'We Were Curiosities': One Of 'The Last Negroes At Harvard' Shares His Story In 1959, Kent Garrett was one of 18 black students accepted into a freshman class of more than 1,000. It was an early form of affirmative action, and he chronicles his time on campus in a new book.
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'We Were Curiosities': One Of 'The Last Negroes At Harvard' Shares His Story

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'We Were Curiosities': One Of 'The Last Negroes At Harvard' Shares His Story

'We Were Curiosities': One Of 'The Last Negroes At Harvard' Shares His Story

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A new book titled "The Last Negroes At Harvard" chronicles the lives of 18 African Americans who are part of Harvard University's class of 1963. Kent Garrett, the book's co-author, was one of them. As John Kalish reports, Garrett's class marked a turning point at the school - which, coincidentally, I also happened to attend many years later.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Kent Garrett grew up in New York City. His father was a subway motorman who worked a second job waxing floors. Kent Garrett Sr. is now 97, and he still remembers when his son was admitted to Harvard.

KENT GARRETT SR: We were just elated and really proud, I tell you. I'd invite everybody over to dinner (laughter).

KALISH: In the fall of 1959, Kent Garrett Jr. traveled by car up to Harvard, but he did not go alone. His parents, a sister, a couple of aunts and an uncle went with him.

KENT GARRETT JR: It was a little bit embarrassing in a way that everybody wanted to come up there. But they did. We went up in a couple of cars, and it was fun. It was good.

KALISH: Like the African Americans who preceded him, Garrett endured indignities once he got there. W. E.B. DuBois, the college's most famous black alumnus, wasn't allowed to live on campus in the late 19th century. In 1952, a cross was burned outside a dormitory housing 11 black students. During his freshman year, Garrett was tasked with cleaning the dorms.

K GARRETT JR: It was, like, the worst job I could ever have because I'd been with my dad floor-waxing in rich white people's houses all those years growing up. And here I was again at Harvard, you know, doing Negro sort of work.

KALISH: Garrett and his co-author decided to use the word Negro in the title of their book because during Garrett's four years at Harvard, black students were referred to as Negroes. But by the time they graduated, they were calling themselves Afro-Americans. Garrett's co-author is his partner, Jeanne Ellsworth.

JEANNE ELLSWORTH: They knew something was up that there were 18 of them there. And they discussed it at the black table. What's going on here that we're all here? We know there are more of us now than there've ever been.

KALISH: At meals, Garrett sat at the black table, which he describes as a needed refuge from his white classmates. Keep in mind they were 18 black students in the freshman class of more than a thousand.

K GARRETT JR: We were curiosities. And there was the inevitable questions. One, what is it like to be a Negro? The second question is, what do you people want? And after you hear that question every day for X number of days, it gets tiring. And you definitely don't want to hear it. You want to steer the conversation somewhere else. And it wasn't like they were racists or anything. It was just that they were curious.

KALISH: Garrett became close friends with another black student, Fred Easter, who he refers to in his book as a Harlem wise guy. Easter is now retired and lives in Minnesota. He recalls an encounter with one of his white friends in the dining hall.

FRED EASTER: There were peas on my plate that I hadn't eaten. He said, you going to eat that? And I said no. And I was going to shovel them off onto his plate. He said, no, don't worry. I'll just get them. And he ate off my plate, which was astonishing to me. It spoke to his comfort level, which was a comfort level that was not widely held by white people in the United States in 1959.

KALISH: "The Last Negroes At Harvard" recounts the time Malcolm X came to dinner at the residence Kent Garrett shared with other students and how efforts to establish a Student Association for Africans and Afro-Americans were thwarted by the Harvard administration.

K GARRETT JR: As the civil rights movement moved along, and Malcolm X came on the scene, I mean, my thinking really started moving towards more black power, realizing that this integration thing is probably not going to work.

KALISH: Garrett's thinking was influenced by a roommate at Harvard who moved to Africa after college. Garrett returned to New York after he graduated, where he worked in advertising before taking a job in 1968 at "Black Journal," a new public television show. It was the first national program to focus exclusively on the concerns of African Americans. Garrett went to Vietnam and Japan to produce an hour-long episode on black GIs. Here he is questioning a black army general.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK JOURNAL")

K GARRETT JR: A lot of black troopers we talk with felt that they shouldn't be in the army because of the - you know, they felt that they were second-class citizens at home - especially a lot of troopers in the south.

KALISH: Kent Garrett went on to become a producer at CBS and NBC. But he became disillusioned with network news and left his big-city life to become a dairy farmer in the Catskills. He writes in his book that he still doesn't contribute money to Harvard and that he didn't go to a class reunion until two years ago. His friend Fred Easter has been to several reunions, including his 50th, which took place during graduation ceremonies for the class of 2013.

EASTER: And there were knots of black students. And one guy called out, look at those guys. That's 50 years. One guy said, we know what you went through. Thank you, he said. Thank you.

KALISH: For NPR News, I'm John Kalish.

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