Merze Tate: The WMU, Oxford Alum Who Broke Barriers
While many African Americans in the 1920s and 30s were fighting for basic rights, Western Michigan University alum Merze Tate was traveling the world and attending colleges like Oxford University.
Community Voices magazine editor Sonya Bernard Hollins stumbled upon Tate’s story while writing a local history series for the Kalamazoo Gazette. Now she's published several works on Tate's life - including a traveling photo exhibit, several articles, and a photo biography which will come out in March called The World Through the Lens of Merze Tate.
Humble Beginnings, Big Dreams
Tate was born in 1905 in Blanchard, Michigan. She grew up in Mecosta County with her parents who were the first black settlers there.
Bernard Hollins says they were former underground railroad conductors in Ohio who moved to Michigan to settle land through the Homestead Act.
She says even though they were farmers, Tate's parents encouraged her to achieve the life she wanted.
"Her family had that mentality that - don't feel you have to be a certain thing or in a certain spot. You can do whatever you want, you can go wherever you want," says Bernard Hollins.
Bernard Hollins says what Merze Tate wanted most was to go to the places that she learned about in her history books. Tate graduated high school early, due to a fire that destroyed the school. Nevertheless, Tate was her high school's valedictorian in 10th grade.
Tate continued going to high school in Battle Creek where she saved up money for college by working as a maid.
Merze Tate At Western Michigan University
Tate attended Western Michigan Teacher's College which would later become Western Michigan University. She graduated with the highest GPA on record at the time in 1927. Tate was WMU's first African American to earn a bachelors degree.
The Merze Tate Travel Club
Bernard Hollins says despite Tate's grades, schools in Michigan were not hiring black teachers at the time. So Tate got a job as a history teacher at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis - a new school built for African American children during segregation. Tate formed a travel club, where she would take students to places like Washington D.C.
"Merze Tate wanted these kids to see the possibilities in the world," says Bernard Hollins. "You think during the 1920s most of their parents maybe had probably been servants - you know, in homes working as maids or chauffeurs, that type of thing. And they didn't know many professional African Americans, so she wanted to expose them to that."
Many of the children in Tate's travel club made the high school's honor roll and some later attended college.
Tate's Travels and Academic Career
Merze Tate was the first African American to graduate from Oxford University. Tate went on to become a history professor at several college and universities like Barber-Scotia College, Bennett College, Morgan State College, and Howard University.
Tate traveled the globe several times over and even studied in India. Later in life, Tate became an international correspondent for an African American newspaper out of Baltimore.