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THE LAST NEGROES AT HARVARD by Kent Garrett Kirkus Star


The Class of 1963 and the 18 Young Men Who Changed Harvard Forever

by Kent Garrett & Jeanne Ellsworth

Pub Date: Feb. 11th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-328-87997-4
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

An alumnus of the Harvard class of 1963 recounts an experiment in affirmative action and its lasting effects.

Before 1959, the African American presence at Harvard was minimal to the point of being practically nonexistent. That year, the university recruited 18 young black men—women did not yet enter into the picture—one of them Garrett, who went on to excel in TV news and documentary-making. “I was by no means the first Black at Harvard,” he writes. “That was Richard Theodore Greener, who graduated in 1870. From then until the mid-twentieth century, there were sometimes one or two in a class, and often none.” The other 17 men were just as capable. In a kind of modern rejoinder to Michael Medved and David Wallechinsky’s What Really Happened to the Class of ’65? Garrett traces their lives and careers. All acknowledge that a Harvard education had its uses, but most also allow that during their student years, they kept quiet and did their work, careful not to give any reason to be forced out. Some of the former students are expatriates, having found other countries more congenial than the still racially troubled United States. One gentleman who has long lived in Austria after a career at IBM remembers going to student mixers and having classmates rush out to find a black girl for him to dance with: “There we were, the two of us, and all these whites just standing there glowing, saying ‘Isn’t it great?’ It was very embarrassing for her and for me.” Rueful reminiscence sometimes shades into anger, but for the most part, these extraordinary men chart life journeys that were full of challenges—as with a closeted gay classmate who went on to careers in the aerospace, banking, and advertising sectors—but also full of accomplishments. Garrett writes with an easy, charming style (“In the spring of 1962, I was still trying to climb the steep and slippery slope of organic chemistry”), but the sense of injustice is palpable.

A fine contribution to the literature of civil rights and the African American experience.