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Woodrow Wilson Teaching Intern at Hampton Institute

October 17, 2014

During Spring Semester 1964 I was a Woodrow Wilson Teaching Intern at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia.

During the whole Civil War the Union held the Peninsula between the York and James Rivers. This put Union lines less than 80 miles from the Confederate Capitol of Richmond, Virginia. (Of course Confederate armies were often closer than this to Washington, D. C.) In mid March 1862 under sustained pressure from Abraham Lincoln, General George B. McClellan moved his huge, well trained and well supplied army to the immensely strong Fort Monroe at Hampton Roads. The surprise appearance of the Confederate iron clad C. S. S. Virginia, but mainly McClellan’s excessive caution led to the failure of the Peninsula Campaign to take Richmond which might have ended the war quickly. The U. S. S. Monitor fought the Virginia to a draw but it was still seen as a great danger. When Lincoln finally personally took charge on May 6, he forced the Confederates to burn the Virginia, giving the Union partial access to both rivers. But still McClellan would not press the attack with sufficient vigor.

However, as already noted, the Union held the peninsula during the whole war. Of course slaves began escaping across the Union lines from the beginning. Already in 1861 the American Missionary Association (founded in 1846 in support of abolition, and education of blacks) hired Mary Smith Peake to teach these escaped slaves. It had been illegal to teach literacy to blacks throughout most of the Confederacy, so that dictated her first efforts. It is said that she began teaching under the giant oak that later became known as the Emancipation Oak when in 1863 it was the site of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in the South. This early school eventually developed into Hampton Institute in 1858. Hampton played a significant role in black education in America.

The Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation was founded at Princeton University in 1945 by Professor of Classics Whitney Oakes and Dean Sir Hugh Taylor to encourage veterans to prepare for careers as teachers at Princeton. With generous five-year support from the Ford Foundation it became a national institution in 1957. When I graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1958 I was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. However I actually used the National Science Foundation Fellowship I had also been given, so I was officially known as an Honorary Woodrow Wilson Fellow. In 1963 the Foundation decided to ask Fellows (including Honorary Fellows) to consider teaching as an Intern for a semester or a year at historically black colleges. Interns were regular faculty members but were expected to teach one advanced course in their specialty and to offer students as many opportunities for enrichment beyond the classroom as possible. Since I had been deeply involved in the struggle for integration throughout my college years this was very attractive to me.

About the first of the year Laramie and I moved into a furnished small house on campus and I began teaching. I had decided that my advanced course would cover the mathematical theory of quantum mechanics which I had studied in some detail mainly under George Mackey at Harvard. I was able to find five exceptionally well prepared students for this graduate level course. I believe that several of these students went on to successful careers in science.

Enrichment was more challenging. A young white man with black students was a source of suspicion and hostility in the surrounding community. (That is why we lived on campus. There were a number of white faculty members and they nearly all lived on campus.) Our greatest success was at the local Jewish Community Center recommended by a faculty colleague. They were delighted to have black students. This center had a large endowment to bring in top chamber music ensembles, so they were able to do this quite frequently. Thus my student guests could listen to these truly outstanding groups playing in a living room like setting—the way 18th Century aristocrats had first heard much of this music.

We also hosted frequent discussion groups on many topics in our own little house. These were often thoughtful and challenging. For instance one student advocated blacks carrying out random killings of white people in retaliation for years of injustice. Being a random white person, I could not approve this idea, but I did allow it to be expressed more than once. I presume it was a test. Did I pass or fail the test?

Science faculty at Hampton served as judges at science fairs sponsored by black high schools all over the state. On my first trip to do this I exhibited my ignorance of local customs. I was the only white person in a car with four black faculty members. We stopped for gas and I was very relieved to use the restroom. The others in the car were absolutely terrified. Even a white person could not use a public restroom if riding in a car driven by blacks. For quite a few miles there was total silence in the car as the driver looked in the mirror for a car carrying a lynch mob. It may be that this concern was excessive, as nothing happened, but there is no doubt that the fear was real for all four black people in the car.

I will finish by relating one other high school science fair uncomfortable story. The Pythagorean Theorem (In a right triangle, the square of the length of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides.) has at least 102 known proofs, several of which are easily grasped. Euclid chose a very artificial proof to publish in his Elements. Regrettably this proof was still common in high school text books in my youth (and perhaps even today). At a science fair a bright young black girl claimed to have discovered this proof on her own. A child might actually discover several of the “natural’ proofs on his or her own, but there is absolutely no possibility that anyone would discover Euclid’s proof. I was forced to play the role of the big bad white man, calling this poor child a liar. It still makes me uncomfortable, but mathematicians pride themselves on a special regard for the truth.


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