Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Last Negroes at Harvard

    The Class of 1963 and the 18 Young Men Who Changed Harvard Forever

    Kent Garrett and Jeanne Ellsworth

    New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 320 pp. $27.00 (cloth).

    Literature on postsecondary education is littered with terminology like “sense of belonging,” “inclusion,” “engagement,” “academic and career identity development,” and “organizational culture.” And a significant amount of that literature has focused on understanding, explaining, and remedying the racialized disparities in college outcomes—from access and retention through to completion.

    Readers will find none of those terms in Kent Garrett and Jeanne Ellsworth’s The Last Negroes at Harvard. Garrett, a Harvard alumnus of the Class of 1963, and Ellsworth, his partner and coauthor, have instead written a historical deep-dive into these very same dimensions of student success, but from the first-person perspective. Instead of academic terminology greeting us at the proverbial front door, we open the cover to find a story that is at once personal, institutional, and social—storytelling that offers historical, almost ethnohistorical, glimpses into Harvard’s fraught history with diversity, equity, and inclusion from those who lived through part of it, that gives glimpses into how the students themselves experienced Harvard and the times. Garrett and Ellsworth beckon like sirens for us to consider how their stories hearken back to foundational literatures on college success, developmental and social psychology, sociology, and social stratification. In fact, they challenge us to consider the lived experiences of Black students who wrestled with these same constructs and faced their own racial reckoning before they were broadly included as agentic, knowledgeable individuals in the explosion of literature on these topics.

    Reflecting on the questions he had about the fates of the other Black students in the Class of 1963, Garrettfollowed an initial magazine breadcrumb and spent eight years chronicling the experiences at an elite, all male, primarily white institution of a class of “Negroes,” a term that changed shape, favor, and usage during this same period of intense racial reckoning, rendering the Class of 1963 the last class to enroll under the common language of Black as Negro.

    The historian Taylor Branch writes of that time that society was on the brink of “many changes including the extraordinary one in which the entire society shifted from ‘Negro’ to ‘black’ almost overnight.” We would be the last Negroes at Harvard, and this is our story. (Preface)

    The authors construct the story using in-depth interviews, emails, field notes, and purposeful snowball sampling among classmates (the Class of 1963 and surrounding years), alumni family members, and autoethnographic reflections to give a well-rounded peek into the life of a Negro student and his peers at Harvard from 1959 to 1963, set against a backdrop of tremendous change and civic unrest (protests, headlines, and changing vocabulary). In fact, the book opens with the tale of Garrett remembering a time, place, and group of people he had not been deeply connected with in years. As he describes in the Preface, he liked to think that he actually rarely thought about Harvard, had not donated money or ever returned for the nostalgic fanfare of reunions or subsequent graduation ceremonies. But reading the death announcement of a classmate in the alumni magazine in the face of his own major life changes ignited in him a spark of reflection and exploration. After the Preface, the chapters take us chronologically through Garrett’s four years at Harvard, one year per chapter. Alternating between each of these year-chapters are timejumping chapters in which Garrett yanks us forward into modern reflections on Harvard. During these time jumps, we walk with Garrett as he returns to campus after many years and travel the same paths he took as an unsure freshman, only to find things both familiar and unrecognizable. Other jumps seat us squarely and movingly alongside him in his interviews with former classmates and at other points in his writing process.

    Those seeking a triumphant tale of bootstrapping and running away from the mean streets littered with n’er-do wells and being gilded by Harvard’s access to financial and social mobility will not find satisfaction in The Last Negroes at Harvard. Garrett and Ellsworth instead begin with a cynicism that, to this reader, feels like the result of a long-held breach between Garrett’s values, goals, and experiences and the Harvard environment that claimed to
    welcome, include, and ultimately did in fact shape them. They trace the derivation of this cynicism from Garrett’s sense of hope for economic opportunity that college-going at a place as storied and heralded as Harvard could offer, which is then dashed by the interpersonal and institutionalized social stratification he encountered and then raised again by the power of the interaction between race/ethnicity and social class he experienced as a hypervisible Black student and as a first-generation and lower-income student on campus. They escort us through Garrett’s “shared memoire” (shared through his eyes and in conversation with the memories of his classmates he interviews) of navigating his life as a Harvard student, as a Black man in the US making sense of himself in a quickly evolving racial justice landscape, as son and big brother in a strict and hard-working family in Queens, and as someone placed squarely at the intersection of all these experiences. As such, while there is no escaping the fact that his story is hopeful, this is the type of hope that evades drifting into the commonly found amorphous platitudes and instead is bolstered by actions Garrett and his classmates took then and take now. Through the despair and cynicism, roses begin to bloom (Duncan-Andrade, 2009). And in that milieu is the magic of The Last Negroes at Harvard.

