration, trying to downplay the boycott, even acknowledged that half of the students were still boycotting classes after five weeks.  The students of course insisted that this percentage was much higher.  When McKenzie insisted that local merchants not cash students’ checks to leave Nashville, black bookkeepers cashed the students’ checks with their own monies.

Though McKenzie certainly did have a hold on Nashville at one time, it did not last long after the student protest: he was gone from Fisk by April of 1925.  An administrative committee was appointed to direct the university and they immediately allowed for a new student newspaper and placed Fisk alumnae on the board of trustees.  Suspended students were readmitted to the college, the athletics and fraternity and sorority system were allowed back on campus, and a student council was given responsibility for matters of dress codes. When a white clergyman, Thomas Elsa Jones, was appointed as the new Fisk president, the editors of the student newspaper promised their cooperation to President Jones as long as he adhered to what they wanted, what you might call a professional way of proclaiming: don’t start none, won’t be none.  Jones’s acceptance of his new job, thus, required him to honor the wishes of African American students who changed the content and character of college education in the 1920s.   

In this part of the workshop, we will work with the language and rhetoric of the chants that students used in their protests. 

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