When Carl Fields walked the halls of St. John’s there weren’t many other blacks enrolled in the school, but they were welcomed equally to the university.
Fields, who was part of the class of 1942, shone brightly on the track team and in the classroom.
He graduated with his bachelor’s in English and social science, and was the first African-American inducted into St. John’s College’s Skull and Circle Honor Society, having never failed to place on the school’s dean list. He was also the first African-American to serve as the captain of the track team.
But he didn’t stop there. Fields would later become the first African-American administrator of an Ivy League institution, when he was promoted to assistant dean at Princeton University in 1968 — 30 years after he first enrolled at St. John’s.
The University acknowledged his achievements by awarding him with the President’s Medal, the Medal of Honor, an honorary doctorate and inducting him into the St. John’s Hall of Fame. And today there is a center dedicated to equality named in his honor at Princeton.
Fields is at the forefront of the rich black history at St. John’s, a history that is celebrated for only one month of the year, but is weaved into the University’s past – and present.
“Since its inception in 1870, St. John’s was aware of the need to offer men and women of all ethnic persuasions an education,” it reads in a 1985 St. John’s Today article on Black History Month.
Fields also recognized St. John’s cultural tolerance had transcended its time. He once described that blacks roamed the halls of St. John’s, conducted experiments in the labs, studied law and accounting and played in the arenas and fields of the institution way before it was acceptable at many other schools.
“In 1938, however, St. John’s had committed itself to equal education for all, before the historic Supreme Court decision of 1954 and without the attendant hoopla that characterized the efforts of other colleges in the 1960s and ‘70s,” said Fields in an article he wrote in 1988. “In effect, it was an act of faith and a pragmatic belief in the potential of black students to benefit from sound, Catholic-oriented education.”
Throughout the 1930s the Vincentian, the Pharmalog, and the Closing Entry yearbooks of St. John’s Colleges reveal that blacks increased in population and became slightly more prominent on campus.
In 1931 William Tucker Garvin became the first African-American to graduate from the St. John’s School of Law. Garvin was also recognized as the first black man to serve in the Queens District Attorney’s office.
Just over a decade later, in 1946, Cora Walker became the first African-American woman to graduate from the law school at a time where not many women were lawyers. Walker went on to become the first female president of the Harlem Lawyers Association, and was a senior partner at Walker & Bailey.
Solly Walker came to St. John’s from Brooklyn’s Boys High School to play basketball for the Redmen in 1950. Walker was the first black player for the Johnnies and helped the Red and White make a run to the NCAA Finals the following year.
“Although St. John’s was tolerant, they [blacks] still faced societal discrimination and some were successful nonetheless,” said Dr. Leonard Baynes, Professor of Law at St. John’s and the Director of the University’s Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development. Baynes points out, because many black students still had to fight for their positions after graduation, it made their accomplishments that much more inspiring.
After the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, blacks at St. John’s found ways to advance their culture and presence on campus.
In 1968, six black students founded Haraya, the Pan-African Students Coalition and currently one of the largest cultural organizations on campus, to further help advance black students. In its first year the group founded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Scholarship, which gave four-year, full-ride scholarships to 10 black students.
On April 30, 1969, a committee consisting of 11 black students and 14 faculty members, including administrators, recommended a Black Area Studies program and in the fall of that year there were three Black Area Studies courses in the School of General studies.
As the years went by the black population grew and more successful graduates graced the University’s halls. Congressmember Charles Rangel graduated with his law degree in 1960, and the former Secretary of Commerce, Ronald Brown, earned his diploma in 1970. Current Indiana Pacers coach Mark Jackson graduated in the class of 1987, and Dr. Tony Bonaparte, 1964 MBA, became the first black provost of St. John’s in 1994.
Today there are nearly 3,000 black students scattered on the various St. John’s campuses, according to the 2010 Fact Book. There are also various organizations and groups that are dedicated to serving blacks.
But although blacks have become more abundant on campus, Baynes said its worth remembering those that came before.
“It’s important to know our early history, so we remain steadfast in our continuation of appreciation for diversity,” he said.
BY LIAM LA GUERRE