Training the Hands, the Head, and the Heart: Student Protest and Activism at Hampton Institute during the 1920s
James E. Alford, Jr.
Campus unrest and social justice activism at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) predate the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Black students and alumni had always taken an active role in the governance of their institutions even in the face of establishment opposition. This article focuses on activism and protest at Hampton Institute during the1920s. As at most HBCUs of the period, students and alumni at Hampton were unhappy with the racial and authoritarian situation on their campus. Refusing to accept the conditions at their institution, organized alumni and students led the charge for change, and in 1925 and 1927, both groups challenged institutional policies involving race and equality on their campus. Although Hampton students were at the center of most of the campus unrest, it is important to note that alumni were quite instrumental during the 1925 protest concerning Jim Crow segregation. Due to their activist spirit, students and alumni were able not only to make subtle changes to the faculty and staff at their institutions, but also to radically transform the political and social climate on their campus. As a result of their concerted efforts, Hampton witnessed more student autonomy, greater alumni representation/involvement, and the integration of faculty, staff, and senior administrators.
Keywords: HBCUs, student protest, alumni activism, Hampton Institute, Jim Crow, Black education
Campus unrest at Hampton Institute involved a variety of issues, the crux of which centered on an inflexible White board of trustees and administration. The mid-1920s marked a pivotal turning point in the history of the institution, when a half-century of strict paternalistic policies alongside problems of racial authoritarianism were challenged. Frustrated students fought White
officials to secure their social, political, and intellectual freedom on campus.
The initial dissatisfaction began with students who complained that vocational and industrial training at Hampton had long outlived its usefulness and that the time had come to transition from a normal school to a university. Hampton students believed that the school “had failed to adjust its academic and disciplinary policies to make allowance for the fact that Hampton was no longer a school for docile elementary students but for men and women who could think for themselves” (Wolters 1975:247–48). In addition to students pushing for higher academic standards and more student autonomy, they also challenged Jim Crow segregation at their institution and urged the board of trustees to enact policies to desegregate their campus. “Hampton, which in the 1920s accepted the dictates of white Virginia and provided a segregated Jim Crow residence and dining room for white visitors, was ‘the pet of philanthropy’” (Wolters 1975:26). Students brought their issues before the board of trustees and members of the Hampton community, demanding immediate changes in institutional policies. In many cases they stood alone, except, when it came to the issue of segregation, alumni became involved and were eager to support the students’ position.
HISTORICAL OVERVIEW: THE INSTITUTE
Founded on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay in 1868, Hampton Institute began as a private normal and agricultural school for African Americans in Hampton, Virginia. Shortly after the Civil War, the American Missionary Association presented General Samuel Chapman Armstrong with the idea of leading an institution for freedmen. In their endeavors to spread their education crusade across the South, the American Missionary Association considered Hampton, Virginia, to be the ideal location to establish a school for free Black men and women (Anderson 1988; Richardson 1986). Who else better suited to lead this new school than General Armstrong, a former officer in the Union Army and commander of one of the few Black infantry units during the war. Not only was the missionary society impressed by Armstrong’s military services, but they were equally impressed by his background as the son of a prominent missionary family who had labored for years to help the native people of Hawaii. Armstrong continued his family’s missionary legacy by working for the Freedman’s Bureau immediately after the Civil War, championing the cause of Black education. He seemed to be the model candidate to direct the missionary society’s new school (Armstrong and Ludlow 1971; Schall 1977; Zaki 2007).
There is no doubt that the roots of Hampton Institute run deep in the life of General Armstrong. Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute’s mission, “to educate the hands, the head, and the heart,” was conceived in the mind of Armstrong as to the foundation on which to build a great institution for the newly emancipated men and women who had suffered the bondage of slavery in America. His vision for the institution sprang from the ideals of the missionary work of his parents, which assuredly had a strong bearing on him as a principal at Hampton. Furthermore, his role as commander of a Black unit during the Civil War was also key to his vision at the institution; his experiences with these Black soldiers aroused his interest in the welfare of Black Americans. And lastly, his philosophical approach to industrial education was influenced by the relationships he forged with wealthy northern industrialists who were staunch proponents of vocational training for Black Americans. Armstrong’s Hampton was not just simply a manifestation of a missionary’s dream; at the core of its purpose was to train Black teachers for the South in the area of vocational and industrial education (Anderson 1988; Armstrong 1971; Schall 1977; Zaki 2007).
Armstrong served as Hampton’s principal for twenty-five years, during which time a wave of industrial education for Black people swept across the South. Hampton was a model of independence and resourcefulness “combined with a self-sustaining institutional economy complete with a farm, dairy, machine shop, home economics, and shoe repair” (Thelin 2004). Armstrong’s vision for Hampton was far more than the economic success of the institution, he was also deeply concerned for the success of his students. The influence that he had on the students at Hampton was evident due to the extraordinary work they were able to accomplish. “Armstrong’s legacy was absorbed by its students, and they applied it to their lives. Many students became teachers, professionals, and leaders within their communities fulfilling Armstrong’s desire to see them be of service to their communities” (Zaki 2007). His most prized student, Booker T. Washington, assisted in the founding of Hampton’s sister school, Tuskegee Institute, in Alabama. Following Washington’s tenure at Tuskegee, another one of Armstrong’s pupils, Robert R. Moton, was appointed to lead the school. The Armstrong years at Hampton brought not only national acclaim to the school’s unique educational program but also tremendous wealth and growth to the campus. Because of Armstrong, the “Hampton Idea” was strongly cemented into the minds and lives of his students, alumni, faculty, and staff. Armstrong served as principal of Hampton Institute up until his death in 1893, after which, the board of trustees appointed Hollis Burke Frissell to be his successor (Schall 1977; Wolters 1975; Zaki 2007).
