Research Reflection #3 – Connecting with the Dunbar Legacy


My research of the Dunbar-Amherst connection has certainly taken me outside and beyond the Amherst College Archives recently. In March, I had the opportunity to interview one of those Dunbar Men of Amherst from the “Trio of 1959,” referenced in my previous research reflection.[1] Through email correspondence and over the phone, I interviewed Raymond Lewis Hayes (Amherst ‘59) to discuss his memories as a high school student at Dunbar and an undergraduate at Amherst. Hayes, who trained as a medical researcher and an anatomist, currently resides in Silver Spring, MD but also spends half of the year in Woods Hole, MA. He confirmed that the other two graduates from Dunbar from his Amherst College year were more than just classmates:

“Larry, Bob and I were very close friends. We grew up in the same neighborhood in Washington, DC, were all interested in science and medicine and were encouraged by the opportunity to attend Amherst together.”

In my last reflection, I explored the dynamic of Amherst alumni perpetuating the cycle of the Dunbar-Amherst connection through mentorship of Dunbar students considering elite colleges. My suspicion that previous Dunbar-Amherst men actively encouraged Dunbar students to apply to Amherst too was confirmed by Hayes’s response to my question about factors that influenced his college decision:

“I was recruited and positively influenced by Chauncey Larry, Percy Barnes and Montague Cobb, all black alumni from Amherst and friends of my family. My visit to the college positively reinforced my choice of a small liberal arts college, thus leading to my decision to attend Amherst.”

Unfortunately, through the phone interview, I learned that one member of the trio, Robert Stewart Jason is currently deceased. Jason lived two blocks away from Hayes when they grew up together in D.C. He became a radiologist and was a member of the same fraternity as Ray at Amherst (Kappa Theta).[2]

I was also surprised when Hayes informed me that there was a lack of a politicized identity around blackness in the 1950s at Amherst. I learned that the nature of race relations at Amherst between 1955 and 1959 (when the trio in question attended) differed quite a bit from the post-civil rights movement black experience at Amherst and beyond. Hayes told me that having his fellow Dunbar men at Amherst served as a “built-in advantage” upon arrival on campus and a “fallback of support if we were to need it.” Yet, there were still no black student organizations at Amherst at this point (perhaps they were not deemed necessary at the time?). Indeed, the 50s at Amherst was a time before the Black Student Union of today and the Afro-American Society of the 70s. Of course, Hayes, Burwell, and Stewart likely encountered racism on campus and in the Amherst community but the 1950s were the calm before the storm of radical racial politics of the 1960s and 1970s which would lead to the creation of the Amherst College Afro-American Society, The Gerald Penny Memorial Black Cultural Center, and the Black Studies Department, all three of which were institutional novelties at Amherst that reflected societal changes unfolding throughout the entire nation.

After talking with Steven Kalt ’16, a tech wizard friend of mine, I realized that I need to challenge myself to think about my data differently as I continue with this special topics course and begin developing theories for a final research project. I have been so incredibly focused on completing biographical data entries in my spreadsheet of Dunbar-Amherst men that I forgot to consider my findings in the context of the black community at Amherst in general.

What was the ratio of Dunbar men to those blacks who graduated from different high schools? In the 1910s and 1920s? In the 1940s, 1950s, etc.? Was there ever a year in which Dunbar men made up a notably large population or majority of the black community at Amherst? What has been the black faculty/staff to student ratio since the turn of the twentieth century when the Dunbar-Amherst story began? To begin to answer such questions, I turned to the appendix of Black Men of Amherst by Harold Wade, this course’s foundational text. As you’ll see from the image of page 112 of the appendix, the “Trio of 1959,” a group of graduates from Dunbar, comprised the entirety of the black population in their class according to Wade’s research. Additionally, for the class of 1925, three-fourths of the black students are Dunbar men (Davis is the only exception). In 1926, Drew and Dodson, both from Dunbar, were also the only black graduates in their Amherst College class.List

On behalf of the Black Student Union, I brought journalist and author Alison Stewart to campus this past Tuesday evening to discuss her book First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School (2013). I am incredibly grateful that I was able to gather the necessary funds to make her visit possible through the President’s Office, the Office of Student Life, and the Association of Amherst Students. The Multicultural Resource Center also covered the cost of a delicious catered meal from Pasta e Basta. The dinner was held in The Gerald Penny Memorial Black Cultural Center of the Octagon and served as an opportunity for a select group of faculty, staff, and students to get to know Alison on a personal level. Alison gave an eloquent and engaging speech about the Dunbar story that reinforced my confidence in the importance of historical knowledge for engaging with the world today. I hope the other students that attended also left with a heightened appreciation for the Amherst alumni that came before them who led lives of consequence, leaving legacies for us to admire and emulate. From the photograph, you’ll see that I had a chance to tour Alison around Charles Drew House (my dormitory as a junior)!


