ROXBURY — In the late 1950s, a period when racist Jim Crow laws were still being enforced in some southern states, Harvard University decided it was time to actively recruit academically talented African-American students.
The experiences of the 18 young men who were enrolled for Harvard classes beginning in the fall of 1959 have now been reconstructed by a member of that class, retired network news producer Kent Garrett, as a grand experiment, in a new memoir, "The Last Negroes at Harvard: The 18 Young Men Who Changed Harvard Forever."
Garrett wrote the book with his partner, Jeanne Ellsworth, a former professor in the State University of New York system. They had initially envisioned producing a documentary film recounting Garrett's Harvard experience, patching together interviews with as many of the classmates as Garrett could track down.
The goal, starting out, was to get those men to discuss what they had done with their lives and how Harvard may have been a factor in the years since their graduation as members of the class of 1963.
But Garrett and Ellsworth said they encountered challenges in landing financial backers for such a film. After hitting the pause button for the project, they also decided there was a bigger story to tell that lent itself more to the platform of a book.
Garrett tells the story of the four years at Harvard not only through his eyes but with the varying perspectives of the classmates who were part of the university's trailblazing period at the fabled Ivy League campus that is the nucleus of Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was, he recalled, an experience that amounted to an early form of affirmative action before that term came into vogue.
In early 1960, while the presidential candidacy of Harvard graduate and then-U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy created a buzz on the campus, Garrett recalls in the book that achieving academic success, not activism, was his priority as a freshman.
"We had gotten to Harvard precisely by staying away from distractions, by sticking to the books and considering ourselves intellectuals," he wrote. "Not knowing Negro history, we lacked a sense of an unfolding story that applied to the 'we,' and so we focused on the 'me.'"
While a couple of his black classmates did show an interest in the causes of the day, Garrett, who grew up in a close-knit family in a Brooklyn housing project, made different choices.
"My family had played by the rules and kept their heads down and their minds on work and family. They had come too far from racist South Carolina to risk sticking out in a crowd or doing anything stupid like carrying a sign around town. I was just a young, hardworking, shy kid from that family who still ate chitlins."
But things began to evolve after that, as the civil rights movement gained steam and debate began between those advocating an end to segregation through peaceful means and those promoting a heightened sense of black empowerment.
Harvard became the backdrop for that contentious debate in March 1960.
Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, who would be assassinated five years later, and Walter Carrington, an African-American Harvard graduate who defended the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., engaged in a spirited face-to-face discussion.
Through interviews and research into various reports at the time, Garrett and Ellsworth reconstruct the evening and the tense exchanges, though Garrett acknowledges he missed that event.
But several months later, he was among those who were enraptured by Malcolm X when the charismatic, militant leader returned to Harvard for a private dinner with the young black men at Eliot House, where Garrett happened to be a resident at the time.
For Garrett, it was a pivotal moment.
"Like many others before and after me, I was inspired not only by Malcolm's message but also by his sincerity and charisma, a well as energized by the pride, even arrogance, that was so tempered with humility," he wrote. "Was I transformed into a militant, enlightened race activist? No, but something shifted inside my young mind and soul."
By 1962, Garrett and his fellow African-American students were forming Harvard's first black student organization, the African and Afro American Association of Students. The goal at the time, Garrettt said, was to bring in speakers and stage other events, while giving the students a unified voice in dealing with the administration.
"If there was any racial agitation, it was caused by us in the sense that we wanted to organize," Garrett said in the interview. At Harvard, he said, "there was no black faculty, no black studies. I didn't come out of there learning anything about my Black heritage than I knew when I went in."
At first, Garrett said, members of the Harvard administration were adverse to the formation of the black student organization. "They saw it as a kind of reverse discrimination" although Harvard had other organizations that allowed the exclusion of Jewish and black people, he recalled.
The organization turned out to have its own legacy, helping to usher in other campus activities and clubs for black students that remain today.
As the years passed, Harvard began to boost its recruitment of black students in a recognition of the importance of diversity at the elite campus, the nation's oldest institution of higher learning, having been founded in 1636, fewer than 16 years after Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower at Plymouth.
The book closes with a gallery of profiles on each of Garrett's black classmates from the Class of 1963, including several of whom had died before the project began. While race is a common denominator for the men, the reporting brings out what a diverse group of individuals it was, coming from various economic and geographical backgrounds.
In the end, the memoir provides an understanding how Harvard itself was a beneficiary of its own experiment with diversity, just as the black men who gained admission with Garrett gained from their years at the campus.
The 320-page memoir is published in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is also available as an e-book.
The work got a rave review in the February edition of Publishers Weekly.
"Expertly blending memoir and cultural history, this outstanding retrospective deserves to be widely read," the publication said.
Garrett said he dropped out of the news documentary business in 1997, spending the next decade as an organic dairy farmer. These days, he hosts a morning news program on WIOX, a community radio station in the Delaware County town of Roxbury, with a studio not far from their home.
He and Ellsworth are considering taking on another retrospective project, they said, delving into experiences Garrett had as a black man working in the network news industry.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.