The next half-century of leadership at Hampton would continue to define the school’s history by enacting policies and forging community relations in ways that set the school apart from other Black institutions of the period. The principals and presidents who served Hampton from its founding up until the early 1940s were committed to keeping alive the Armstrong legacy at Hampton. During Frissell’s administration, the institute made major strides in building Hampton’s industrial and vocational programs. “Frissell’s emphasis on vocational training was part of a larger effort to ingratiate the institute with those who believed that blacks should be trained for subordinate positions in American society” (Wolters 1975:231). Although the institute offered a two- and three-year program, it did not offer a bachelor’s degree, as did other Black emphasis on industrial and agricultural education tended to overshadow its latent function as a normal school whose mission it was to educate African Americans for the teaching profession. The institute’s commitment was to economic development as opposed to the training of a Black intelligentsia (Anderson 1988; Drewry and Doermann 2001; Jones 1980).
Dr. James E. Gregg, who took over from Frissell, convinced the board of trustees in 1920 to consider seriously changing the normal school program because, as he noted, “accrediting agencies in several southern states had begun to demand college training for all certified teachers” (Wolters 1975:233). He persuaded the board to expand the two-year program to a four-year program, and during his leadership at Hampton the first bachelor of arts degree was offered in education. Nevertheless, because of the continuous controversy at Hampton regarding industrial training verses classical education, he diplomatically reminded trustees, alumni, and the white community that “Hampton’s distinctive place of highest usefulness…is without question that of technical and professional college” (Wolters 1975:236). He guaranteed all who would listen that “Hampton would not forsake any of the characteristics that made it famous in the years gone by—characteristics which included wholesome respect for hard work and hand skill, as well as for character, moral fitness, trustworthiness, and dependability” (qtd. in Wolters 1975:236). Despite Gregg’s promises, Hampton was accredited as a university in 1927. Even after moving the “institute” to “university” status, however, Gregg maintained that Hampton was not a liberal arts college and had no intention of becoming one.
During the 1920s, a new generation of college students entered Hampton prepared to challenge the majority White board of trustees and administration regarding the primacy of industrial education and for a controlling interest in the institution. Long gone were the days of Armstrong’s Hampton, half a century past. The student demographics at Hampton had changed; they were more mature and aware of the social and political world surrounding them. Students were determined to force the institution to grow up and mature alongside them. Upon graduating from Hampton, these young men and women represented a new cohort of Black graduates who were more concerned than ever with the condition of Black people in the United States. As students, they battled with paternalistic administrators and as alumni, they fought against Jim Crow segregation (Dailey, Gilmore, and Simon 2000; Litwack 1998). The issues they faced as students and alumni brought about a change in attitude. A new class of racially astute graduates were born and they refused to accept being placed at the bottom of the social caste system. Thus,
campus unrest irrupted at Hampton Institute in 1925. The chain of events that began the first round of protest mostly involved the local White community, the board of trustees, and Hampton’s National Alumni Association (Anderson 1988; Wolters 1975; Zaki 2007).
JIM CROW TAKES A SEAT ON CAMPUS
The trouble at Hampton started on February 21, 1925, with an overwhelming number of Black and White Virginians crowding Ogden Hall to see the Denishawn Dance troupe perform on campus. The dancers stirred up quite a commotion among prospective guests. A trustee commented that the performance was sold out because “the dancers were practically naked and therefore everybody went” (Wolters 1975:239). The two-thousand-seat auditorium was nearly filled to capacity, leaving very few seating options for late arrivals. Like most events held in Ogden Hall, everyone sat segregated according to their race. Dr. James Gregg stated, “The members of each race have sat by themselves by natural instinct in all of our gatherings, and there has been no cause for complaint on that score” (JEG 1925, HUA). As the hall filled, however, White attendees who could not find special seating were forced to cross the color line and accept seats next to their “Negro friends” at Hampton. Mrs. Grace B. Copeland, the wife of Newport News Daily Press editor Colonel Walter Scott Copeland, arrived late for the event and was “ushered to the only remaining seats next to some Negroes” (Wolters 1975:239). Outraged that she was seated in the “Colored section,” Mrs. Copeland complained to her husband, who used his position as editor to the Daily Press to scold the institution for permitting racial mingling (JEG, Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America 1925, HUA).