M_StreetI appreciated how she tailored her speech to our college community, spotlighting the many alumni of Dunbar who matriculated at Amherst. In the next week or so, I’m hoping to take a closer look at the bio-file of Robert Nicholas Mattingly, technically the first Dunbar-Amherst man (’02, ’06).[3] In her speech, Alison referred to Mattingly and emphasized how he returned to D.C. to become the principal of Cardozo High School. In one document from his bio-file, “Autobiographic Memories, 1897-1954: M Street-Dunbar High School,” prepared by Mattingly himself in 1974, there is a list of Dunbar-Amherst men! Mattingly writes that “Amherst records reveal that more M Street-Dunbar High School students have graduated from Amherst College than from any other college or university outside of the District of Columbia.” It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who has been curious about the connection between the institutions!


[1] I discovered that three Dunbar graduates all went on to Amherst together and later became doctors.

[2] Considering the proximity of their homes during their Dunbar years, perhaps a digital mapping project could be a possible component of my final project.

[3] Mattingly is technically the first Dunbar-Amherst man if you don’t count William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson (Amherst 1892), an early principal of M Street High School (1906-1909). He convinced Charles Hamilton Houston, Class of 1915, to apply to his alma mater, initiating the cycle of encouragement for attending Amherst that I mentioned earlier.


Research Reflection 2 – The Trio of 1959


For last week’s reflection, I wrote about my decision-making process to research the Dunbar Men of Amherst for my individual project for the special topics course. Ultimately, my personal connection to Dunbar (my grandfather was a 1943 graduate) motivated me to investigate why and how that D.C. public school transformed into a feeder school for Amherst College since the turn of the twentieth century. To keep track of new historical data, I’ve been updating a digital spreadsheet of this group of alumni with each visit to the Archives. By keeping track of class years, the spreadsheet allows me to visualize exactly how many Dunbar graduates entered Amherst every year. I color-coded those years with multiple matriculations (1925, 1926, 1929, 1956, and 1959).

However, what fascinates me about the Dunbar-Amherst connection is not simply the high rate of matriculation, but how it was maintained for generations. The cyclical trajectory of Chauncey Larry (Amherst ’27) who graduates from Dunbar in 1923 but returns to his high school as a teacher from 1945 to 1950 reflects some of the ways in which the Dunbar Men of Amherst managed to maintain an interest in Amherst College among Dunbar students. Dunbar’s seniors considered Amherst not only because of Dunbar’s encouragement for students to apply to northern colleges, but also because of Larry’s likely endorsement of his alma mater.

Last week, I continued my archival research by examining more “bio files” of those men who attended both Dunbar and Amherst. I focused on three men: Robert Stewart Jason Jr., Raymond Lewis Hayes Jr., and Lawrence Burwell. All three of these men graduated from Dunbar High School in 1955, enrolled in Amherst together, and graduated in 1959. Each of these also three men went on to pursue careers in medicine.

Were Jason, Hayes, and Burwell close friends at Dunbar? Did the decision of one to attend Amherst influence the others?  Did they support each other in their college years and beyond? These are the kinds of questions I wanted to answer, but the bio files primarily served to provide biographical information about their lives at Amherst rather than their relationship to one another.

This coming week, I intend to go beyond bio files by searching D.C. newspaper records from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for references to Dunbar and specifically connections between Dunbar and Amherst.  I could also reach out to the three aforementioned men and their families to learn more about their Dunbar and Amherst experiences. I also want to learn more about what experience of Amherst students in general and black scholars in particular would have been like in 1959. Indeed, when Jason, Hayes, and Burwell attended Amherst in the late 50s, the civil rights movement was still in its early stages.

Nonetheless, one letter from the bio files suggests a connection between Burwell and Hayes that endured beyond graduation from Amherst. In January 1963, a few years after graduating from Amherst, Burwell still seemed aware of his classmate Hayes’s professional path. In a letter, Burwell updates “Bob” on “the latest news” that Hayes received his PhD in Anatomy from the University of Michigan and planned to join the faculty at Howard Medical school that fall. I didn’t capture the header in my photo so I will need to request the bio file once again to get a fuller image of the letter. I do not remember if this was a letter sent to the College or if it was Burwell’s own personal correspondence with a friend. Regardless, Burwell’s mentioning of Hayes is a good indication that the three Dunbar men of Amherst of the class of 1959 likely kept in contact with one another and supported each other’s shared medical aspirations.

A Black Amherst legacy:  Below there is a photograph of Burwell ’59 (right) alongside one of his son Scott (left) who also attended Amherst as a member of the class of 1990. I want to take a look at Scott’s bio file as well this week since it might offer some more information about his father.


Below is the letter mentioned in this research reflection, written by Burwell in 1963.


