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Teaching around Jim Crow…Merze Tate

Being the first African-American to graduate from Western Michigan Teachers College wasn't enough to land Merze Tate a teaching job in her home state.

When the Indianapolis Public School Board voted in 1922 to establish an exclusively black high school, the city’s African-American community protested. The city’s black high school students were at that time integrated among their white peers at Shortridge, Manual, and Tech.

Nonetheless, in the fall of 1927 the city unveiled Crispus Attucks High School, named for a runaway slave who became a hero of the American Revolution. Despite the facility’s inadequate size, let alone the fact that its very existence was a function of Jim Crow justice, Crispus Attucks became a center of academic excellence and community pride.

The brick structure at the corner of West and 12th Streets attracted eminently qualified teachers whose race made them unwelcome at other institutions. Many faculty members possessed master’s degrees or doctorates; others were Ivy League graduates, attorneys and the first black naval officers.

Making history as the first African-American to graduate from Western Michigan Teachers College was apparently not enough to land Miss Merze Tate a teaching job in her home state. The college’s president, Dwight B. Waldo, tapped a few Indiana connections to obtain a position for her at the newly opened Crispus Attucks.

During her five years in Indianapolis, Tate became a member of the city’s Fortnight Literary Club. In the summers, she pursued her master’s at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

The first black woman to attend Oxford, and to earn a Ph.D. in government and international relations from Harvard, Tate became one of the first two women in the history department at Howard University, where she taught for 35 years.

Known for her scholarship on disarmament, the foreign policy expert whose advice was sought by the United Nations returned to Indianapolis March 28, 1936 to speak about International Relations for the Senate Avenue YMCA’s prestigious speaker series.

Merze Tate passed away in 1996 at the age of 91. There are scholarships in her name at Radcliffe, Western Michigan, and Howard; but for nearly seven years after her death, her grave in a Blanchard, Michigan cemetery went unmarked.

Crispus Attucks operated as a high school until 1986.

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