On March 15, 1925, Colonel Copeland called Hampton to task regarding the matter in an editorial in the Daily Press entitled “Integrity of the Anglo-Saxon Race.” Copeland’s article condemned Hampton and Dr. Gregg for teaching and practicing “social equality between the white and negro race” (Smith 2002:38) He warned Dr. Gregg, “We are going to have serious trouble if you do not protect our citizens and our womanhood against this horrible practice of social equality” (Race Separation folder 1925, HUA). Copeland’s strategy was to arouse fear in the minds of White Virginians that the mixing of the races would lead to chaos and destruction. “There will be no power on earth to prevent the nigger from entering our homes and marrying your daughter,” Copeland commented (Wolters 1975:240). He went even further to suggest that racial integration would eventually lead to “mongrelization” and that Hampton’s current policies, or lack thereof, did nothing to prevent such an enormity.
Many members of the Hampton community were surprised at Copeland’s criticism and found it to be unwarranted considering his dissatisfaction with the institution stemmed from nothing more than seating arrangements. For Colonel Copeland it was certainly more. He argued that there were “beautiful white women in the nude with nigger youths gazing at them and there was the flower of our womanhood seated next to the blacks” (Wolters 1975:240). Surely the Black patrons posed no threat to Mrs. Copeland but this did not stop her husband from seizing the opportunity to make an example out of the situation at Hampton. The news of the editorial spread throughout Virginia and Copeland demanded that Dr. Gregg offer a public response. In a letter to the Daily Press, Gregg replied that “Hampton’s policies certainly do not encourage social mingling of the races under circumstances which would lead to embarrassment of either side” ( JEG 1925, HUA). Nonetheless, Colonel Copeland had made his point. As he had hoped, numerous members of the local White community joined him and his crusade to force the institute to set clear and concise policies concerning racial intermingling. Colonel Copeland maintained that “The fault [did] not rest with the white people of Virginia nor with the colored people. The fault rests, and will rest, with the management of the school at Hampton” (JEG, Daily Press 1926, HUA).
Although Dr. Gregg had offered a response to the Daily Press with the hope that the matter would be settled, Colonel Copeland was not at all satisfied with the principal’s reply and several months later called upon the local branch of the Anglo Saxon Club to organize a mass meeting at the city courthouse to discuss the “race problem” at Hampton. Colonel Copeland arranged for John Powell, the founder of Virginia’s Anglo-Saxon Club and father of the “Racial Integrity Law,” to address the concerned crowd. During his speech, Powell reminded the citizens of Hampton, Virginia, that “The Anglo-Saxon race has no moral right to amalgamate with any colored race, for in so doing it would destroy itself…Amalgamation would mean the destruction of the Anglo-Saxon race in America and the substitution of a race of mulattoes” (JEG, Anglo-Saxon Club folder 1925, HUA). Powell, a staunch opponent to interracial socialization, argued that he would rather “every white child in the United States were sterilized and the Anglo-Saxon race left to perish in its purity” rather than risk the chance of being mixed with black blood (JEG, Anglo-Saxon Club folder 1925, HUA). He warned the people of Hampton and Newport News that “if you don’t make a start now…you will wake up in the hereafter to find that your grandchildren are negroes” (JEG, Massenburg Law folder 1926, HUA).
Copeland and Powell waged a war against Hampton Institute and made a successful appeal to the White public to join the battle. Many local White people already opposed Hampton and believed that the school gave Black people aspirations to becoming equal citizens. Much of the resentment toward the institution quite possibly stemmed from the fact that White Virginians were uncomfortable with a “Negro School” that had accumulated such a tremendous amount of wealth (Anderson and Moss 1999). It was reported in the local newspaper that Hampton was “the richest institution in Virginia and money by the millions [are flowing] into its Endowment Fund” (JEG, Daily Press 1925, HUA). White Virginians believed Hampton had become a school for “uppity Negroes” who were dissatisfied with their subordinate place and something had to be done to remind them of their social position. At the close of the meeting, it was decided that the club would appeal to the Virginia legislature to pass a law that would require separate seating for all races in public assemblages within the state. Upon the club’s request, local representative Captain George Alvin Massenburg drafted the bill and introduced it to the state’s General Assembly. The Daily Press and the Anglo-Saxon Club were gaining statewide support and it was only a matter of time before the proposed bill would be voted into law (JEG, Daily Press 1926, HUA; Wolters 1975).
The incident that occurred in Ogden Hall, coupled with Colonel Copeland’s and Mr. Powell’s rhetoric, had caused old issues of racial disharmony to resurface between the Black and White communities in Virginia. Once Hampton administrators, students, and alumni heard the news, their immediate concern became the future of the school and how race relations might be strained between the institution’s stakeholders and the local community if such a law was passed (Fields 1982; Gilmore 2008; Wolters 1975). Never in Hampton’s fifty-seven year history had it been necessary to enact such a policy. Students and alumni at Hampton were both outraged and disappointed by the local community’s attempt to enforce Jim Crow policies on their campus. They tried to appeal to the general public, stating, “We are of the opinion now that it is useless to try by legislation to debar any groups in this country from any of the higher and better things which this civilization offers” (Hampton Alumni Journal 1925, HUA). For a half-century, Black and White citizens of Hampton and Newport News, Virginia, had coexisted peacefully without the need for such strict measures. Jim Crow politics had forced Hampton Institute into a social and political war between White Virginians and Black stakeholders. The institute’s board of trustees stood squarely in the middle of the confrontation. While White political groups tried to force their issues, Black alumni and student groups petitioned the board of trustees to resist Jim Crow segregation on their campus (Hampton Alumni Journal 1926:4, HUA).