Research Reflection #1 – The Dunbar Men of Amherst


For the past four weeks, my fellow classmates and I initiated our special topics course, “The Black Experience at Amherst College,” by engaging with literature already written on the topic as well as familiarizing ourselves with Amherst’s available archival resources. We also agreed upon Black Men of Amherst College by Harold Wade Jr. ‘68 and Black Women of Amherst College by former Amherst history professor Mavis C. Campbell as “foundational texts” that we as a research group would explore collectively before delving into our individualized projects. I found this approach to a special topics course with multiple students quite useful and unifying since we now all share a common body of knowledge despite how our research trajectories have already started to diverge.

After reading Black Men of Amherst College, I felt extremely empowered by Amherst’s enduring legacy of black alumni who have enrolled since the 1820s, the decade of the College’s founding. In particular, I am fascinated by the story of Edward Jones, the College’s first black graduate, who successfully received his diploma in 1826 and continued to influence his nation and the world while many other blacks throughout the United States were still bound in chains. I am not suggesting that the struggles of student of color today should not be subject to proper amelioration with steadfast determination. Indeed, the horrors of the past should never be an excuse for activism and social change in the present. Yet, I am still humbled by those black Amherst alumni who walked through this campus at a time when some American states still sanctioned the dehumanizing institution of slavery. What would it have been like as a black Amherst student in antebellum America to share the same social and intellectual spaces as classmates whose parents could very well have owned people who looked just like you?

Thus, after learning about each remarkable generation of black Amherst students from decade to decade, choosing a particular topic naturally proved quite difficult. There is quite a bit of material that Wade either chose not to research or include in his study. Wade’s exploration of black history at his alma mater did not incorporate any critical reflection of black faculty and staff, not even in regard to their relationship with the student body. (Fortunately, Head Archivist Mike Kelly unearthed the forgotten story of one campus groundskeeper or custodian who was condescendingly referred to as “Professor Charley” by Amherst students in the nineteenth century. This supposedly innocuous nickname quickly reveals itself to be problematic when considering the irony that a black man could never aspire to be a professor at the College at that time.) Although I am not following through with an in-depth study of the non-student black experience at Amherst, I think the case of Professor Charley merits a reflection from me at the very least for our course website by the end of the semester.

Ultimately, I decided to investigate the large contingent of black Amherst alumni since the turn of the twentieth century who all originated from the same high school in Washington D.C. Dunbar High School, a then prestigious pubic school for D.C.’s black population, essentially became a feeder school for Amherst. Why and how did so many black students end up enrolling to Amherst from Dunbar?

The topic actually first entered my mind a couple years ago after reading Alison Stewart’s First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School. Stewart’s mentioning of famous black history-makers like Charles Drew (Class of 1926) going from Dunbar to Amherst stayed dormant in my mind. However, the topic was reawakened after I read Black Men of Amherst College in which Wade comments on the College’s deans planning special visits to Dunbar to recruit the best and brightest of D.C.’s young black scholars. Additionally, on a personal level, it was incredible for me to check out a secondary text from 1965, The Dunbar Story (1870-1955) by Dunbar teacher Mary Gibson Hundley and see my grandfather, Nathaniel Randolph (born in 1925), a World War II veteran, mentioned as one of the Dunbar students who entered the Armed Forces the summer after his graduation in 1943.

Last week, I began searching the biographical records in the College’s Archives to learn about some of these Dunbar Men of Amherst, as I like to refer to them. Each Amherst student has a “bio file” which can include various documents from photographs to obituaries. I learned that William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson (Amherst Class of 1892) became the president of M Street High School (which would later become Dunbar in the early twentieth century). According to one 2007 article from the College’s magazine, “At Dunbar, Jackson taught mathematics and coached sports for 38 years. He served as the school’s principal from 1906 to 1909. He shepherded many of his students to Amherst, which graduated more Dunbar students than any other college outside of the nation’s capital…It was Jackson who convinced Charles Hamilton Houston, Class of 1915, to attend Amherst.” [1] Thus, W.T.S. Jackson is clearly the necessary starting point for my investigation of the Dunbar-Amherst connection because he begins a cycle of Dunbar students choosing Amherst to continue their educational journeys.

This past weekend, thanks to a text-searchable PDF of biographical records from the Archives, I successfully tracked down several alumni who attended Dunbar High School. I found twenty-eight individuals so far (with class years ranging from 1892 to 1964) and created a spreadsheet to organize these alumni and document biographical data points such as their Amherst class year and career fields. In the coming weeks, I want to start thinking about potential digital tools that would allow me to map and represent my quantitative and qualitative data.

Eventually, I would like to reach out to the Digital Programs staff of Frost Library for guidance but in the meantime I believe it is important that I continue to explore archival material and collect more data about the Dunbar Men of Amherst. Indeed, there are many more questions to ask: Did any Dunbar graduates attend Amherst after 1964? Did post-civil rights era Dunbar ironically suffer because of integration? If so, what effect did this have on Dunbar’s academic caliber and the future of the Dunbar-Amherst connection?




[1] Albright, Evan J. “A Slice of History.” Amherst Magazine. 2007.

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