Series 2: Merze Tate (1905-1996)

This month we have had the pleasure of discovering the extraordinary life and accomplishments of Dr Merze Tate, in connection with Black History Month in the UK. She came to our attention as the first female African-American member of Oxford University, and this swiftly turned out to be just one part of a story filled with incredible and often pioneering achievements. Dr Tate was in her lifetime subject to a number of obstacles arising from both racist and sexist attitudes, and it is a testament to both her intelligence and her strength of will how much she was able to achieve in the face of both.

Tate was born on the 6th February 1905 in Blanchard, Michigan, to Charles and Myrtle. Her grandparents had moved to Michigan from Ohio to benefit from the Homestead Act, and in this largely rural area she had to walk 9 miles to school. Although Michigan’s role in the Underground Railroad meant there were some African-American families based in the area, Tate was the only African-American graduate in her class at Blanchard High School. After training as a teacher at Western Michigan Teacher’s College (now West Michigan University), she travelled south to teach Elementary in Cass County, before returning to WMTC to complete a BA in three years, one year faster than usual and with the highest grade average at that time. She graduated in 1927, the first African-American graduate of WMTC.

It was not possible, however, for African-Americans to be employed as teachers at secondary level; Tate therefore moved to Indiana, where she taught at Crispus Attucks High School while obtaining a part-time master’s degree in History at Columbia. Before attending she had to gain membership to the American Association of University Women, which at the time did not permit African-American members. She also learnt French, German, and Spanish, and founded the school’s travel club. Tate then won a scholarship to study at Oxford University, and in 1935 she began her B.Litt in International Relations at the Society for Home Students, as St Anne’s College was then known. This made her the first female African-American member of the university.

merze on steamer
Merze Tate on a steamer to England, 1932. Photo credit to the Merze Tate Collection of Western Michigan University.

Merze spent three years in Oxford, living in Summertown and working on her research. Her later comment that she knew she was “an interesting freak to the girls” is extremely telling. She would have been one of a very small number of women in Oxford in the 1930s, and with the earliest women’s colleges founded in 1879 and degrees not granted to women til 1920 we might imagine she faced considerable difficulties as a female graduate, as well as racial prejudice.

After graduating from Oxford, Tate returned to America and became the first African-American woman to gain a PhD in government and international relations from Harvard. She taught at Bennett College and Morgan State University before gaining a teaching position at Howard University in 1942. This was achieved in the face of considerable prejudice. She applied first to a small position in the Government Department, where Dr Eric Williams, her contemporary at Oxford, expressed his dismay when considering her appointment. “I am exposed, apparently, to a choice between Caroline Ware and Merze Tate,” he wrote. “What have I done to deserve that?” He subsequently employed neither of them, and she was granted a place in the department of History instead, becoming one of the first two female members of staff in the department.

merze grad
Merze Tate. Photo credit to the Merze Tate Collection of Western Michigan University.

Tate had a remarkable and prolific academic career, focused on the research of disarmament and the native history of Hawaii. As well as publishing seven books, she won Fulbright Scholarships on two consecutive years in 1950 and 1951 to teach geopolitics in India. She also travelled widely as part of her role as a researcher for the U.S. State Department, including trips to Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and the Philippines, as well as visiting South Africa during Apartheid. Despite these incredible accomplishments, Tate was labelled a “personality problem” by her male contemporaries for her continuing protests about gender discrimination and equal pay at the university.

Tate died of natural causes in 1996 at the age of 91, and was buried at Pine River Cemetery, Michigan, beside her mother. During her lifetime she gained a number of awards, including the American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction, and was also installed in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Despite all of her accomplishments, her grave went without a marker until 2002. A teacher at Montabella High School, the successor to her alma mater of Blanchard High, then contacted WMU and helped to arrange a simple gravestone.

Tate’s legacy lives on in her incredible achievements and in a number of scholarships she helped to establish, including a $1 million gift to establish the Merze Tate Student Education Endowment Fund at West Michigan University; she said explicitly this was to thank the institutions for “helping her overcome the barriers of race and sex”. Sonya Bernard-Hollins, a fellow graduate of Western Michigan University, has founded the Merze Tate Travel Club in her honour. They are currently fundraising for their 2018 expedition.

It was a real privilege for us to investigate Dr Tate’s life. She overcame considerable difficulties of class, gender, and race to live a life full of wonderful accomplishments. Despite largely living her politics rather than writing about them, she was still labelled a troublemaker by her contemporaries and faced issues of discrimination (such as the gender pay gap) which are still considerable problems today. The combination of poor documentation and her apparent lack of radical politics has led to her largely being overlooked, rather than being praised for her truly pioneering role within academia and beyond. It is our sincere hope that this series might help to bring widespread and deserved attention to the life of Dr Tate and those of other women like her.

We would like to thank St. Anne’s College Archive for their generous help in researching this episode.

The photo credit for the header image is due to the Merze Tate Collection of Western Michigan University.

Further Reading

Gorham, R. (2017), “Dr Merze Tate”, for Sheroes of History

Perkins, L. M. (2018), “The Black Female Professoriate at Howard University: 1927-1977”, in Nash, M. A. (ed.), Women’s Higher Education in the United States: New Historical Perspectives (New York) 117-138

Ranzemberger, M., “Merze Tate blazed her own trail”, Morning Sun Lifestyle, August 20th 2009

Vitalis, R. (2015), White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Cornell)