A Miami Legacy
First African American professor at MU broke barriers as student, teacher, serviceman
Published: Friday, March 1, 2013
Updated: Friday, March 1, 2013 00:03
Editor’s note: The following story contains a word that may be offensive. After careful consideration, The Miami Student feels the word is an important part of telling William Hargraves II’s story.
William Hargraves II sits in a black and gray polo shirt, hair pulled neatly back, hands folded, with a small, content smile on his face. Behind that content smile is a man with a long Miami University legacy—one that he contributed to as a student and later as a professor.
Hargraves, born in 1932 to William and Annie Hargraves, had ties to Miami before he was old enough to consider college. His father, also William Hargraves, was the first African American student at Miami to earn a four-year Bachelor of Arts degree in 1925.
In fact, between 1912 and 1961, ten members of the Hargraves family had earned 12 degrees from Miami University.
Hargraves II contributed to this total with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1954 and a Master of Education in 1961.
When Hargraves II came to Miami in 1951, he faced challenges as his father did 25 years earlier. But, Hargraves II had his father to guide him through his time at the university.
It was his father who encouraged Hargraves II to attend Miami.
“I was valedictorian in high school so I had been offered a lot of scholarships to black schools but my dad said ‘I want you to go to Miami. I want you to learn to live and deal with white people. So, I demand that you go one year and then if you go one year you can go to a black school,’’’ Hargraves II recalled. “And then after one year I thought I did as well as I could and I might as well stay the four years.”
One of the challenges Hargraves II faced was professors who felt the color of his skin determined his academic worth. Hargraves II remembered one English professor in particular.
“He gave me Cs and Ds when I was a freshman at Miami and I told my dad and I couldn’t understand why I was getting Cs and Ds,” Hargraves II said. “So, my dad drove up here and talked to him and said ‘my son’s a pretty good student but apparently he’s not doing that well under you. I don’t want you to take anything away from him, but please give him what he’s due.’”
Hargraves II said he earned a B on his next exam and ended up earning a C in the class. But it wasn’t his last meeting with that English teacher.
“When we were registering for the next semester I told dad that I was going to pick another English teacher and he said, ‘no take the same one, you gotta show him that you can do more than he expects you to do and you’re not afraid of him,’” Hargraves II recalled his father saying. “That was the turning point that made me want to be more academic. I said ‘if I can show this dude that I can make a decent grade...’ so I got As the next time. It gave me the confidence to take on any class that I did.”
Four years later, the English professor who gave Hargraves II so much trouble sought him out at graduation.
“When I graduated he [the professor] and his wife came up to me and he had tears in his eyes and he shook my hand and said ‘you really taught us that black people really can do things if they make up their minds,’” Hargraves II recounted. “I will never forget that because he came to graduation and tracked me down to tell me how proud he was of me.”
Hargraves II said when he was at Miami, African American students had to be cognizant of their surroundings at the university.
“I used to tell the other black students that if you stay quiet and get your work done you can accomplish a lot but that’s an old black person talking and I’m sure things are a lot more progressive now, thank God,” Hargraves II said.
Hargraves II approached many of the situations he encountered in college with a positive attitude. He recounted a time when a professor called him a derogatory term—a lasting memory for him.
“I had another teacher who was a math teacher and he confronted me one day and said ‘I don’t want you acting like a nigger, I just want you to make up your mind to do your work and quit worrying about these girls. You go to your class and learn all you want,’” Hargraves II recalled his professor saying. “So, I made a call to my dad and said ‘this teacher called me a nigger’ and he said, ‘well how did he refer to it?’ and I said he said I was acting like a nigger and my dad said ‘well go look it up in the dictionary.’ So I went back and looked it up and it said you can have those kinds of traits and things. He was using it in the concept of what a nigger really meant—a withdrawn person that doesn’t have any effort to do anything. He [my dad] said, ‘it wasn’t that he was calling you a person that couldn’t do anything, he was saying that if you don’t get your head in gear and leave those women alone and get to your schoolwork you would be acting like a nigger.’ That was very lasting to me.”