The latest in a series reviewing books by Ephs, about Ephs, or otherwise having particular relevance to the Williams community.

Parallel Worlds: The Remarkable Gibbs-Hunts and the Enduring (In)significance of Melanin, by Adele Logan Alexander (non-Eph).

It wasn’t until I got to page 98 of Parallel Worlds: The Remarkable Gibbs-Hunts and the Enduring (In)significance of Melanin that I realized it might belong on the Eph bookshelf. That’s when readers that don’t already know the biographies of William Henry Hunt and Ida Alexander Gibbs first learn that Hunt was the sole African-American to matriculate at Williams College in the class of 1898. Hunt didn’t tarry long in Williamstown and neither does Adele Logan Alexander’s busy social history / biography, but it’s nonetheless worth an EphBlog review both to point readers to this depiction of the upper echelons of early 20th century African-American society and to highlight the Williams stories that appear.

Ida Gibbs, likely the granddaughter of Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson, was an early African-American masters degree recipient from Oberlin College. Born in Vancouver during the American Civil War, she and her illustrious father (the first elected African-American judge in the United States) traveled to Minnesota in 1889, where he addressed the civic league — and where they encountered William Henry Hunt. In this era of thev closing of the frontier, Hunt, who had been born in the south in 1862 and lived a largely itinerant life, took advantage of this encounter to live the frontiersman’s dream: reinventing himself and traveling to the edges of the known world, all for the love of adventure — and of a woman. Outlining a new story of his youth as a world traveler, Hunt impressed the Gibbses, then resolved to acquire the education necessary to sucessfully woo the beautiful Oberlin graduate. In his new identity, he persuaded the headmaster at Lawrence Academy in Groton, Massachusetts to admit him, then worked his way through Lawrence as the only African-American student of his era — at least two had previously graduated — ascending to the editorship of the school newspaper and winning several debate prizes. Graduating in 1894, he enrolled at Williams, where he remained for two semesters.

With education in hand, Hunt joined the State Department’s consular service, continuing his long-distance courtship of Gibbs from Madagascar. Their 1904 marriage was featured in both the capital’s leading newspapers: the Washington Post and the Washington Evening Star (although, interestingly, not in the Washington Bee, the leading non-white newspaper).┬áTogether at last after a fifteen-year friendship/courtship, the pair would serve as American overseas representatives in Madagascar, St. Etienne, Guadeloupe, the Azores, and Liberia over the next three decades, surviving America’s evolution into the Jim Crow era and Woodrow Wilson’s purge of long-established African-American civil servants from the federal government. Meanwhile, in her own career, Gibbs would become an outspoken feminist and “internationalist”, a renowned speaker and organizer, and a friend and collaborator of W.E.B. Du Bois. (Gibbs encouraged her to intersperse breaks in Europe and America with her time in Africa because of what Alexander describes as “a well-intended, chivalrous limitation in which he included all American and European women.”

Logan Alexander, an adjunct professor of history at George Washington University, tells their story and others in the pages of Parallel Worlds, and it’s the “others” that present the biggest problems for the narrative. Alexander’s effort to use the Gibbs-Hunts as a frame for a broader social narrative about African-American elites and their role in “progressive” thought in the United States stumbles on the problems of geography. With its protagonists on the far side of the globe, Alexander is diverted at length from her most interesting characters or forced to focus at length on their rare trips home, while occasionally leaving their relationship and time abroad unevenly sketched. Even so, the Gibbs-Hunts story is a good one, and one that illustrates both the post Civil War promise of equality and the cruel suppression of that promise as the Jim Crow era fully matured.

Hunt wasn’t the first African-American at Williams, as you probably know. When Hunt enrolled in 1894, Gaius Charles Brolin had graduated three years earlier and been followed by several others, including two members of the class of 1897 who were on-campus with Hunt. Yet unlike at Lawrence Academy, where Hunt “said he faced little racial prejudice,” Williams greeted Hunt with hostility. Upon learning his race, Hunt’s roommate left Williams “without a word of explanation,” and the faculty secretary, a “chaplain for the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War,” chewed Hunt out for failing to “report” his race to the College. And this cold welcome reinforced Hunt’s existing concerns that at 32, he was already too old to be embarking on a four-year course of study in the Berkshire wilderness.

Alexander also reprints portions of an editorial from the 1895 yearbook, critiquing Hunt as a student with an “abnormally large head” with insufficient “meekness” and “humility” for a freshman. Not surprising, then, that Hunt departed after only a year. (Alexander fairly points out that a white student was “similarly singled out for censure” and also left Williams and that “less than half of the[] entering class” of 1898 graduated in four years.

Did Hunt leave filled with bitterness? That seems unlikely. His papers included a photograph from the tenth reunion of the class of 1898, and in his (unpublished) memoirs, he attributed much of his misery to the difficulties of “attempting to participate in undergraduate athletics” at his age. The college rector, Theodore Sedgwick, helped introduce Hunt to New York City society through St. George’s Episcopal Church, where he soon met Theodore Roosevelt and J. Pierpont Morgan and landed a job at brokerage house Price & McCormick. Even in 1895, it seems, Williams College functioned as a networking gateway even for its unhappiest students.

Later, Hunt himself lent a hand to African-American Ephs. In 1917, Lieutenant Rayford Logan graduated Williams, and he soon linked up with the Gibbs-Hunts by way of Du Bois and Senegalese leader Blaise Diagne, who Hunt had befriended in Madagascar. Logan would eventually join the State Department and become a leader in efforts to desegregate it following World War Two.

By recounting the story of William Henry Hunt, one of the earliest African-American admitted to Williams, Adele Logan Alexander has added a piece to our knowledge of Williams history. But there’s so much more to be done! To take up one of David’s favorite themes, there are a galaxy of interesting theses about Williams College history that are yet to be written — and if you want your thesis to be read again and again in the years to come, think about choosing one. And let me know, so I can read it!

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