The man in the glass: In 1912, Louis Tyree broke the color barrier at Clark

February 13, 2018

Editor's note: In recognition of Black History Month, we are republishing this story about Louis Clarkson Tyree, the first African-American student to graduate from Clark College, in 1912. The story was originally published in CLARK Magazine of spring 2012.

If you flip to page 534 of the Clark College Monthly for June 1912, you will find a black and white photograph of that year's graduating class.

It is a formal portrait from a formal time, an era when, especially if you hoped to get on in the world, you conformed to the prevailing dress code that signified respectability. No individuality here, just rows of serious young men dressed in their best. Under the academic gowns, suits, starched white colors, and snugly knotted ties are de rigueur. Under the mortarboards, hair is cropped short and the faces are all clean-shaven.

But if you look more closely, you will see that one man has not been able to fully conform. His complexion, noticeably darker than that of his fellows, sets Louis Clarkson Tyree apart. Though he was the first African-American student to graduate from Clark College — 100 years ago this spring — he likely cared less about the historic significance of that achievement than he did the practical challenges that still faced him.

His travels would take him from the Midwest to New England to Europe. But that's just geography.

“I like France very much. The people here do not show any prejudice. I do not know that I am colored unless I look in the glass."

- Louis Tyree, B.A. 1912

Louis Tyree's more significant journey was his trek as a black man in a white man's America that would regard him with discomfort, sometimes with animosity. He persevered in a country that once had him feeling so overwhelmed, so beaten up, that he urged his brother to emigrate from this "hotbed of Negro prejudice."

Tyree knew there had to be a better way, and progress could only be obtained by engaging with respected institutions that in turn would confer on him the respect of others, allow him to build the kind of life his own parents could never have known. That's why he came east. That's why he came to Clark.

Louis Tyree was born in Indiana in 1884 to Charles William and Lucy Jane Mace Tyree, formerly of Tennessee. Whether Charles and Lucy Jane had ever been enslaved is unclear; communities of free blacks had existed in Tennessee before the Civil War. But whatever Charles' status, he felt sufficiently committed to the Union cause — or perhaps just the promise of freedom — to enlist with the 14th regiment of U.S. Colored Troops mustered in Gallatin, Tenn., in December 1863, the same year President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Charles Tyree's enlistment papers cited his occupation as "farmer" and revealed, by his "mark," that he could not, at that time, write. Over the next two years Charles was promoted, first to corporal and then to sergeant, the latter after being wounded in action at Decatur, Ala. Of the "colored troops" in this fight, Major General R. S. Granger was quoted as reporting that they "were cool, brave, and determined; and under the heaviest fire of the enemy exhibited no signs of confusion." Charles was later awarded an initial monthly pension of $4 in compensation for a gunshot wound to his left shoulder.

Charles and Lucy Jane were among the many African-Americans who made their way north in the aftermath of the Civil War, hoping to find more opportunity than would be available to them in the ruins of the Confederacy. Eventually they settled in Indianapolis, where Louis Tyree was born, along with most of his many siblings (early records show his given name as "Lewis," but he later would adopt "Louis" as the preferred spelling). The 1880 federal census shows Charles working in Indianapolis as a school janitor while Lucy Jane "kept house." It appears that by then Charles could write as well as read. Lucy Jane, who wrote both fluently and eloquently, expressed her hopes for her family in a letter to a friend immediately after World War I: "My husband and I have labored and sacrificed … that our children might be prepared to be of service in the world, and live a credit and honor to their name."

Tyree started his high school career at Manual Training High School (now Emmerich Manual), probably in the company of white as well as black students. But here his story takes an unexpected turn. Somehow he found his way to one of the most prestigious college preparatory schools in the country, New Hampshire's Phillips Exeter Academy, from which he received a Classical Diploma in 1909. Several months later he matriculated at Clark.

When Louis Tyree was 3 years old, events unfolded 900 miles northeast of Indianapolis that would eventually allow him to further his education at the collegiate level. On March 31, 1887, the governor of Massachusetts signed the act incorporating Clark University, founded and funded by former abolitionist Jonas Gilman Clark. In his will, Clark stated "it is my earnest desire, will and direction, that the said University, in its practical management, as well as in theory, may be wholly free from every kind of denominational or sectarian control, bias or limitation, and that its doors may be ever open to all classes and persons whatsoever may be their religious faith or political sympathies, or to whatever creed, sect or party they may belong."

It would seem consistent with Jonas Clark's abolitionist views, as well as his desire to make a Clark education available to young men of modest means, for his University to admit students regardless of race as well.

Clark University was located in a city known for its early abolitionist sympathies. Worcester's distinguished role in the abolitionist movement is revealed in Clark History Professor Janette Greenwood's "First Fruits of Freedom: The Migration of Former Slaves and Their Search for Equality in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1862-1900." She notes that in 1765 Worcester had charged its representative to the Massachusetts General Court to call for the abolition of slavery, and that in 1781 a Worcester County slave successfully sued for his freedom.