At a hearing before the Senate Committee on General Laws at the capital in Richmond, many gathered to argue their position. Dr. J. F. Love, of the Baptist Foreign Mission board, strongly opposed the measure, stating, “It would apply to Chinese and Japanese students attending the University of Richmond and he believed it would be a reflection on the whites” (JEG, Race Separation folder 1926, HUA). Rev. W. P Johnson, a Black minister in Richmond, declared, “It would disturb the pleasant relations now existing and that it would cause unrest; that it would have a bad effect on the radical element among the negroes” (JEG, Race Separation folder 1926, HUA). Love and Johnson were concerned about how such a law would go beyond the borders of Hampton and lead to unwanted misunderstandings among the races throughout the state of Virginia. The biggest concern, however, came from Hampton’s alumni association and board of trustees; one group feared the school’s reputation was at stake and the other feared for the reputation of their race.
In the spring of 1926, a poll of prominent alumni and ex-students from all sections of the country was conducted concerning the proposed segregation law. The results from the survey were submitted to the board of trustees in April of that year. The report indicated that any attempt to enforce segregation on Hampton’s campus “would destroy the great usefulness of the institution to Negro People and would lose the friendship and confidence and goodwill which it has taken the school fifty years to win.” Alumni further argued that “such a spirit as this manifested by these leaders is unchristian and unwise and founded upon prejudice and jealousy and needs no contradiction. That such action is unnecessary is shown in the fact that the best elements in both races are self-respecting enough to avoid forcing themselves where they are not wanted.” Alumni firmly believed that the bill would lead to strained race relations and serve as an embarrassment to Hampton (Hampton Alumni Visitation Committee folder 1926, HUA). Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, editor to the Crisis, admonished the White board and administrators at Hampton by arguing:
When white folk…come voluntarily as our guests we welcome them and treat them with every courtesy, although we cannot expect for our students reciprocal courtesy from them. But when they demand the right to cross this color line which they themselves have drawn, and then to have a second and internal drawing of race distinctions inside a Negro institution, we say, No. You are not compelled to enter this colored world and it is monstrous when you do come as guest to ask us to insult these already twice-insulted people…No other civilized group in the world is asked to accept such personal insult in their own homes and schools and in their own social life as you demand of these Hampton Negroes. (Du Bois 1973:59)
Leaders of the alumni association were careful not to point blame at the board of trustees. Their condemnation was targeted to the public, specifically the Anglo-Saxon Club. It was hard for alumni to conceive the idea that the board would even consider siding with the Anglo-Saxons and its band of followers. The Alumni Association summed up its position by stating, “The one great hope of the alumni is that the administrative forces of the institution will always conduct policies in such a way as not to lose the confidence of her constituency” (Hampton Alumni Journal folder 1926:1, HUA).
The stakeholders with the most influence and power to change public opinion were on Hampton’s board of trustees. Unfortunately, they found themselves embattled within their own ranks concerning the incident in Ogden Hall. Homer Ferguson, a trustee, who was in Europe during the performance, stated, “Such a show should not have been given there.” He declared before the Senate Committee that “the condition complained of would be corrected or he and the other southern trustees would resign” (Board of Trustee Minutes 1926, HUA). Ferguson had drawn a clear line between board members from the North and the South, implying that the South had its own code of rules to follow in the form of Jim Crow segregation, which he and other southern trustees intended to respect. Hampton’s board members were clearly at odds with regard to how they would handle an imposed Jim Crow policy at the institution.
In addition to the divisiveness on the board, Dr. Gregg was struggling with how to direct the institution through these turbulent times. He tried to reassure alumni that Hampton would not compromise its integrity and that there would be no cause for segregation laws to be adopted on their campus. Expected to uphold the policies at Hampton and challenge the proposed segregation bill, Dr. Gregg instead took an “on the fence” approach to the racial problems plaguing the institution. He, in turn, tried to restore confidence in White Virginians that Hampton had no desire to teach social equality. His efforts at straddling the issue were unsuccessful and only gave cause for more distrust from both alumni and the White community (JEG, folder 1926, HUA).
