Photo by Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University on Wikimedia Commons

The Courageous Merze Tate

Barbara D. Savage

On a spring evening in 1921, more than four hundred people crammed into a high school auditorium in Battle Creek, Michigan, to witness an annual student oratorical contest where one girl and one boy would be crowned winners. Merze Tate, a sixteen-year-old Black girl, stood in front of the predominately white audience and proclaimed into their silence that “for two hundred and forty-four years my ancestors were held in bonds of slavery, deprived of every opportunity for mental development, civil expression and hindered in their pursuits of human endeavor,” and then saw continued hatred and denial after emancipation. But in a time of global war, whites had “called upon two million black men from Africa, from the West Indies, and from America, to fight that the world might enjoy the benefits of civilization. They fought as men, they fought nobly, they fought gloriously.” Despite that, she argued, they were still denied liberty and the privileges of democracy.1

Tate did not falter as she made one bold plea after another. Saying, “Oh, America,” she demanded that the “14,000,000 of my people” be extended a fair chance at jobs and freedoms open to recent immigrants. Taking seriously the “oratorical” nature of the contest, she reached back to anti-slavery rhetoric that deftly deployed the image of the heroic Black soldier:

It was of a Negro soldier that Wendell Phillips, immortal statesman and orator, said: “But fifty years hence, when Truth gets a hearing, the Introduction 2 introduction Muse of History will put Phocion of the Greek, and Brutus for the Roman, Hampden for England, Fayette for France, choose Washington as the bright, consummate flower of our earlier civilization, and John Brown the ripe fruit of our noonday, then, dipping her pen in the sunlight, will write in the clear blue, above them all, the name of the soldier, the statesman, the martyr, Toussaint l’Ouverture.”

With that, she rested her case for an end to racial inequality while teaching her audience about the continuing consequences of slavery, the sacrifices of Black soldiers from the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa, and the continued denial of “common justice” to Black people here and around the globe. By invoking Toussaint, she held high the name of the Black liberator warrior of Haiti, but she also honored the Black men in her own family who had served in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, and her older brother who had been in the Navy in World War I.2

“Miss Merze Tate, a colored girl, was the winner for the girls’ division of the contest, her subject being ‘The Negro in the World War,’ ” the Battle Creek Enquirer reported the next day. That event marked the start of a public career that Merze Tate forged in a world that routinely disrespected Black women and men as intellectual, political, and moral inferiors.

Her courage and prodigious intellectual gifts would carry her far away from her native Michigan, first to a graduate degree in the 1930s from Columbia Teachers College. But that was just the beginning. Thanks to a fellowship from her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, she studied international relations at the University of Oxford, becoming in 1935 the first Black American to earn a graduate degree there. After teaching at southern Black colleges, she went on in 1941 to be the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in government from Harvard. From there, and against all odds, she assumed a professorship that lasted thirty-five years at the prestigious Howard University, a rare achievement for women of her generation and at any institution, whether Black or white.

Tate aspired to be an educator who was also a producer of new knowledge and not just a consumer of it. A gifted writer and extraordinary scholar, she published five groundbreaking books (including one from Harvard and one from Yale) and dozens of articles on the role of race in European and U.S. imperialism in Asia, the Pacific, Africa, and elsewhere. Her innovative work rivaled those of her male colleagues in the United States and abroad and in fields where few women worked then or now.

As a child, Tate became fascinated by maps, geography, and travel accounts. As a teenager, news of a war of global proportions mingled with accounts from Black men in her own family who returned from service abroad to continued racial discrimination in their home country. But their tales of travel also kindled her imagination and her determination to see the world and its wonders for herself. As an adult, she circled the globe twice, traveling alone. She set foot on every continent but two—Antarctica and South America. As one of the earliest Fulbright scholars, she spent a year in India in 1950 which allowed her to explore there, in Asia, and the Indo-Pacific. In her seventies, she finally made it to Africa—twice. During her travels, she found herself in the presence of Adolf Hitler, Pope Pius XII, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Desmond Tutu, to name a few. Her travel informed her work and vice versa. There are few substitutes for seeing first-hand the places one is studying. She mixed her missions, spending time researching in archives, touring in leisure, and enjoying the company of new friends and colleagues along the way.

From Merze Tate: The Global Odyssey of a Black Woman Scholar by Barbara D. Savage. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

[1] “Hinman Contest Held Last Night—Merrill Bramble for the Boys and Merze Tate for the Girls, Were the Winners—Big Crowd Was Present,” Battle Creek Enquirer, 5/1/1921; “Able Orations Won in Contest,” Battle Creek Enquirer, 5/15/1921.

[2] Tate was quoting the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, “A Hero of the Black Race,” lecture delivered in New York and Boston, December 1861, and widely reprinted, including in A Library of American Literature from the Earliest Settlement to the Present, ed. Edmund Stedman and Ellen Hutchinson (New York: Webster, 1891).

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