Two and a half decades ago, after the system of apartheid fell in the Republic of South Africa, President Nelson Mandela turned to the Anglican archbishop of South Africa, the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu, asking his counsel about how to proceed to heal the deep divisions in South African society. Bishop Tutu wisely advised Mandela to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995–96, and Mandela appointed Tutu as the commission’s chair.
The plan was simple and straightforward: “[The process] opened up a way to talk about the individual and systemic wrongs committed under 43 years of apartheid, a government-imposed system of discrimination based upon skin color. … From 1996 onward, some 2,000 people, perpetrators and victims, told their stories of what they’d done or what had been done to them, under apartheid” (emphasis added).
In the light of all of the revelatory events that have surfaced in the last year or two in American society, it occurred to my family and me that my dad’s story is worth sharing, in particular with the alumni of the venerable institution from which he graduated: Northwestern. My family has no way to document this, of course, but we believe that my dad, Alfred Douglas Price Sr. ’24, may have been among the first — if not the first — African-American graduate of the School of Commerce at Northwestern (now the Kellogg School of Management). We have a Commencement bulletin with his name in it dating to 1924 (see Figure 2). The point of this story is that Dad almost didn’t get to graduate due to the racism in his academic department.
Dad was born in 1896 into a family of relative economic advantage. My dad’s father, Lorenzo Otis Price, was a successful farmer, and his wife, Missouri Reese Price, was the only Black schoolteacher for miles around the hamlet where they resided, Elmont, Va. She, too, brought regular income into their household. My grandfather built a Victorian-style home for his family that even had its own clay tennis court. So, my dad and his sister grew up in a comparatively advantaged household, measured by Black or white standards. Both children were home-schooled by their mother for elementary education; thereafter, my dad commuted by train to Richmond, Va., to attend Wayland Academy, a Black-owned college preparatory school. Following his graduation from Wayland, Dad matriculated at Virginia Union University in Richmond, one of our nation’s historically Black colleges and universities, where he majored in business, graduating in 1916.
For most African Americans at that time, this would have been enough to ensure a successful life, but Dad had higher aspirations. He said that he could see America changing around him, and he wanted a more widely recognized education to be able to compete successfully in that world. Against his parents’ wishes, in 1922 Dad applied for admission to Northwestern University’s School of Commerce in order to pursue a bachelor of science in commerce, which at the time was an advanced degree. He commenced studies there in the fall. To put himself through school he worked summers as a dining car porter and waiter, and during the school year he worked weekends in the dining room of a North Chicago country club. It was a struggle financially, but he made it.
Back then, as now, graduate programs concluded with some variant of comprehensive examinations and a culminating exercise, such as a project or thesis. Dad recounted that, during his final semester, after he and his fellow students finished their exams, they all rushed over to the department offices to see the grades posted for their theses. When the group arrived, Dad discovered that his name was not even on the list. “What,” he and his classmates wondered, “could explain this?”
He asked to see the department head who was responsible for assigning grades to students’ theses, to inquire about what he hoped was an oversight, and was ushered into his office. There he was told by the chairman that, “I have never before had a Negro student, much less given one a grade, and I have no plan to start now.” Dad said he was shocked, confused, crestfallen — a blur of emotions. He left the office in tears.
When he got outside, Dad said he found that several of his friends and classmates had stayed behind, wanting to learn what had happened. He told them, and they, too, expressed dismay and outrage. One of them asked Dad, “Al, you kept a carbon copy, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” Dad replied, “Of course I kept a carbon copy.” Dad gave his friends the copy of his thesis, and they wrote and signed a letter of petition to the dean, requesting redress of this grievance. Thankfully, the dean took the matter seriously. He removed Dad’s name from the paper and had a small committee of faculty read and grade the paper. This group’s clear consensus was this paper was passing work. On the basis of this judgment by the faculty, the dean took the extreme step of overriding the decision of the individual faculty member who had withheld his approval, and certified Dad to graduate with his class. But as a result of the racial animosity of one man, Dad almost didn’t receive the degree that he had earned.
One might well ask, “How was it possible that this happened?” The truth likely lies in a reality with which all African Americans are familiar, but which many whites don’t fully grasp. African Americans’ skin color comes in all hues, from deep ebony to dark brown to light brown, on through to what Black folk call “high yellow,” a complexion so fair that it is almost indistinguishable from Caucasian coloration. My dad’s complexion was light; he had straight black hair (a tribute to Native American blood in our lineage); and, although not clearly discernible in this photo, Dad had gray eyes. These are not physical characteristics which typify African Americans — and that meant that Dad could “pass” for white. Unless you knew my dad’s background in advance, you would not necessarily assume that he was Black, thanks to his skin color, combined with a well-schooled vocabulary. Presumably, Dad’s professor did not know until nearly Commencement that Dad was a Negro.
In fall 2020, with assistance from Northwestern University archivists, especially Charla Burlenda Wilson, I was able to trace the names of the officers of the School of Commerce in my dad’s day. The dean of commerce in 1924 was Ralph E. Heilman (1907 MA/MS), who I presume was the one who interceded on behalf of my Dad. I could not find evidence of the name of the specific professor responsible for the injustice in this case, so the trail ran cold. But identifying the culprit by name is not the point. Dad never mentioned the name of the person who did this to him. What was important was that the event he described had actually happened.
With Wilson’s help, we also located my dad’s original record of admission to Northwestern’s School of Commerce. Figure 3 shows a portion of Dad’s original application, with the handwritten notation, “Colored,” at the top of the page. It is unclear to me why this information should have been germane; or, if race was a relevant category of admission, why such information was not formally requested on the preprinted application. My suspicion is that some clerk, checking at the time of admission to see if Virginia Union University was a legitimate, accredited, degree-granting institution, discovered that Union was a Black school, and simply made the notation on Dad’s record by hand, to save some future fact-checker a bit of trouble.
I remember hearing Dad’s story probably a dozen times during my years growing up and took it to be a cautionary tale about how cruel the wider world could be for us Black folk. It seemed a story that, for Northwestern University’s sake, needed to be entered into the record for several reasons. First, and most obvious, is that — institutional goals and values notwithstanding — racist individuals can always find ways to punish and persecute those “others” who they feel do not belong at the institution. Much time has passed since my dad’s day, to be sure, but the sin and shame of racism persist to this day. And, despite the intervening years, structural racism continues to this day. My second, and perhaps more important, point is that more Black alumni of Northwestern have their own stories to tell. I encourage them to come forward and share their experiences for the sake of the truth.
I can testify that four decades after Dad’s experience at Northwestern, I was admitted to Princeton University, entering with the Class of ’69 as one of 16 African American students in a class of 827. Princeton had graduated fewer than 16 Black students total in the entire 223 years of its history. To my astonishment, I had a similarly troubling run-in with a racist professor at Princeton, much like my dad experienced in 1924.
But I also note that Dad’s story is a tale of reconciliation. His classmates were all white, yet they chose to stand in solidarity with my dad. They took action to grieve an obvious injustice; and the good news is that, in the end, justice prevailed. Not all white people are afflicted by the evil of racism. Some can and do stand up in the face of this evil and work to eradicate it.
It is my hope that, if we tell our stories, and if each of us listens attentively, we might all more readily perceive the benefits that flow from recognizing our common humanity.
Alfred D. Price Jr. is a professor emeritus in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He acknowledges with gratitude the work of his cousin, Jean Kirby-Semmes ’72, who first pursued his father’s records at Northwestern University Archives.