Concerned that the situation at Hampton was growing out of control, the governor of Virginia, E. Tee Trinkle, wrote Dr. Gregg to offer his opinion on the matter. The governor warned Dr. Gregg that he could not lend his fundraising support to a school that encouraged the “mixing of the races.” It just so happened that at the time, Governor Trinkle was in the midst of helping Hampton and Tuskegee with a big fundraising campaign and wanted to threaten Principal Gregg that his support for Hampton would depend on the direction that he and the rest of his fellow board members decided to take. Trinkle stated, “Naturally you must know that I do not approve of social equality between the races for I believe nothing worse could happen to the white and black people of this country than for this doctrine to prevail” (JEG, Massenburg Law folder 1925, HUA). As a means of quelling Governor Trinkle’s concerns, Dr. Gregg wrote the following letter to the governor:
Hampton Institute has always sharply disapproved of any such social intimacies as might conceivably lead to intermarriage or to illicit intercourse. In the delicate and difficult task of trying to be fair to our Northern white supporters, our large Negro constituency, and our sincerely-valued Southern white friends, we cannot hope, I suppose, to please and satisfy all three groups all of the time. You need not fear, and no one need fear, that Hampton Institute, either in its teaching or in its practice, will do anything to break down the truest and soundest tradition of the South with respect to individual and racial self-respect, courtesy, and justice. (JEG, Massenburg Law folder 1925, HUA)
Undoubtedly this was a political move by Dr. Gregg to secure the governor’s support regarding the fundraiser, but it also led to speculations that Dr. Gregg had no real intention to fully back alumni opposition to the bill. The governor, the Daily Press, and the Anglo-Saxon Club all had a tremendous influence on the decisions that were being made by Hampton’s administration. It was quite evident that Dr. Gregg and the board of trustees’ failure to confront White Virginians were out of fear that they would lose favor both socially and politically among their peers. Notwithstanding their efforts to appease both sides, Hampton was suffering, and students and alumni were growing restless over the situation (JEG, Massenburg Law folder 1925, HUA).
Although the Alumni Association had hoped that they could convince the board to take a stance against the Jim Crow policy, it was quite evident that nothing would be done. They soon realized that all their efforts were for naught. The board had failed to stop the legislation and the Massenburg Bill passed both houses of the General Assembly by an overwhelming majority, becoming a law in the state of Virginia. Just as Copeland, Powell, and the Anglo-Saxon Club had hoped, the new bill required the separation of “White and Colored persons” in all public assemblages, stating:
Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia, that it shall be the duty of any person, persons, firm, institution or corporation operating, maintaining, keeping, conducting, sponsoring or permitting, any public hall, theatre, opera house, motion picture show or any place of public entertainment or public assemblage which is attended by both white and colored persons to separate the white race and the colored race, and to set apart and designate in each such public hall…refuse or neglect to comply with the provisions of the section shall be guilt of a misdemeanor and upon conviction thereof shall be fined not less than one hundred dollars no more than five hundred dollars for each offense. (JEG, House Bill 30 1926, HUA)
Once the measure was passed, a number of alumni and friends of the institution urged Hampton to litigate the matter in the courts. Trustee Robert R. Moton, a Hampton alumnus and principal of the Tuskegee Institute, warned that “if Hampton should retire without a vigorous protest it would alienate many alumni and other blacks who expected Hampton to serve as a chief advocate of Negro interest” (Board of Trustee Minutes folder 1926, HUA). Once again, the Alumni Association pressed the board of trustees to fight the matter, arguing that members of the Hampton community should not be subjugated to Jim Crow laws on their own campus (Hampton Alumni Visitation Committee 1926, HUA).
In the end, Dr. Gregg took the advice of Dr. R. E. Blackwell, president of Randolph-Macon College, who recommended that Hampton not fight the audience-segregation matter in court. Blackwell argued that to litigate the matter “would be taken as proof that Hampton was using non-segregation in Ogden hall as an entering wedge to break down all race distinction.” This would ultimately stir up bad feelings against Hampton and the school would lose many of their northern and southern White friends who gave freely to the school. Dr. Blackwell declared, “We shall simply have to tell our colored friends that nothing will be gained by a court victory.” It was suggested that Hampton quietly close Ogden Hall to the public and confine its audience to its students, alumni, and the Black citizens in the community. He assured Dr. Gregg that “the whole matter will pass out of the minds of our people and the law will become a dead letter. The issue would inevitably die unless it is made a race issue by being carried to the courts” (JEG, Massenburg Law folder, Blackwell letter 1926, HUA). In addition to Dr. Blackwell’s advice, it was brought to the attention of the board of trustees by the school’s attorney that the new law required only public assemblages to be segregated, and that private meetings limited to invited guests would not come under the law. After careful consideration, the trustees decided that “to comply with the law it would be necessary to discontinue holding public entertainment and that in the future all entertainments would be private, open only to the school community and invited guests” (Board of Trustees Minutes 1926, HUA). The hostility against Hampton Institute arose from a select group of White Virginians who forced Hampton’s board of trustees to accept Jim Crow policies on their campus. The national Alumni Association was joined the fight, setting in motion the first wave of activism at Hampton during the 1920s by
alumni to influence administrative and institutional change.
THE STUDENTS WILL LEAD THEM: PROTEST AT HAMPTON
Shortly after tensions subsided concerning the Massenburg Bill, Hampton Institute was on the brink of yet another racial battle, this time involving dissatisfied students. At the heart of the matter were students demanding a greater degree of participation in institutional governance as well as more rights and freedom on campus (Drewry and Doermann 2001; Fass 1977; Geiger 2000; Roebuck and Murty 1993; Wolters 1975). Students refused to back down and allow the administration to dictate unfair policies, which they believed created “hat-in-hand and me-too -boss Negroes.”
