In 2007, I began a quest to study the black experience at Vanderbilt. I had initially considered taking on this project during the fall of 2006 when one of my colleagues in the Department of Sociology gave me his copy of Gone with the Ivy (1985, University of Tennessee Press) and asked if I had read it. Although he meant it as a joke, I was very much intrigued because it was the first time I had seen any written historical text about the university. After my initial reading of the 744-page biography of Vanderbilt University by historian Paul Conkin, MA’53, PhD’57—Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus—I decided that if I ever found the time, I would one day tell the history of African Americans at Vanderbilt and would call it “Lost in the Ivy.”
I honestly thought it was one of those great ideas that would remain unfulfilled—especially given that I then worked full time as a director for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and taught courses as a senior lecturer in the Vanderbilt sociology department, typically on my lunch break or at the conclusion of my workday.
Despite having been at the university continuously since 1994, I knew very little about the history of African Americans at Vanderbilt beyond “the Rev. Lawson Affair”—the events surrounding the 1960 expulsion of Vanderbilt Divinity School student James M. Lawson for leading sit-ins at Nashville’s segregated lunch counters.
In September 2007, I was forced to confront my ignorance after the dedication of Murray House, one of the 10 houses that make up The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons, Vanderbilt’s residential campus for first-year students. I attended the dedication ceremony for Murray House and heard all the wonderful things said about the Rev. Walter R. Murray Jr., BA’70, MMgt’74. I was slightly embarrassed by the fact that I had never heard this man’s name until the months leading up to the program.
Murray, as I had learned, was a student leader during the 1960s who was elected by his classmates as the first black member of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust. He founded the Association of Vanderbilt Black Alumni and worked on campus as an admissions counselor and later as the university’s first opportunity development officer, becoming Vanderbilt’s first African American administrator.
While at the ceremony to dedicate Murray House, I engaged an undergraduate student in conversation. “Which one is Walter?” she asked me, pointing to the front row where his family was sitting. It occurred to me that she and many other undergraduate students were there to celebrate the fact that Vanderbilt was naming a building after an African American, but they did not know much about him beyond that—including the fact that he had died in 1998.
In that instant I decided to fill the information void. I contacted Rev. Murray’s widow, Donna, and received her blessing to move forward with studying the life of her late husband.
2014 Marks These Important Milestones:
The 60th anniversary of the 1954 graduation of Bishop Joseph Johnson, the first black student to receive a degree from Vanderbilt
The 25th anniversary of the Posse Program
The 50th anniversary of the first integrated undergraduate class at Vanderbilt (fall 1964)
The 30th anniversary of the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, dedicated in 1984
In seeking to know everything possible about Rev. Murray, I traveled to Boston, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., to conduct more than 50 interviews with individuals who knew him from every phase of his life. I spent numerous hours at Ms. Murray’s house in Swampscott, Massachusetts, poring through boxes of files, pictures, newspaper clippings, and other artifacts that Rev. Murray and others had collected through the years.
During these hours of scanning, I learned a ton of interesting facts about black history at Vanderbilt, including such landmark events as the founding of the Afro-American Association (AAA) and the founding of the Association of Vanderbilt Black Alumni. I learned about the significance of Carmichael Towers and the compassion of former university Chancellor Alexander Heard and former university Chaplain Rev. Beverly Asbury. I emerged from the plethora of boxes with an intense desire to tell the history of African Americans at Vanderbilt, the story of Walter Murray, and the story of every other black student who ever attended Vanderbilt.
Going through the boxes in Ms. Murray’s attic provided a sad reminder about a section of the university’s history that I knew nothing about. In examining the artifacts and interviewing alumni who knew Walter Murray, I discovered important historical information about the black experience at Vanderbilt. Beyond the historical facts, I also became fascinated by the manner in which students coped with life at Vanderbilt and how this experience impacted their lives beyond college.
Woven within the narrative of those early interviews was a number of commonalities as well as uniquely different experiences. To flesh out these concepts further, I expanded the project scope for “Lost in the Ivy” from simply recording historical facts to seeking a deeper understanding of how race influences the Vanderbilt experience. As a result, in addition to interviewing former students, in 2007 I started interviewing current students as well. Every spring, for example, I interview 15 to 25 graduating African American seniors and gather reflections about their Vanderbilt experience.
What has been surprising in the interviews is the strong similarity of experiences among alumni, even those separated by decades. For example, in one of my first interviews for the project, I spoke with notable Vanderbilt alumnus Perry Wallace, BE’70. In response to my question about student interactions during his time at the university in the 1960s, Wallace, now a law professor at American University, referenced the experience of the main character from Ralph Ellison’s landmark 1952 novel, Invisible Man. Similarly, during an exit interview with Marvin Figueroa, BA’07, a few weeks before his graduation from Vanderbilt, I posed the question, “What advice would you give to an incoming freshman at Vanderbilt concerning race relations?”
“I would tell them to read Invisible Man,” he replied.
From 2007 through 2013 my work on this project was largely a labor of love, a personal project that I worked on when time permitted. To date, I have completed roughly 150 various interviews relating to this project and have taken more than 175,000 photos documenting the experience of African Americans on campus during this time frame. Additionally, I have created educational videos using some of my interview footage for programming use by the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center and the Black Student Alliance.
Fortunately, the project is no longer just a labor of love. With support from the Office of the Provost, the scope has been expanded to the totality of the African American experience at Vanderbilt, which includes faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the various colleges within the university. The official relaunching of the project took place during Homecoming in October.
I believe that studying the overall experience of African Americans at Vanderbilt offers tremendous insights for university programming and planning, alumni engagement, and for admissions and recruiting. I’m excited and extremely grateful for the opportunity to tell this unique story and preserve an important aspect of the university’s history.
Rosevelt Noble is a senior lecturer in sociology at Vanderbilt and author of Black Rage in the American Prison System (2006, LFB Scholarly Publishing).
Learn more about the history of African Americans at Vanderbilt.