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Bridgeforth, George Ruffum ('1901)

Football team, 1901
Football team, 1901 (Bridgeforth in center rear)
The first African American student to enroll at the Massachusetts Agricultural College was probably George Ruffin Bridgeforth, who arrived in Amherst in the fall of 1897. Born in Athens (Limestone County), Ala., on Oct. 5, 1873, Bridgeforth was nearly 24 when he entered as a freshman, and in many ways, he set the pattern for many of the pioneering cohort of African American students at MAC: he was older than the average student, southern in origin, he had studied at an historically Black college (Talladega) prior to his arrival, and he was an active participant in the athletic and academic life of his new college.(1)

From his freshman year on, Bridgeforth dove into the full range of student activities and he appears to have been popular with his classmates. Selected as Sergeant at Arms for the Sophomore class, he was a valued part of the rope pull team and the College Shakespearean Club, addressed the Amherst Grange on the “Agriculture of the south,” and he was a Corporal in Co. A of the Cadet Battalion and President of the YMCA. Academically, he was awarded second Prize in the Flint Oratorical competition as a junior in 1900. The Index reported on the triumph of “the orator of the South,” noting that the “crowning success in the oratorical line was his defense against the slanderous accusation of being false to his class. This great orator not only defended his honor on the chapel stage and gained the unanimous decision of the judges, but at the same time accomplished the difficult feat of breaking up a Y.M.C.A. meeting” (2). Like many of the early African American students at M.A.C., Bridgeforth also joined the football team, playing center (1899) and right guard (1900), earning the right to wear a college sweater, cap, and letters (3).

His successes on campus aside, Bridgeforth faced challenges in his schooling. After his first term at school, on January 4, 1898, the Board of Trustees reported:

"Pres. Goodell presented a petition from Dickson [i.e. Dickran] B. Tasjian, an Armenian, and Geo. R. Bridgeforth, a colored man from Alabama, that their tuition fees be remitted because of inability to pay them." (4)

The petition was granted. Although it is uncertain how Bridgeforth coped thereafter, there are clues. In the census for 1900, he was listed as one of four lodgers (the others white) living at the home of Louisa S. Baker at 101 E. Pleasant Street. Baker was no ordinary resident of Amherst. Known for many years as a good “Friend of the College,” Mrs. Baker came from a family that had owned part of the land on which MAC was established, and she lived virtually at the gate of the college until her death in 1908. In her obituary, Baker was lauded for her philanthropy to the poor of New York City and to the “colored people of the south,” but equally important was her quiet work with MAC students:

"she delighted in acting a mother's part toward boys who came to college determined to pay their own bills so far as possible. She opened her house to such and always had one or more occupying rooms under her roof. She gave them employment and looked sharply after their conduct and habits... The number of 'Aggie' boys whom she has helped in one way or another us unknown to any except those who knew her well. Many of them she helped financially to secure their education at M.A.C. She advanced them money to complete thir professional studies in universities and in some cases welcomed their sons when they, too, came to their father's college." (5)

In her will, Baker left $6000 to support “poor, industrious and deserving” students.”

Bridgeforth's health was also a concern. He survived measles one winter and even more seriously, he nearly blew himself up. While working in a field near Hatch barn during his sophomore year, Bridgeforth accidentally ignited a stick of dynamite in his face, losing five teeth, sustaining cuts all over his face and injuring both eyes. With proper medical care, he was fortunate to regain his eyesight within a month (6).

After graduation, Bridgeforth embarked on a career in education at historically Black colleges. In his first stop on the career ladder, he landed at the Agricultural Department at Tuskegee College in 1902, earning promotion to Director two years later, where he became familiar with two of the leaders in African American education, Booker T. Washington and George W. Carver. Described by historian Linda McMurry as the “temperamental opposite” of Carver, and “a big, energetic, blustery man with a flair and a taste for administrative power,” Bridgeforth fell into a bitter dispute over who could best run Tuskegee's agricultural work. The tensions between the two grew so severe that eventually their work was completely separated, with Carver overseeing the research and experiment station. (7)

Even that did not end the feud, so in May 1918, Bridgeforth left Tuskegee to become a county extension agent and then a teacher at the Industrial and Educational Institute in Topeka, Kansas. In 1925, he returned home to Athens, Alabama, teaching at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College in Nashville during the early years of the Depression, and working as a dairyman and in real estate.

More notably, during his time at Tuskegee, Bridgeforth developed a keen philosophy of racial uplift and independence, rooted in independent land ownership. To work toward this goal, Bridgeforth, some relatives, and associates at Tuskegee Formed the Southern Small Farm Land Company in 1910, and by working cooperatively, they were able to establish themselves as the only Black landowners in Limestone County. As it grew, the Company expanded to help landless tenant farmers acquire their own property, leading to the establishment of Beulahland, an all-black community of landholders. Although some of its members were uprooted in by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s to make way for the Wheeler Dam Reservoir, Beulahland was a success and many of the descendants of the original residents remain to this day. Recognizing that economic strength was not enough to gain full equality, Bridgeforth labored for better education for African Americans in Limestone County and he became one of the first African Americans in the county to register to vote.(8)

Bridgeforth and his wife Datie (1880-1971) raised a son and three daughters. He died in Limestone Co., Ala., on Jan. 30, 1955.


References

  1. (1) Frank Lincoln Mather, Who's who of the colored race,vol. 1. Chicago, 1915.
  2. (2) Index for 1900
  3. (3) Aggie Life, Nov. 15, 1899; Nov. 29, 1899
  4. (4) Board of Trustees Minutes, 1898 (RG 3)
  5. (5) College Signal, May 25, 1908; April 20, 1898 (for comment on the Grange)
  6. (6) Aggie Life, Dec. 14, 1898, p.75; Jan 18, 1899, p.87. Oxford, 1981.
  7. (7) Linda O. McMurry, George Washington Carver: scientist and symbol.
  8. (8) Nancy Anne Carden, “A Study of Southern Black Landownership, 1865-1940: The Bridgeforth Family of Limestone County, Alabama.” MA Thesis, Univ. of Tennessee Knoxville, 1990.
  • US Census for 1900 1910
b/bridgeforth_george_ruffum.1451925694.txt.gz · Last modified: 2016/01/04 11:41 by rscox
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