The controversy at Hampton began in 1926 when students broke a longstanding tradition and refused to sing what they referred to as “plantation melodies.” Students found the musical
arrangements to be demeaning and redolent of the olden days of slavery in America. Student stakeholders felt “Negro spirituals” stood in direct contrast to the progressive changes brought on by the New Negro Movement in America (Locke  1968). The singing of “slave spirituals/plantation songs” was a point of contention for students at several other Black colleges and universities during the 1920s and 1930s as well (Logan 1969; Wolters 1975).
Since Hampton’s founding, it had been compulsory for the entire student body to sing Negro spirituals at the Sunday evening chapel service. Not only was the singing of these melodic spirituals compulsory, but the students were also forced to sing the songs before White members of the community who found the “plantation songs” entertaining. White guests at the institute were encouraged to attend the Sunday services mostly because the administration and board of trustees believed that it was good publicity for the school as well as a great way to attract potential donors. The Jubilee Singers at Fisk toured the United States and the world, raising considerable sums, and a number of Black colleges and universities hoped to have similar success (Anderson 1988; Logan 1969; Richardson 1980; Wolters 1975). But starting in the 1920s, students began to develop strong objections to the songs, believing that they greatly contributed to the demoralization of Black culture and progress. In the spring of 1925, Hampton’s choir disrupted a performance in Washington by walking off the stage in protest rather than singing spirituals to a segregated audience. Quite naturally, the administration disapproved of their insolent behavior and insisted that they adhere to the rules and traditions of the institution. Despite the administration’s threats, rebellious students stood firm in their beliefs even at the risk of being disciplined or sent home (Board of Trustee Minutes folder 1925, HUA; Wolters 1975:250).
Singing spirituals was part of a larger problem for students. The main issue was the administration’s paternalistic attitude toward student life. Hampton students saw themselves as mature college men and women as opposed to adolescent high school boys and girls. School officials, however, controlled every aspect of campus life leaving students with little to no autonomy to make decisions concerning affairs on their campus. On Saturday, October 8, 1927, a group of frustrated students decided to challenge the administration’s rigid rules by participating in a spontaneous demonstration on campus (Wolters 1975). Once again, the heart of the trouble began in Ogden Hall. That evening while viewing a movie, students asked for the lights to be turned off in the auditorium, which was the norm for a film viewing. When the chaperons for the evening refused to comply, angry students responded by “stomping their feet in protest” and yelling “lights out, lights out.” Notwithstanding the students’ objections, the lights remained on for the duration of the film. Upset students departed Ogden Hall and immediately began to strategize their approach to addressing conditions at Hampton. Student protesters considered a change in policy for viewing films in Ogden Hall to be “the climax of a long series of insults, and as they returned to their dormitories their resentment flared into rebellion” (Sit-In and Demonstrations 1927, HUA). The next morning when students brought the matter before the school’s administration, the following excuses were given to the student body: “An instructor had twisted his ankle while stumbling in the dark the week before”; “the lighting was being tested,” and “chaperons complained of too much kissing over there in the dark by mischievous students” (Sit-In and Demonstrations 1927, HUA). Whatever the case might have been, students dismissed the administration’s claims and moved forward with their protest plans.
During Sunday chapel service, students at Hampton stood united in protest against what they deemed to be unfair school policies and a paternalistic administration. Angry students refused to fully participate in the morning and afternoon church services that took place in Ogden Hall. Once again, most of the student body refused to sing the spirituals. Not only were students rebelling against the previous night’s ruling on lights, but they were also objecting to the many compulsory rules that the school had in place to control them. What made matters worse was that Hampton had invited W.T.B. Williams, a field agent for the Jeanes Fund, and Sir Gordon Guggisberg, governor of the Gold Coast, to the school as special guests that morning. Hampton students used this opportunity to protest against school officials, knowing the embarrassment it might cause (Sit-In and Demonstrations 1927, HUA).
The following Monday, hundreds of students refused to attend class. Due to the students’ insolent behavior, Dr. Gregg suspended classes for the rest of the day and ordered separate meetings between the male and female students to take place in Ogden Hall. At those meetings, Gregg scolded the students for instigating an unwholesome environment on campus and refused to listen to their grievances. To make matters worse, Gregg dismissed the students’ claims and tried to trivialize the incident to nothing more than a group of insubordinate and disrespectful students who chose to express their dissatisfaction over the administration’s minor decision to leave the lights on in Ogden Hall (JEG, Student Strike file 1927, HUA). What Dr. Gregg failed to acknowledge was that the situation at Hampton had become more than just about defiant students and lights in Ogden. A changing culture of student activism was beginning to take shape on campus. The Pittsburgh Courier, a Black newspaper, commented, “The present day youth cannot be treated in the same manner they were treated twenty-five years ago” and Hampton was “still run more like disciplinary barracks or reform schools…than like educational institutions attended by the sons of free men and women” (Wolters 1975:248). The incident in Ogden Hall merely symbolized the long overdue shift at Hampton. For years frustrated students had opposed the administration’s autocratic rule over campus life. Determined students organized on campus and coordinated their strike efforts to formally address Dr. Gregg and his administration. A Student Protest Committee, consisting of twenty-one male students, was established to bring the student grievances before Hampton’s administration (Sit-In and Demonstrations 1927, HUA).