"From the 1830s on," Greenwood writes, "Worcester played a leading role in nearly every major antislavery endeavor of the era. In many ways Worcester initiated more groundbreaking and radical anti-slavery activity … than Boston."

Escaped slaves making their way along the Underground Railroad took refuge at homes like that of Worcester's Stephen and Abby Kelly Foster. Worcester was the birthplace in 1848 of the Free Soil Party that opposed the extension of slavery into western territories, and Worcester minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson supplied weapons to John Brown for his attack on Harper's Ferry. Worcester's College of the Holy Cross records that the valedictorian at its first 1849 Commencement was also its first African-American graduate, James Healy. And counted among Central Massachusetts abolitionists were Jonas and Susan Clark, whose anti-slavery sentiments have been recounted in the Historical Journal of Massachusetts by retired Clark historian and Geography Professor William Koelsch.

Unfortunately, in Louis Tyree's Worcester, as in many northern cities, early support for abolitionism did not always translate into the absence of discrimination. It was easier to talk the talk than walk the walk, especially when "they" moved in next door and competed for jobs.

In "First Fruits," Greenwood documents a shift in the attitudes of Worcester's white population toward its black citizens. By the late 1800s, after the Union had been secured, tolerance for African- Americans waned. They weren't welcome as workers in the city's burgeoning industries, and job opportunities were largely limited to those of a domestic nature — servant, waiter, barber, laundress. In 1900, nine years before Tyree arrived at Clark, African-Americans were still very much in the minority, numbering only about 1,100 in a city of more than 118,000 people. Clark Political Science Professor Ravi Perry, who is president of the Worcester Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, notes that while some northern educational institutions like Clark, Holy Cross and Phillips Exeter appear to have welcomed African-Americans, the wider community may have been less tolerant.

According to Koelsch, author of "Clark University, 1887-1987: A Narrative History," the majority of Clark undergraduates during this time hailed from New England, and the bulk of those were from Worcester or elsewhere in Massachusetts. Clark College — the former undergraduate arm of Clark University — tended to attract working-class and other students of modest means, so one can reasonably assume that at least the economic disparity between Tyree and his classmates wasn't uncomfortably wide. Tyree, age 28 when he completed his degree, was one of the oldest in his class, but there was a spread of about 10 years between the youngest and oldest of his fellow graduates.

Louis Tyree, known as Ty to friends, seems to have spared no effort to combat the isolation he must have felt as the only African-American and one of the relatively few non-New Englanders at the college. His yearbook profile lists him as a member of the Cosmopolitan Club (formed to promote understanding between students of different nationalities), YMCA, Debating Society, the Republican Club, and the Wright Social Science Club (named for Clark College's former president and U.S. Commissioner of Labor Carroll Wright). Tyree also attended the French Baptist Church on Main Street, an interesting detail, considering he was voted Class Heathen at Phillips Exeter.

Tyree's time at Clark was bracketed by two events that received global news coverage: Frederick Cook's controversial claim that he had reached the North Pole in 1908, one year before Robert Peary, and the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic in April 1912. Closer to home, world-champion cyclist Major Taylor of Worcester, like Tyree an African-American who was raised in Indianapolis, retired from racing in 1910. Two years later saw the opening of Fenway Park and a Red Sox World Series victory, one year before the team would sign a promising left-handed pitcher named Babe Ruth.

September 1909 was also a notable year for the Clark community. In observance of the 20th anniversary of the University's founding, President G. Stanley Hall scheduled conferences in July and September to highlight Clark's major areas of graduate study. A five-day national conference on child welfare was held in July, while the two weeks of September conferences were devoted to the sciences, psychology, and China and the Far East. One wonders if Tyree went to hear the lectures of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, not to mention Franz Boas, former Clark professor and pioneering anthropologist, who unleashed a crusade against racial prejudice in his book, "The Mind of Primitive Man," published two years later.

He undoubtedly did hear the remarks of a speaker featured at the Class of 1912 Commencement. As reported in the Worcester Evening Standard, prominent theologian Dr. Lyman Abbott addressed the importance of ensuring the "purity of respective races on this earth. Such a thing as intermarriage among the black and white races is destructive to both."

Tyree's educational trajectory was not unimpeded. Despite his access to educational institutions willing to open their doors to blacks, financing his education was a continual, almost spirit-breaking struggle.

In a poignant letter to Clark College President Edmund Sanford in July 1913, Tyree speaks of having been "greatly discouraged" and "on the point of leaving school two or three times." He explains that his only extravagant expense while at Clark was taxi fare to the Senior Ball. "I live as cheaply as possible," he writes, "and that is the way I have been able to get along this far. I deprive myself of nearly all amusements, do not use tobacco nor liquor. Most of the last year I ate two meals per day so as to keep down expenses." Similar difficulties were revealed in a 1916 letter addressed to college dean James Porter requesting a financial reference.

