Special to The Star
Like scores of other private universities, the College of the Holy Cross was slow to embrace diversity.
Though the Worcester, Mass., school’s first valedictorian — the class of 1849’s James Augustine Healy, who would later become a seminal figure in the Catholic Church — was the mixed-race son of a slave, there were only a few black undergrads on campus more than a century later.
“When it came to black students,” Diane Brady writes in “Fraternity,” her stirring new book, “there seemed to be an unspoken pattern emerging each year: One was admitted from the North, one from the South; one of those two would typically be on athletic scholarship, one on academic scholarship.”
During at least one academic year in the 1960s, according to the book, the 2,200-member student body included a single African-American. “For some in the administration,” Brady adds, “that was sufficient.”
The Rev. John E. Brooks, a theology professor who was about to be installed as the school’s dean, wanted to change this. Holy Cross, he thought, was too white.
Several years before he and his colleagues began to welcome female students, Brooks argued that black men deserved the chance to attend Holy Cross and that the university would benefit from more inclusive admissions and outreach policies.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Brooks decided it was time to accomplish these goals.
Brooks’ aggressive recruitment drive changed the face of Holy Cross and helped propel a group of talented African-Americans to greater heights later in life. Among them were Clarence Thomas, a future Supreme Court justice; Edward P. Jones, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction; Eddie Jenkins, a member of the undefeated 1973 Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins; Stanley Grayson, a deputy mayor of New York City; and Theodore Wells, a lawyer who has represented governors, Cabinet members and other politicians.
Brooks, of course, was wise and courageous to rethink his school’s racial mix, as were the black students who opted for Holy Cross when they could just as easily have attended any number of other colleges that were far more diverse. Together, they were on the right side of history. But that didn’t necessarily make the transition easier.
For Brady, the era’s biggest concerns — foremost among them being the struggle for racial equality and the Vietnam War — offer a means of exploring how Thomas, Jones and their fellow black classmates experienced life as part of a tiny minority at Holy Cross. And vice versa: the book’s characters also help the reader understand what it was like to be young, smart and oppressed in a land of supposedly limitless opportunity.
The book also serves as a minibiography of one of the most influential people in the United States. It’s intriguing, for example, to learn that Thomas, who almost never talks during Supreme Court proceedings, was “a … vocal presence in the (Black Student Union)” and that at least a few of his fellow black students “thought Thomas was incapable of shutting up at BSU meetings.”
Equally fascinating is the degree to which Thomas was driven by anger. He was resentful of his unyielding grandfather and wounded by his experience while studying in Missouri to be a priest. Thomas he would later recall that a white seminary student, upon learning that Martin Luther King Jr. had been wounded by gunfire, said, “That’s good; I hope the son of a bitch dies.”
Thomas was so prone to rage that, Brady writes, it could be “corrosive.” Armchair analysts will have to decide for themselves how this might have shaped Thomas’ career as a jurist.
The most interesting figure in the book, however, is Jones. The son of an illiterate single mother, he penned a social-issues column for the Holy Cross newspaper and resolved to chronicle the lives of his fellow Washington, D.C., residents in a set of fictional tales inspired by James Joyce’s “Dubliners.”
Jones published his Washington stories in 1992 in a book titled “Lost in the City,” but the intervening years often were trying. “Shortly after (his mother) Jeannette died in 1975,” Brady writes, “Jones sold his first story to Essence. He didn’t realize it until 15 months after the fact, as he was homeless at the time.”
Better times were ahead. Jones won the Pulitzer Prize and other awards for “The Known World,” his 2003 novel about life in pre-Civil War Virginia. It was a book, Brady writes, “that had been unfolding in his mind since he learned about black slave owners in a class at Holy Cross.”
Kevin Canfield is a freelance writer who lives in New York.
Posted on Thu, Jan. 05, 2012 04:00 PM