PROTEST AND GRIEVANCES
At the forefront of the campus protest stood the men of Hampton Institute. Male students locked their doors in James Hall and refused to submit to room inspections. In addition to that, several young men continued to boycott classes and refused to comply with school officials who were demanding complete compliance. As a tactical measure, Hampton men were placed in charge of
the strike efforts to ensure a high level of respect and cooperation from both the students and the administration. C. L. Spellman, a member of the Student Protest Committee, pointed out that “not a single dollar’s worth of institutional property was damaged during the time…So complete was our control over the students that they would have literally torn buildings down brick by brick if the word had been given” (Sit-In and Demonstrations 1927, HUA). From the onset, the main objective of the student body was to conduct an organized and peaceful protest. Unlike student revolts that occurred at other colleges and universities, there was never any intent to publicly humiliate, destroy, or attack the character and reputation of Hampton. All that was asked of Dr. Gregg and his administration was that they seriously consider the list of concerns that were being put forth by the student body (Wolters 1975).
On Tuesday, October 11, 1927, Dr. Gregg agreed to meet with the Student Protest Committee under the following conditions: that students return to class immediately and that order be entirely restored to campus. Students agreed to the terms with the understanding “that there be no ineligibility rules or punishment inflicted upon the participants of this protest” (Sit-In and Demonstrations 1927, HUA). Reasonably, students thought that this was a fair request seeing that no one had been harmed and no property had been damaged during the campus demonstrations. After each side had come to a mutual agreement, Dr. Greg called the Student Protest Committee to his office at 7 p.m. Tuesday evening with the hopes of putting the student protests to rest. The committee presented Dr. Gregg with a list of seventeen grievances. This list of demands included better food in the dining hall, dancing on special occasions, a calling day for secondary students, better laundered shirts, longer Christmas holidays, and a more effective student council composed exclusively of students and without faculty participation. In regards to academic standards, the committee requested that high-school students be allowed to study until 10:30 p.m., that a system of permitted “cuts” be inaugurated, that announced electives always be made available and to permit college students to enroll in more elective courses, that all courses listed and outlined in the catalog be offered, that in three of the schools the educational system be improved, that resignations be demanded of a number of White teachers whose apparent education was below that of the average student, and that in selecting future teachers more emphasis be placed on formal academic preparation and less on religious spirit (Sit-In and Demonstrations 1927, HUA).
Although the Student Protest Committee had taken careful consideration in presenting their list of demands to Hampton’s administration, there appeared to be a strong degree of resentment and frustration against several of the student strike leaders. Even though Dr. Gregg and his administration agreed that several of the Student Protest Committee’s demands were reasonable, their actions proved otherwise. For years, Hampton’s administration had exercised a certain level of paternalistic control over student life and for the first time in the history of the institution, their authoritarian rule had been called into question by students. Administrators insisted that student strike leaders be punished for their insurrection as a warning against future protest and rebellious behavior (JEG, Student Strikes 1927, HUA). Dr. Gregg and his administration’s decision to take disciplinary actions against the student protesters came as a complete shock to the student body (Wolters 1975). What happened next changed the entire peaceful discourse between students and administrators during the 1927–28 strikes at Hampton Institute.
Peace at Hampton lasted for a day, and by Thursday, October 13, 1927, the student strikes resumed. Outraged and disappointed students refused to give in to administrative demands to punish the student strike leaders. As expected, student protesters grew impatient with Dr. Gregg because he and his administration failed to deliver on their promise of amnesty. On Thursday morning, many of the students decided to support the admonished strike leaders by standing in protest with them. Dr. Gregg responded to the renewed strikes by recommending to the board of trustees that the institute be closed until further notice. The board accepted Gregg’s recommendation by vote and decided that Hampton should remain closed until order was completely restored. They specified that insubordinate students be given the choice to pledge their allegiance to the institute or leave. In addition to that, every student was forced to reregister and promise his or her loyalty and cooperation to Hampton. All those students who refused to declare their allegiance to the institute were cast out and instructed to never return (Board of Trustee Minutes 1927, HUA).
As for the student strike leaders who were elected to organize and spearhead the campus protest, many of them were automatically expelled without consideration. “Two hundred students were either banished or refused to take the new loyalty oath.” Altogether, the disciplinary actions imposed by the administrative board resulted in the sanction, suspension, or expulsion of sixty-seven students. Of that group, five were dismissed, twenty-seven suspended, and ten readmissions were undecided. Those students who were dismissed were not allowed to return and those who were suspended were not allowed to return during the 1927–28 academic session (Sit-In and Demonstrations 1927, HUA).
When Hampton reopened on October 25, 1927, several measures were put in place to control student behavior and to ensure that there would be no more insurrections. Soon after students signed their oaths of loyalty, reenrollment commenced almost at once. Out of fear, students found themselves forced to give in to the administration. Their only options were to stay at the institute and bear with the current attitude of hostility or return home and face the wrath of their disappointed parents (Du Bois 1972). Just as they had hoped, Hampton’s board and administration had sent a clear message to students that insubordination would not be tolerated. The spirit of student activism had been crushed under the weight of a no-nonsense majority White board of trustees who simply would not allow for any rebellious thoughts or actions to take place at Hampton. As the public weighed in on the events at Hampton, it was heavily debated whether there was any merit to the students’ claims or had outside forces such as Black academic-activism and the New Negro movement incited the campus demonstrations (Du Bois 1972; Locke  1968; Wolters 1975).
