A strong figure in a tumultuous era
Reviewed by Leslie Dunbar
Vol 14, No. 2, 1992, pp. 27-29
Chronicles of Faith, The Autobiography of Frederick D. Patterson, edited by Martia Graham Goodson, with a foreword by Harry V. Richardson (University of Alabama Press, 1991, xiv, 220 pages).
Frederick D. Patterson was one of the dominant figures of the black community for half this century. President of Tuskegee Institute from 1935 until 1953,
principal founder of the United Negro College Fund, executive director of the Phelps Stokes Fund, advisor to just about everybody.
His autobiography, as told to Professor Goodson, depicts not only the life of a distinguished man but the era during which he worked and led. The book is filled with quick portrayals of the America of mid-century, such as these:
When I heard [in 1941 or 42] about the plans to include blacks in the new Air Corps, I was anxious to learn more…. I met with Robert Patterson, the assistant secretary of war I told [him], Tuskegee Institute is available if flying is going to be offered on a segregated basis. We do not want it if there’s a chance of immediate integration.’ …Patterson told me in unequivocal terms that military flying would not be integrated.
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I began voting when I became president of Tuskegee Institute. In fact, I voted as soon as I became head of Tuskegee, Dr. [Robert Russa, second president of Tuskegee, Patterson’s predecessor and father-in-law] Moton had voted, and I assume Booker Washington did also, although I don’t know that he did so. I learned in 1935 that I would be allowed to vote for the first time in my life–because I was Tuskegee’s president.
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After blacks in Alabama got the ballot, the Tuskegee Civic Association had to fight gerrymandering. One of the first actions taken by the white citizens in an effort to exclude blacks was to gerrymander just about all the black citizens out of the Tuskegee district, where their vote would have counted. The map of the election district looked like a snake.
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Dr. Carver was not race conscious. He had been born a slave, kidnapped as a child, and ransomed for a horse. Yet on question of race, he offered no comment. He never spoke of it, at least not with me. There was one exception: the occasion when he turned over his life savings to me for the establishment of the George Washington
Carver Research Foundation. The money was in government bonds. Carver said that buying the bonds was an act of patriotism in which all citizens could indulge, not just white citizens.
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…the court’s admonition [in the School Desegregation Cases, 1954] to move ‘with all deliberate speed’ tended to have the opposite effect of what had been anticipated…. While we were waiting for integration to happen, the immediate need was for greatly improved education opportunity under the existing segregated system As we told the story of what the United Negro College Fund schools were doing…people of goodwill and intelligence were not deterred in contributing to the Fund. Some were, but by the same token, some wanted to see black people remain segregated anyway. We never asked….
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When I went to Phelps Stokes, [A. Philip] Randolph bawled me out for what he said I was not doing…. In all my years at Tuskegee, I had to watch my conduct, lest I get Tuskegee Institute in trouble and damage its value to students. I thought it wisest to steer clear of controversy on the race issue. Dr. Moton had done so. Booker Washington had done so; and I simply fell into the same pattern…. It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with Randolph and [Channing, Patterson’s predecessor at Phelps Stokes] Tobias… I listened to what he [Randolph] had to say, but I didn’t do any differently. After working for forty years, you form habits Nonetheless, I participated in the March on Washington 11963] and spoke to Randolph there to let him know I was present. I also joined the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March…I don’t think I spoke to Martin Luther King or other civil rights leaders there. I was simply present in the crowd, mixing with the marchers.
Dr. Moton had acquired land on the York River in Tidewater Virginia, and had built there a large home, to which he had retired after leaving Tuskegee. The place was Capahosic. Later, Dr. Patterson worked strenuously to transform it into a retreat and conference center, accomplishing this, and at the same time protecting the estate from white developers, through creating the Robert R. Moton Memorial Institute. I attended a couple of conferences there. Between gargantuan repasts conferees sat and conversed on the grass–lucky ones on folding chairs–in the shade of a giant oak, Dr. Patterson himself in a lawn chair at the center, looking Jehovah-like. One session had some useful importance for the civil right movement.
It was in the Summer of 1961, and somehow Kennedy administration representatives, some foundation executives, some others like myself, and a group of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members had been convened.
The SNCC members were more than participants; they were also a big item on the agenda. Today it may seem incredulous that they, who were to carry the heaviest load of the voter registration work of ensuing years, had in 1961 to be persuaded that it would not be a cop-out. But such was the case, and the Capahosic meeting was important in overcoming their wariness. Capahosic was one of several occasions that year where the SNCC members experienced being met with respect by older and established persons. They had to secure the right of being listened to, too often against resistance.
Chronicles of Faith, handsomely designed and printed by its publisher and enriched by numerous interesting photographs, will deepen anyone’s understanding of a strong man and the tumultuous years in which he lived and worked.
Leslie Dunbar is the book review editor of Southern Changes.