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The Ivy League’s first Black faculty member: J. Saunders Redding’s impact on literature and academia

Redding’s legacy marked by firsts, prejudice in academia, unconventional views on Black politics

Just over 60 years ago, long before Brown’s Africana Studies department and concentration came to be, a course on “African Americans in American Literature” was offered.

The course came with many firsts: It was the first of its kind to be offered at the University and all other colleges in the Northeast. And it was taught by Jay Saunders Redding ’28, who, when appointed to visiting professor of English for a semester in 1949, became the first Black faculty member at an Ivy League institution.

Redding was also pioneer in realms beyond academia: He became an iconic figure in African-American literary canon, with The New York Times describing him as “probably the most eminent Negro writer of nonfiction in the country.”

A writer in the making 

Born James Thomas Saunders Redding in 1906 to two Howard University graduates, Redding grew up in Wilmington, Delaware in an “upper-class Negro family,” as he later described in his first book “To Make A Poet Black.” At a young age, Redding’s mother introduced him and his brother to major canonical works in Western literature, as well as the practice of oratory.

Redding first enrolled in Lincoln College, a historically Black college in Chester County, Pennsylvania, before eventually enrolling as a student at Brown. 

“I was lonely a good deal,” Redding wrote in his 1942 autobiographical piece, “No Day of Triumph.” He described feelings of uncertainty and lack of a purpose and motivation while at Lincoln. He spent the majority of his time at the library immersed in various literary works.

A year later, Redding transferred to Brown, where his brother Louis L. Redding ’23, the first African-American admitted to the Delaware Bar and a significant figure in Brown v. Board of Education, was enrolled.

Still, Redding felt as equally isolated at Brown as he had at Lincoln. He was one of only three other Black students during his time at the University, one of whom committed suicide.

Redding recalled in “No Day of Triumph” that he and the other Black students “made a great show of not seeking each other’s companionship” and would only meet “by accident” or in private spaces. This only exacerbated feelings of isolation, he wrote, adding that his “room in University Hall had almost no visitors, but it was peopled by a thousand of nameless fears.”

“It was a perverted feeling of fighting alone against the whole white world. I raged with secret hatred and fear,” Reddings wrote. “I hated and feared the whites. I hated and feared and was ashamed of Negros (The memory of it even now is painful to me).”

During his time at Brown, Redding became eligible for Phi Beta Kappa. But for “racial reasons,” according to Faith Berry, editor and author of Redding’s anthology, “A Scholar's Conscience: Selected Writings of J. Saunders Redding, 1942-1977,” Redding was not awarded the honor until 1943 after he achieved literary fame — fifteen years after his graduation.

From student to visiting faculty: the struggle of segregation in academia

Shortly after graduating, Redding went to work at Morehouse College, where he was later fired due to controversial statements he made about Black colleges, which he said “tended to breed fascism.” After marrying his wife Esther Elizabeth James, Redding returned to the University to earn his Master’s in English and American Literature, before moving to New York to continue his graduate studies at Columbia University.

In New York, Reddings came into contact with the growing Harlem Renaissance movement, Berry wrote, adding that Reddings was much more an “interpreter” of the movement than a product of it.

In 1939, Reddings published his first book “To Make a Poet Black.” The book was one of the first attempts to place not only authors, but also genres and periods, into African-American literary history, and became a classic work in the discipline, according to Berry.

Reddings later returned to lecturing and taught at institutions in the South including Louisville Municipal College, Southern University and Elizabeth City State College. He then settled at the Hampton Institute, a private historically Black research university, where he stayed for 20 years and held an endowed chair. During his time at the Hampton Institute, Redding did not teach courses solely on African-American literature, but instead chose to incorporate Black writers into pre-existing courses.

For a semester, Redding returned to his alma mater to become a visiting professor in the English department at Brown. Despite his pioneering efforts as the first Black faculty member at Brown and in the Ivy League, Redding’s appointment lasted for only a semester.

In a 1957 letter to George K. Andersen, professor of English at the University at the time, Redding asked if there was any possibility of him gaining a permanent appointment in the department. Andersen wrote back stating that he “sympathized very deeply” with Redding’s desire “to leave the South,” but added that the department was not planning on hiring anyone for a role above associate professor and wanted to complement the department with younger scholars.

“I do believe that I’ve the energy, health and will for a good many years of hard work,” Redding wrote back to Andersen, adding that he would not be disturbed “in the least bit” to work in a lower-ranking position. Still, the University did not offer Redding any permanent faculty positions at the time.

Berry wrote that Redding’s situation was not outlier at the time: Given widespread segregation in academia, many prestigious, traditionally white universities and colleges at the time would not invite Black academics to teach in roles other than visiting faculty positions.

Still, Redding’s work was read by critics and widely recognized by literary prizes and fellowships. He continued to publish extensively throughout his career, shifting between fiction and nonfiction work on the Black experience.

He published his autobiography in 1942, and his first novel, “Stranger and Alone” in 1950. His later books include “They Came in Chains” (1951), “The Lonesome Road” (1958) and “On Being Negro in America,” which, along with his autobiography, became one of his most distinguished works.

A new era of civil rights movement and “Black aesthetics”

In the 1960s, American academia experienced a shift as student movements and occupations, such as the 1968 Black Student Walkout at the University, began to take place across the country. In light of these protests and the surge of the Civil Rights Movement, Redding’s work was “brought to the front” by Black student activists, according to Berry.

Not only was Redding’s work more widely read at this point, but with mounting pressures from students, universities sought to hire more Black faculty. As a distinguished figure in Black academia, Redding was able to receive permanent appointments at prestigious colleges in the Northeast. 

He taught at George Washington University and became a humanities fellow at Duke University, before settling at Cornell, where he became its first Black faculty member and earned a tenured position as the Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters.

Redding also served as fellow of the University’s Corporation from 1961 to 1981, and continued as emeritus fellow until his death in 1988. He participated in the Third World Coalition’s takeover of University Hall in 1975, and at one point chaired the University’s minority committee.

Still, despite his surge in literary popularity in light of activism during the 1960s, Redding held what were considered conservative views among Black scholars and activists at the time. He was opposed to the “Black aesthetic,” and he was “unable to convince some members of a younger generation that Blackness did not mean only semantics, name changes, dashikis, Afro hairdos and an Afrocentric approach to literature and history,” Berry wrote.

“I hope this piece will stand as the epilogue to whatever contribution I have made to the ‘literature of race,’” Redding wrote in “On Being a Negro in America.” “I want to get on to other things. I do not know whether I can make this clear, but the obligations imposed by race on the average educated or talented Negro … are vast and become at last onerous. I am tired of giving up my creative initiative to these demands. I think I am not alone.”

According to Berry, his views caused Redding to be an oddly-placed figure in the literary canon, considered too conservative for activists at the time but too liberal for conservatives.

“He took pride in being a detached, dispassionate critic,” Berry wrote. “Redding heard a different drummer, and he had no intention of changing his message or cultural convictions to fit the trends of the time.”


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