    As each chapter unfolds, readers move through memories, experiences, and items significant to the time—be it the longer past of 1959–1963 or morerecent returns to campus. Nestled between the items in this time capsule narration, two key themes and insights emerge, one institutional in nature and the other focused on the students as the unit of attention. First is the theme of institutional timelessness or universality. At times, I was struck by the feeling that this book was just as much a reflection of the experiences of Black students in 1959 as it is of Black Harvard undergraduates today. For instance, Garrett’s tales of scrubbing toilets, the hypervisibility of class as it intersected with race/ethnicity, and the mixed sensemaking and social implications associated with these experiences in light of the largely “Black privileged” upbringings of many of his Negro peers on the Yard smack heavily of experiences described in The Privileged Poor (Jack, 2019), an ethnographic exploration of the impact of class and its intersection with other dimensions of identity like race/ethnicity on an elite college campus. And for a place like Harvard—and likely all colleges/universities—organizational immortality and transcendence may seem like a boon. But when the immortal elements of the institution are those of social closure, social stratification, ethnic/racial marginalization and racism, and first-generation student cultural straddling, the implications are far less celebratory. For instance, Garrett and Ellsworth reflect on the Black Table (the unofficial name for the table in the dining hall at which most Black students gathered during mealtimes) and describe challenging instances of dealing with complacent white progressives, issues that have graced the pages of national publications, online media sites, and the campus newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, in 2020–2021. While these themes connect with contemporary scholarship on postsecondary educational outcomes and institutional responsibility, such as on social closure and stratification (e.g., Armstrong & Hamilton, 2013; Jack, 2019), ethnic-racial marginalization (Tatum, 2017) and social straddling (Carter, 2006), what they make clear is that timelessness should be selectively sought instead of universally pursued.

    The second thematic insight is evident when the book leans into the multilevel tensions among the broad array of feelings students held as distinctly underrepresented by class and race/ethnicity at Harvard on one level and as being immersed inside the Harvard “bubble” on another level. This left me feeling a sense of progress. How many recent Black undergraduate students could recall exactly the number of Black undergraduate students in any residential dorm at Harvard when they enrolled? Indeed, the diversity of the campus as captured by headcount and demographic data has changed to indicate positive progress. Yet, the substantive story of social boundaries and barriers, troubling institutional responses to issues gripping students in meaningful ways, and the work of being the diversity for more privileged peers continues.

    Importantly, Garrett never lets readers lose sight of the fact that he was always aware of interpersonal dynamics with peers and faculty that were informed by race and class and, at the same time, that he and his friends were never not aware of the fight for social justice going on inside of the university and outside in the national context. There was the sense that people actively fought to change the country while aspects of Harvard fought to reproduce the same “timeless” experiences of its storied history and traditions, many of which were antithetical to the calls for social justice and equity. Not only was Garrett aware of those larger issues, but he recognized the privileged position and responsibility he might be expected to feel as a young Black man at Harvard in the early 1960s. And that privilege required constant decision-making—whether to be actively involved and, if so, in which efforts and, no matter what, at what costs and consequences academically, socially, and nationally. These are timeless questions students still wrestle with today.

    In conclusion, The Last Negroes at Harvard is not a treatise on teaching or an empirical study of student experience using replicable research methods and theoretically grounded methodologies. It is instead an intricately researched memoir that evolved from the fateful arrival of the Harvard Magazine in the right mailbox at the right moment and that carries important lessons for colleges and universities today. Garrett and Ellsworth plainly illustrate that the privilege of attending Harvard has never been without tarnish and is always in need of polish. That is certainly an attribute Harvard shares with other institutions. The authors bring us back to the vocabulary of postsecondary education and to thinking about the complexity of factors that students weigh when making important decisions—from those factors that we often measure through their observable outcomes (e.g., career outcomes, grades, involvement in student organizations), as well as the less visible decisions (e.g., incorporating home and self into college). Yet, this memoir is a historical retelling with autoethnographic inflections—not a research project with controls, covariates, or analysis for qualitative data saturation and nodes. It resonates across time and student experiences partly because this is Garrett’s story—told with care and attention to details. Its singularity of focus on Garrett and his classmates means the book does not tell a universal tale, but it does illustrate some universal themes with its singular retelling.

    Shandra M. Jones


    Armstrong, E., & Hamilton, L. (2013). Paying for the party: How college maintains inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Carter, P. L. (2006). Straddling boundaries. Sociology of Education, 79(4), 304–328.

    Duncan-Andrade, J. M. R. (2009). Note to educators: Hope required when growing roses in concrete. Harvard Educational Review, 79(2), 181–194.

    Jack, A. (2019). The privileged poor: How elite colleges are failing disadvantaged students. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Tatum, B. D. (2017). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? And other conversations about race (3rd ed.). New York: Basic Books.
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