In 1959, Kent Garrett was one of eighteen Black students recruited for Harvard’s incoming freshman class, a varied group that included a future New York Times journalist, a research scientist, and experimental jazz musician, . Nearly fifty years later, after an award winning career at both CBS and NBC news, Garrett, along with his partner Jeanne Ellsworth, embarked on a project to place his classmates’ experiences at Harvard into a historical context. The resulting book, The Last Negroes at Harvard: The Class of 1963 and the 18 Young Men Who Changed Harvard Forever, is a remarkable investigation of how these young men forged their identities during a pivotal point in American history. Library Journal raved that The Last Negroes is “essential reading for those interested in civil rights, racial identity, and higher education,” while Publishers Weekly stated that “this outstanding retrospective deserves to be widely read.” Brendan Dowling spoke with Kent Garrett and Jeanne Ellsworth on January 24th, 2020.
How did this project start?
Kent Garrett: It was sort of the old question, “What are you going to do with the rest of your life?” I had just finished about ten years of farming, and the question was, “What to do next?” I got a Harvard magazine and read that one of my older classmates, a guy who had been a couple of years ahead of us, had died. It got me thinking about what had happened to the rest of the guys in the class. I had been in touch with two or three of them over the years, but didn’t really know what had happened to the others.
What did that entail, in terms of reaching out to classmates?
KG: The original project started out as a video that Jean and I were going to work on. We had a grant from Mass Humanities, a foundation in Massachusetts, to do a trailer that would ultimately lead to a full-fledged documentary. Jeanne and I packed up our video equipment and traveled around and talked to the guys, they were in about ten different cities. One guy was in St. Thomas and another was in Austria.
JEANNE ELLSWORTH: Being Harvard grads, most of them had quite a long list of accomplishments, so you could Google them and easily find them. That didn’t hold for all of them. Five of the men had died. Another guy who was still alive was just a bear to find. But eventually we located everybody—either information about them, or talked with the families if they were deceased. We started doing the interviews in 2008 and we found the last man less than two years ago, maybe 2018.
What were some of the discoveries that surprised you during your research?
KG: I’d say there were several. When we doing the documentary, we had an initial title, “Harvard’s Black 17,” because we had made many of our decisions about who was in the class based on these little pictures in the Freshman yearbook. It turned out that we had left out one guy, Gary Secundi.
We have a class newsletter that comes out three or four times a year and we put a post in there saying that we wanted to hear from guys in the class who would have known some of the Negroes in the class, who had been friends with them, to give us some stories and anecdotes. One guy who saw it said, “Hey, it’s not seventeen, it’s eighteen.” We had missed a guy who, if you look at him, he doesn’t look very Black. That was one of the surprises. We had to figure out what do you do next now that we know there’s one more you have to find.
The other surprise was Lowell Davidson, who was a jazz pianist and protégé of Ornette Coleman. It took us a long time to find out his life story, but he had put out one experimental jazz album and the drummer on the album, a guy named Milford Grace, was a guy I had gone to high school with. I saw him almost every day for a couple of years. We would ride the bus together; we both lived in Queens.
JE: As we started the documentary it was obvious to us that most people we told about the project had a vision of a whole bunch of poor black kids who happened to be real geniuses and were dragged out of their communities and sent to Harvard. That, in some ways, is Kent’s life story, but the men as a group were so varied. Some were very wealthy, from the Black intelligentsia upper middle class, and some were like Kent, kids from the projects.
KG: But not nerdy! Not nerdy. (laughs)
Can you describe your and Jeanne’s writing process?
KG: I think we complemented each other, with my having a news background and Jeanne being an academic. She was definitely the stronger writer. She doesn’t like me to say this, but I would write stuff down and she had the ability to turn it into really great prose. She was really the architect of the structure. One of the challenges in the book was having so many characters. how do you organize it? We had a really good agent who stuck with us through the process. He suggested that we do the book chronologically, which was the key thing in being able to get all of the elements together.
JEANNE: Kent is a reporter, so he was full of facts. He did all the interviews and really began to see these guys through their life histories. For me, my background is in the history of education so I was able to keep things in a historical context. I remember the first time we talked about this project, thinking about how this was five years after Brown v. the Board of Education. Many of these guys went to segregated schools. That’s something that you have to be our age to really remember, that people’s lives started that way. I thought to myself, “Young people have to be reminded that this was the case. It’s not ancient history for everybody.”
One of the big events of your time at Harvard was when Malcolm X joined you and a group of students for dinner at Eliot House after speaking at the university. In writing about that lunch, you write about how afterwards, “something shifted in my young mind and soul.” Can you talk about the effect meeting Malcolm X had on you?
KG: What had happened was, he had appeared at the campus earlier and I hadn’t gone. I had a couple of guys in the class who told me all about it. I was very slow in my movement towards Blackness or movements towards AfroAmericanness. Seeing him in person at that dinner, hearing him, looking into his eyes, and seeing what he was like, that really changed me. My roommate Jack was very militant and political. He and I talked all the time, but after that dinner I started moving in that direction and really understood what Malcolm X was saying. In many ways I would argue that before that dinner, I had a sense of being more of an integrationist. After that dinner I started wondering if the integration goal was really going to work. My roommate Jack had a feeling that things would not turn out well for Negroes, and he felt that we should all go to Africa. That was really eye-opening for me when I saw Malcolm X in person up close.
One of the most moving parts of the book is “The Gallery” you assemble at the end, where you write profiles about each of your classmates. Can you talk about what went into writing those features?
JE: At one point, there was a different version where we tried to encapsulate the guys’ personality from a quote from their interviews. Then we later put in more about there. Some of it was stuff that couldn’t fit into the book, because it was bursting at the seams.
KG: Plus I think the power of the galleries is that you see them in the present day. When you’re reading the book you want to know what do these guys look like now? I think the gallery helps the reader find out who they are.
JE: On the website there are video excerpts of them talking. I know if I were reading a book about some guys I’d think, I’d love to hear them speak in his current day voice.
You’re currently producing a news radio show. What issues are you writing about? Who do you have on as guests?
KG: It’s a pretty much of a hard news hour broadcast from Monday through Friday. It’s on a local station, called WIOX. It goes out to about 3000 local people, but since it’s on the Internet, we have audiences from all over the world. It’s definitely somewhat politically on the left. It’s to get news that people wouldn’t normally get from the mainstream media, plus news people wouldn’t normally get about the Black experience. On the radio we get a chance to put longer pieces on. It’s an alternative radio show but at the same time we cover the big headlines. I guess the idea is if you listen to this show, which we call the 801, you’ll be able to go to your office and hold your own at the water cooler.
Has your attitude to Harvard change at all after writing the book?
In terms of the relationships to the guys, I’ve been able to reconnect with them. I’m very delighted to see most of us turned out pretty well in terms of being happy and having good careers and that sort of thing. But it hasn’t changed my attitude about Harvard pretty much. I would still consider myself a lousy alumni. I haven’t given them any money. I’ve been back and seen them, but they haven’t turned me into a Harvard man, let’s put it that way. (laughs)
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.