boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
At left: Lucien Alexis (second from top right) with the varsity lacrosse team in 1941. Coach Dick Snibbe is at top left. At right: Drue King (second from top right) with the Glee Club. Director G. Wallace Woodworth is third from top left.
At left: Lucien Alexis (second from top right) with the varsity lacrosse team in 1941. Coach Dick Snibbe is at top left. At right: Drue King (second from top right) with the Glee Club. Director G. Wallace Woodworth is third from top left. (Photos courtesy of the Harvard University Archives)

Southern Discomfort

With quiet grace, two black men change the heart of Harvard in 1941.

Every great institution has its moments of shame and its moments of honor. For Harvard, in the spring of 1941, those moments were nearly one and the same. Drue King was a sophomore, a gangly good-humored lad and Harvard's finest tenor. "Lucky" Lucien Alexis was a junior, quiet, kind-hearted, and more determined than skilled on the lacrosse field. One thing more: Both young men were black, and upon that single fact hangs the entire tale.

In the sea of white faces that was then Harvard, it was inevitable that the two would find each other and become fast friends. Both were from the Deep South -- King from Tuskegee, Alabama, Alexis from New Orleans. Both adored the movies. Both had their hearts set on becoming doctors. For a time, they even dated the same Wellesley coed. And they shared something else: Both were focused on the upcoming spring break. For King, the only black in the 60-man Harvard Glee Club, that meant a concert tour of the South. He had been practicing for months. For Alexis, the lone man of color on the lacrosse team, it meant facing tough opponents in the South, none more feared than the United States Naval Academy.

But the true test of King and Alexis that spring would have little to do with song or sport. It would cement their friendship even as it forced those around them to examine the meaning of loyalty. And it would put America's oldest, most revered university on public trial as it chose between conscience and accommodation, courage and collusion -- hard choices the rest of the nation would face soon after. That spring, a Harvard more hesitant than heroic would break ranks with its brethren and put itself in the forefront of what was to become an epic struggle, the civil rights movement.

The first signs of trouble surfaced just days before the Glee Club was to depart. The Kavanaugh Hotel in Harrisonburg, Virginia, wrote to say that it could not put up a Negro, though King was welcome to stay with the bell captain, "one of the most respectable colored men of the town." Another school fretted about King's presence at a dance with white girls. Then came the coup de grace: Duke University let it be known that no colored man would be allowed to sing in its chapel.

Glee Club director G. Wallace "Woody" Woodworth was crushed. One of the nation's foremost choirmasters, he and his staff had invested months preparing for and promoting the tour. Now he faced a stark choice: Cancel the tour or abandon Drue King, one of his most devoted singers.

Glee Club members were themselves divided. Some said it made no sense to disappoint so many for the sake of one. Others, like tenor R. Bruce Stedman of Maryland, said they could not leave a classmate behind. Woodworth listened. No racist, he was a trustee of Fisk University in Nashville, a prominent school for African-Americans, and had long encouraged black singers and showcased Negro spirituals alongside classical music. But he feared canceling the tour might embarrass his beloved Harvard. Ego, too, was involved, and the chance to extend the Glee Club's renown into what he called "unknown territories."   Continued...

1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9    Next 

Lucien Alexis Sr. (top) was nicknamed the 'Negro Einstein' at Harvard. The university's athletic director, William J. Bingham, wouldn't let Alexis's son play lacrosse against host Navy.
Lucien Alexis Sr. (top) was nicknamed the "Negro Einstein" at Harvard. The university's athletic director, William J. Bingham, wouldn't let Alexis's son play lacrosse against host Navy.
SEARCH GLOBE ARCHIVES
   
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months