Census records, city directories and other documents from 1905 to about 1918 show Tyree working as bellman, waiter, or servant at a variety of places, including the historic Wolfe Tavern in Newburyport, the Parker House Hotel in Boston, a tea room in Cambridge, and a boarding house in Worcester. Scholarships from Phillips Exeter Academy helped pay his way through that institution (annual tuition $150), but they were partial and his coursework there was interrupted. He also studied at Newburyport High School, probably while working and boarding at the Wolfe Tavern. Clark's tuition of $50 a year was more manageable, and Tyree was able to make it through the three-year baccalaureate course without having to take time off.

Tyree wanted to go to law school, but injuries sustained when he was hit by an automobile during the summer of 1912 hindered his ability to work for a time. He received a $150 scholarship to Harvard Law School from the Harvard Club of Newburyport to defray the $250 annual tuition, attended for one year, but had to drop out. For the academic year 1913-1914 he served as principal at Broadway High School in Madison, Ind. He later returned to Harvard to complete a second year, but eventually earned his Bachelor of Laws (1919) and Master of Laws (1921) degrees from Boston University.

In addition to scholarships, Tyree was able to obtain financial assistance for law school from several prominent white men of the day, including Daniel H. Fowle, owner of the Wolfe Tavern; David. H. Fanning, president of the Worcester Corset Factory (located only a few blocks from Clark), and Moorfield Storey, the white Boston attorney who served as the first president of the NAACP. Tyree was introduced to Storey by William Monroe Trotter, the black editor of the Boston Guardian, an African-American newspaper. Most of this money appeared to be in the form of loans — at least some of which bore interest — and had to be paid back.

Professor Perry explains that Tyree's ability to garner the backing of prominent white men was significant in the larger context of U.S. race relations. Tyree's case, Perry says, illustrates "the history of black and white relations that have gone on in this country since the beginning. Without a biracial coalition, both groups would not be where they are today in terms of various levels of progress."

Perry finds it encouraging that Tyree was able not only to ask for financial assistance, but to take advantage of that aid when offered.

"Not everyone in that day and age felt welcomed by Caucasians," he says, "nor did they necessarily want to have their education funded by Caucasians. It's very gratifying to stumble upon that type of support."

In 1919, one year after the end of World War I, cities in the United States were rocked by a series of race riots, a time that came to be called The Red Summer. Two years later, after receiving his law degree from Boston University, Tyree traveled to France. In a June 1922 letter to his brother Charles Tyree Jr., he described France as possessing a social climate more congenial to African-Americans than that which he had left in the states.

"I like France very much," he wrote. "The people here do not show any prejudice. I do not know that I am colored unless I look in the glass."

Tyree considered purchasing a combination of bar, restaurant and living space "in a working district near the docks" of Marseilles and expressed hope that his brother would consider joining him to "cook and run the kitchen." Of this Mediterranean city Tyree rhapsodized that, "The climate is fine, the winters are very mild. The section of France in which I live is a land of perpetual springtime." He went on to confess, "The people at home are angry with me because I came to France, but I could not stay in the hotbed of Negro prejudice any longer."

This was Tyree's second trip to the continent. He had spent several months in Belgium the previous year, possibly in a military capacity. Greenwood notes that often "black soldiers in World War I … found France much more color blind than the U.S., with some returning as expats."

Tyree's dream of running a bar and restaurant in Marseilles failed to materialize; the details are unknown. A September 1924 letter to one of his sisters carries a return address of Chicago, where Tyree appears to have resided and practiced law until retirement. His death on October 12, 1963, reported in Jet magazine, caused him to miss by less than a year the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Tyree's baccalaureate degree was a significant achievement for anyone in pre-World War I America, of whatever race or gender. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in the year 1910, fewer than 40,000 Americans earned a bachelor's degree, slightly more than one quarter of whom were women. In those days, even completing high school was an accomplishment.

Three years after Tyree graduated, Clark College awarded a B.A. to African-American Francis C. Sumner. He went on to complete a Ph.D. in psychology at Clark in 1920, the first doctoral degree in psychology earned by a black man in the United States. That same year African-American E. Franklin Frazier completed an M.A. in sociology at Clark.

In later years not everyone agreed that Clark was sufficiently receptive to students of color. The year 1969 witnessed a black student sit-in on campus, which resulted in a Black Student Scholarship Fund and the establishment of a black student cultural center.

Today, Clark actively welcomes and supports students of color, as well as those who are the first in their families to go to college. Numerous student-run clubs celebrate the racial and ethnic diversity that now characterizes the campus.

Aside from some of the older structures, Louis Tyree probably wouldn't recognize the place today. But he would likely take heart in the number of Clark students who don't see color, even when they look in the glass.

Anne Gibson - Marketing and Communications - Clark University