African Americans at UMass

Until the turn of the twentieth century, students at Massachusetts Agricultural College were nearly all male and nearly all came from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Racial and ethnic diversity in the small student body was minimal, but neither were there any formal policies barring the admission of women or people of color. What diversity there was came in the form of a steady stream of international students, drawn largely from Japan, Brazil, and Turkey rather than from the English-speaking world, but also from Mexico, Cuba, and (later) China, and after 1897, by an equally small number of African American matriculants, many from the southern United States.

Increasingly after the 1880s, students on campus debated the “Negro question” and the larger issues of civil rights. A handful of faculty and alumni were clearly invested in the issue. During and after the Civil War, Professor William Henry Alvord had served as an officer in “colored” regiments, including the 10th Cavalry (the famous Buffalo Soldiers), while among the alumni, brothers William H. Bishop (1882) and Edgar A. Bishop (1883), from Cumberland, R.I., turned to teaching at African American agricultural colleges after graduation – Tougaloo and Talladega, respectively. In 1892, Edgar Bishop and his friend John A. Cutter (1882) appealed to MAC students to help support their peers at Talladega, insisting that the “colored people of the south” remained “dependent” on the liberal men and women at the north for survival. Cutter proposed that each student at MAC donate 25 cents each toward a total of $100, which would be collected by President Henry Hill Goodell and forwarded southward if the goal was reached, and returned to the donors if not.(1)

The MAC campus was not entirely silent. “Quite a number” of Mass Aggie students traveled to Northampton at the winter meeting of the State Board of Agriculture in December, 1901, to hear Booker T. Washington speak on “The colored race and its relation to the productive industries of the country,” and the College Signal reported, “All seem well pleased with the lecture” (2). The student newspaper and debate clubs occasionally took up the question of equality more directly, with 1895 representing something of a watershed. F. E. Deluce's Flint Oration address that year was entitled “Our duty toward the Negro” (3), while a senior debate centered on the question “ought the negro in the southern states to have been enfranchised after the war?” (4).

Whether reprising the affirmative side of this debate or weighing in on its own, the student newspaper Aggie Life weighed in on the "Negro Question" with an unsigned article advocating for disfranchising African Americans until they can prove their ability to wield the vote responsibly. “Southern negroes,” the article insisted, were “content to live in squalor, ignorance, and immorality” and were “improvident, depraved, and strenuously resist any attempts at education.” The author asked rhetorically, “Is it any wonder that they often incur the wrath of their white neighbors, when they commit such horrible outrages as our daily papers recount? With all of our New England conservatism, I believe that there is not one of us that would not be among the first to avenge such crimes.” Nor was the author impressed with the fact that African Americans had fought for their own independence during the Civil War, turning instead to the years of Reconstruction when:

<html><blockquote><p>“there was introduced this new and perplexing element; a great body of non-producers, non-tax-payers, possessing the right to vote, and whose rights the various commonwealth must protect. To add to the difficulties of the day was the negro's attitude toward the ballot. He regarded it as a pledge of property from the government, sufficient to yield him a scanty living for the rest of his life. This could not but make him lazy, and the thought of owning property filled him with visionary aspirations for office. The negro also regarded the ballot as giving him the right to tread upon his old masters. Holding this opinion he became a dangerous element in society… Let us not suffer the ballot, that safe-guard of a republican government, to remain longer in the hands of a people who are but half Christianized and half civilized!” (5)</p></blockquote></html>

Two years later, the College admitted its first African American student.

Early years at MAC

<html><div class=“youmassright”> <a href=“”><img src=“” alt=“Class of 1905, upon arrival in 1901” class=“youmassimage” /></a> <div class=“caption”>Class of 1905, including Bill Craighead and the first two women graduates of MAC</div> </div> </html>

During the administration of President Henry Hill Goodell, the student body began slowly to change from its all-white, all-male origins. Most writers credit Goodell's successor, Kenyon L. Butterfield, with firmly establishing coeducation at MAC, yet much of Butterfield's innovation and success came on a foundation laid by Goodell. During his twenty year administration, Goodell initiated significant changes in the curriculum, introducing electives, graduate study, and an array of short courses, winter programs, and special classes to suit a student body that was recognized as having varied preparation and diverse needs. Although the total numbers of women and African Americans remained small, even given the small size of MAC classes, the evidence from the latter years of Goodell's tenure suggests that the college administration made at least an informal decision to accept African Americans, if not to recruit them, more or less coincident in time with their decision to attract women to campus.

The first African American student to attend MAC was probably George Ruffum Bridgeforth, who arrived in 1897 as a member of the Class of 1901, and for the next decade, African American students – usually only one – appeared in classes that numbered between 25-75. As far as can be determined, African American students lived in the dorms and boarding houses side by side with their white classmates, one some occasions sharing quarters. As a group, these pioneering students participated fully in the life of the college – with the noteworthy exception of fraternities – and they made their mark in both athletics and academics.

At least two of the African American pioneers were members of the popular College Shakespearean Club, one was director of the student Reading Room, and several joined the varsity or class football teams. William H. Craighead's time as captain of the football team in 1905, makes him perhaps the first African American captain of any sports team at a predominantly white university; his captaincy came shortly after Matthew Bullock became the first African American head coach at a predominantly white university.

Perhaps more notably, these pioneering graduates were academically accomplished and left an important legacy in education. While at MAC, Bridgeforth, William H. Craihead ('06), and Benjamin Franklin Hubert ('12) were all recipients of the Flint Oratorical prize and William W. Peebles ('03) received the First Burnham Prize, but it is their record after leaving MAC that is particularly telling: six of the nine taught at an Historically Black College or University – two becoming presidents – and of the other three, one became a dental surgeon and another was a County Extension agent teaching African American farmers in Virginia.

While African Americans continued to enter MAC after Goodell was succeeded in the Presidency by Butterfield in 1906, the already small numbers decreased. There appears to have been no formal decision either way with regard to continuing to accept African American students, and since MAC did not identify its students by race, it is difficult to determine how far those numbers declined. The African American presence of campus remained small until the beginning of active recruitment in the latest 1960s.

African American Pioneers at MAC

Existing records make it difficult to ensure that all African American students at the College have been identified, but the following list includes nine men who are known to have attended MAC before the First World War. The list is surely incomplete and we are as yet unable to identify the first African American woman to graduate from the College, but this small group left an impressive legacy.

The first African American to receive a PhD at UMass Amherst (at a time when it was Massachusetts State College) may have been Major Franklin Spaulding for a dissertation in Agronomy titled Factors influencing the rate of decomposition of different types of plant tissue in soil, and the effect of the products of plant growth (1935).

The first African American member of the faculty at UMass Amherst was probably Edwin D. Driver, who was a member of the Sociology Department from 1948 until his retirement in 1987. Driver is considered one of the first two African Americans to be appointed to faculty at a state flagship university.


  1. (1) Aggie Life, Dec 14, 1892, p.79-81
  2. (2) College Signal, Nov. 6, 1901; College Signal Dec. 11, 1901
  3. (3) Aggie Life, May 22, 1895, p.199
  4. (4) Aggie Life, Oct 16, 1895, p.33
  5. (5) Aggie Life, Nov 27, 1895, p.66
a/african_american_students.txt · Last modified: 2021/09/03 12:47 by
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