Research documents university’s first Black students
My San Antonio
August 14, 2020
BIG RAPIDS — Research conducted by Ferris State University’s diversity and inclusion office detailing Ferris’ relationship with Hampton University in Virginia is documented in “Haste To Rise: A Remarkable Experience of Black Education During Jim Crow,” a book now available through PM Press.
Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion David Pilgrim and his colleague, Multimedia Specialist Franklin Hughes, co-wrote the 224-page book.
Hughes said the genesis of their work came several years ago when Pilgrim asked him to find images of Gideon Smith.
Smith has been a recurring nominee for the College Football Hall of Fame, had graduated from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in 1910 and went on to study and play football at Ferris. Smith continued his education and athletic career at Michigan Agricultural College, now Michigan State University.
Hughes was to give the images to Diane Cleland, then the docent at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, to paint a Smith portrait.
Hughes’ research into Black students who attended Ferris in the first quarter of the 20th century pointed to a significant relationship with Hampton.
“From around 1910, into the early 1920s, photos in Ferris yearbooks showed these groups of students, who we found were generally from Virginia and nearby states,” Hughes said. “When we followed up on their backgrounds, connections to Hampton kept showing up.”
“Haste to Rise” provides information on more than 60 young men who traveled north to Ferris to complete college preparatory classes and degree programs, without the barriers and indignities of the Jim Crow racial hierarchy.
Hughes said there are many stories of leadership and excellence in a variety of professions.
“Percival (P.L.) Prattis began at Hampton, and graduated from Ferris Institute in 1916,” Hughes said. “After establishing himself at the Chicago Defender, the leading black newspaper in the country, Prattis went on to a 30-year career with the Pittsburgh Courier, where he retired as executive editor. A.J. Wells completed college prep classes at Ferris in 1916, and is among the first African-Americans to graduate from the Northwestern University Dental School, when he earned his doctor of dental surgery degree in 1919. After Russell A. Dixon graduated from Ferris in 1923, Woodbridge Ferris used his influence to help him attend Northwestern’s dental school. Dixon was the first African-American to earn an advanced degree in Dentistry from Northwestern in 1933. He had a distinguished career as dean of the Howard University School of Dentistry. Dixon built Howard’s school into one of the foremost institutions of dental education in the United States, during a 37-year career.”
Pilgrim said this project was “most assuredly” a labor of love, as nearly all of the research was done at night and on the weekends.
He added these stories are more than a footnote in Ferris’ history.
“We feel it represents a major part of the early history of Ferris Institute,” Pilgrim said. “Their stories showed a side of our founder, Woodbridge Ferris, which had been lost, namely that he was a strong and powerful voice for racial justice. That was his legacy. It is our mandate.”
Hughes said that role of advocate and mentor applies as well to Gerrit Masselink, who had his first leadership responsibilities at the institute when Ferris became governor of Michigan in 1913.
“We learned a great deal about how they both worked to support and mentor Hampton students, which we wanted to make known, for posterity,” Hughes said. “I hope this is an uplifting story that shows how providing opportunity can make an important difference. We would be very happy to see this spur a re-establishment of our relationship with Hampton. It could be a unique and valuable collaboration.”
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