February 11: Atlanta University’s and Clark College’s William H. Crogman and the ‘Negro Need’ for a ‘counter-education’

Clark Atlanta University is one of only two private HBCUs in the country that grants doctorate degrees in more than five disciplines. It is also the only private HBCU to host a chapter of Phi Kappa Phi, America’s most prestigious honor society for all academic disciplines, and its Center for Cancer Research and Therapeutic Development is the nation’s largest, most comprehensive academic prostate cancer research enterprise.

The institution was founded by the merger of the nation’s first Black graduate institution and its first Black liberal arts institution. Atlanta University, founded in 1865, was the first Black graduate institution in the nation, and the first to confer bachelor’s degrees. Clark College, founded in 1869, was the first Black liberal arts college; other schools founded for the education of freedmen to that point were intended as seminaries, normal schools, or schools to train in the agricultural arts, but Clark’s benefactors saw it as “the university of all the Methodist schools founded for the education of freedmen.”

William H. Crogman was a member of Atlanta University’s first graduating class, and would later go on to serve as a founding faculty member — and then as president — of Clark College. He received both his bachelor’s and master’s degree from AU, and was the first recipient of its honorary Doctor of Letters degree. Before enrolling at Atlanta University, however, he taught at Claflin University, becoming the first Black person to be regularly employed by the Freedmen’s Aid Society in education. He had studied Greek and Latin independently, and decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Atlanta University, where he completed the four year program in just three and graduated with distinction.

As a faculty member, Crogman was known as “a master of his very high calling, teaching,” who mixed humor with exceptional oratory to “motivate even the dullest student.”

During the Atlanta race riots in 1902, rumors circulated the Clark University (stet) was harboring Negro criminals, which Crogman, who served as president at that time, denounced in a published editorial as “entirely and absolutely undeserved.”

Crogman believed among “The Negro’s Needs” at the time was a need for “counter-education,” born from a concern that Blacks were taught one thing in church or school and given another view by mainstream white treatment of the race, which needed to be unlearned.

He is known as a staunch advocate for civil rights and education for African Americans. Refusing to ride on segregated streetcars, for example, he walked the several miles from his home to the Clark College campus. And, in a speech at Henry Ward Beecher’s church in Brooklyn, he spoke about the service of Black men in the American wars, juxtaposed against their treatment by citizens in the country. “The Negro fought in common with you to found this government,” he said, “and to perpetuate this government.” Although “hanged in the streets of New York by an infuriated mob; snubbed and mocked, buffeted and spit upon, … he has never for a moment deserted the Union.”

In 1892, he was selected by the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal church to serve on the University Senate, which determined the minimum requirements for a baccalaureate degree at affiliated institutions. He also served on the boards of both Clark College and the Gammon Theological Seminary, an historically Black seminary which still exists today as the United Methodist member of the Interdenominational Theological Center.

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com