Several concerned individuals external to the institution believed that student leaders had been coerced by outside agitators to rebel against the administration. Some authorities dismissed the protest at Hampton as “the work of disobedient boys and girls who were led on to do what they did” (Hampton Alumni Journal, Student Strikes 1927:5, HUA). The chief question looming about the community was whether or not Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois had any involvement with the campus unrest. During the 1920s, Du Bois’s name had become synonymous with Black student movements at many of the Black colleges and universities throughout the country. He was openly embroiled with the campus protest taking place at his own alma mater Fisk, and many of his opponents believed that he served as a behind-the-scenes agitator and had chosen Hampton, among other Black schools, to push his personal agenda for Black higher education (Du Bois 1972; Franklin 2003; Richardson 1980; Wolters 1975). Despite these allegations, “The students claim that ever since the iniquitous Massenburg Bill which required the separation of the races in public halls of Virginia, including Hampton School, that the Principal of the school [had] been less social with the students than ever before” (Sit-In and Demonstrations 1927, HUA). Moreover, angry students wholeheartedly believed that Dr. Gregg had “placed in some of the trades departments of the school white men from the Ku Klux sections of the Peninsula.” Students complained that conditions at Hampton had become almost intolerable because of subtle racist influence, such as “putting white men over Negroes, some of whom could not write a sentence of English correctly” (Du Bois 1972:34). The once docile student body that had accepted uncritically and unprotestingly every rule put in place by Hampton’s paternalistic administration was now ready to challenge their authority.
Hampton’s administration and board of trustees seized every opportunity to discredit student rebels and convince the public that Hampton was still a school dedicated to industrial education for Negros who well understood their place in the segregated South. Once the institute reopened, “Appeals were made to the Alumni for assistance in every way in selecting students
who [were] earnest and who have fine standards of conduct and can be counted upon to cooperate with those in authority in maintaining Hampton’s ‘Good Name’” (Board of Trustee Minutes 1927, HUA). Hampton’s administration was well aware of the fact that publicly, the scandal of student unrest had raised doubt in the minds of those who had long supported “the Hampton Idea.” Since the institute’s early days, critics had ridiculed the school for its stance on industrial education and now, the protest had “given Hampton’s foes an extra weapon and has amazed and discouraged some of its sincere friends” (Hampton Alumni Journal 1927:5, HUA). Nevertheless, student strikes forced alumni to take a position concerning the matter.
Although the board of trustees at Hampton had tried to subdue the student body by closing the school and forcing everyone who re-enrolled to pledge an oath of loyalty to the institution, a climate of disobedience and rebellion among students against the administration persisted for more than a year after the strike had ended. By this time, not only were students dissatisfied with the current state of affairs at Hampton, but many graduates and faculty also began to question the leading authorities at the institution. To make matters worse, Dr. Gregg had not done much to contain or mediate the situation. Institutional stakeholders immediately cast the blame on him for allowing the situation at the school to spiral out of control (Du Bois 1972).
Although Hampton graduates were thankful for the White northern missionaries and philanthropists who during the founding of the institution did so much in the cause of developing Hampton and providing educational opportunities for the Black South, these same graduates along with a new generation of alumni felt the institution could no longer avoid the responsibility of appointing Black faculty and administrators. The 1927–28 strike had not overtly been about desegregating the institution as much as it had been about more student autonomy on campus. Compounded by students’ resistance to an autocratic administration, alumni groups were able to use that leverage to force their issues on an already taxed board who were losing control of the school. As the students continued to fight, the National Hampton Alumni Association made their point clear as well: “We desire for a mixed faculty which shall be composed of a larger proportion of Negroes than at present and that in administrative positions there be a larger colored representation” (Hampton Alumni Journal 1928, HUA). In the end, students and alumni strategically brought their concerns to the forefront and made the board take notice.
Dr. Gregg was no longer able to pacify the disgruntled hearts and minds of those loyal Hamptonians who had once revered his leadership. He lost favor with the Black community because he was no longer in harmony with what Black students and alumni wanted at their school. In fact, even the White papers suggested that “if the principal could not sympathize with the viewpoint of Negroes because he is a white man then he ought to resign and leave the school to be run by someone who is in sympathy with their viewpoint” (Newspaper clipping from the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot 1927, HUA). In May of 1929, Dr. Gregg did just that; he tendered his resignation to the board of trustees, which they accepted immediately. Dr. Gregg’s era at Hampton ended with much-needed changes at the institution. While students gained more freedom on campus and strides were made by alumni to desegregate the faculty and staff, the matter of Hampton appointing its first Black president was still uncertain.
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University Museum and Archives at Hampton University, Hampton, VA (HUA) James E. Gregg Collection (JEG)
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About the Author
James E. Alford, Jr., William Paterson University