A biography of the remarkable African-American educator William Johnson Trent (1873-1963) that gives readers a close look at the tumultuous times of his long life.
Trent was born in North Carolina in 1873 to an African-American mother, Malinda Johnson, and a white father, Edward Trent, who eventually left them. Malinda then married an African-American man named Mack Dunn; they were sharecroppers, which was a hard life. But young William showed promise, and by scrimping, they managed to start him on the path to education, which eventually led him to Livingstone College, the first black-founded and -run school of higher education in North Carolina. Trent was a stellar student and also proved himself to be a natural leader and organizer. After graduation, he put those talents to work, involving himself with the YMCA as secretary for the all-black Third North Carolina Volunteer Regiment and with the Young Men’s Institute. It quickly became apparent that if a situation was dire, involving a lack of funds or a lack of membership, Trent could solve the problem; time and again, he worked slow, patient miracles. After Reconstruction, the era of Jim Crow, Ku Klux Klan attacks, and lynchings prevailed well into the 20th century. Trent walked a fine line between dignity and despair during this time, during which he was twice widowed. Finally, in 1925, he was made president of his alma mater—an institution in financial straits that was saved, eventually, by his strong hand. In these difficult times, the story of a well-lived, selfless life like William Johnson Trent’s provides a welcome uplift. Scales-Trent, a retired academic from the State University of New York at Buffalo, is Trent’s granddaughter, and her book is clearly a labor of love. Her biography is largely well-written, as in the opening, which addresses the predicament of newly freed slaves in an epic style: “They heard the news from black people walking down the road, from Union soldiers riding by on their horses, perhaps from the slave master himself. And so they left.” That said, there are long stretches of fairly numbing detail, particularly involving financial woes. Of necessity, the author also often qualifies events with “probably” and “we can assume.” However, the book is exhaustively documented and indexed, and it also includes some period photographs.
A recommended biography that offers a welcome addition to the roster of lesser-known, pioneer African-American educators.