By Laura Janota | From the Summer 2011 issue of Roosevelt Review
In the early days of Roosevelt University, one of the most popular places to be was Professor St. Clair Drake’s classroom.
The late anthropologist and sociologist, who taught at Roosevelt from 1946 to 1969, regularly attracted standing-room-only crowds of students who were willing to sit on the floor or lean up against a wall to hear John Gibbs St. Clair Drake, known by one and all simply as “Drake.”
“When I came to Roosevelt in 1961, we’d gather on the second floor of the Auditorium Building, which was then the cafeteria,” said John Bracey (BA, ’64), professor of African-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
“I remember people telling me, ‘You have to take Drake’ and I asked, ‘What’s that?’ I was told, ‘Whatever he teaches you should take it.’ I did, and to this day, Drake is the best professor I ever had,” said Bracey, who lectured at Roosevelt in April in memory of Drake, who would have turned 100 this year.
Drake, who died in 1990, stood for what has defined Roosevelt University since its inception in 1945. “Drake was all about intellectual discourse. Integrity was important to him and standing on one’s beliefs was essential,” said Bracey, who recalls that Drake recommended him for a job as an interviewer for a research project in Alabama and Mississippi during the spring of 1965. That allowed Bracey to become involved in meetings, marches and demonstrations which took place during that period.
“There were an amazing number of people whom Drake influenced,” added Bracey, who believes Drake’s encouragement led the late Roosevelt alumnus James Forman (BA, ’56), a giant in the U.S. civil rights movement, also to go South where he would be involved with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee.
“He’s been called a leftist and even a communist, but in reality, Drake didn’t agree with the left or the right. He was tolerant of different viewpoints and he never talked negatively about those he disagreed with,” said Bracey. “He was a progressive who refused to put people and ideas in categories and he took that kind of interdisciplinary approach with his students as well.”
Added Roosevelt alumnus Jack Leavitt (BA, ’57; MA, ’65), who had Drake for sociology, ethnology and anthropology and met his wife-to-be, the late Roberta “Bobbi” Weinberg (BA, ’58), in Drake’s class: “It was 55 years ago, before the civil rights movement, and diversity among people was not what it is today, but Drake taught us a lot about diversity. He encouraged us to be open-minded, and he had a great influence on me as I went through life teaching junior high school.”
A small, thin man in a white shirt and tie who wore a full natural afro long before the style became fashionable, Drake would chain smoke as he walked and talked, often borrowing cigarettes from students, whom he challenged to think not only about the subject at hand but also about why they wanted to learn it.
“In those days, the general feeling was that if you hadn’t had St. Clair Drake at least once, you hadn’t really been to Roosevelt University,” said Chicago historian and Roosevelt alumnus Timuel Black (BA, ’52). “No matter what you were studying, Drake could give it context. He was a colorful professor who compelled you to listen and watch as he moved around the room,” said Black.
Drake was respected by more than just students. “He had an incredible ability to build rapport with an audience,” said David Miller, professor emeritus of history who came to Roosevelt in 1961. “He’d stand there and spin a web. You wouldn’t know at first where he was going with it, but then all of a sudden everything would come together.”
He remembers Drake signing an unsuccessful history department petition in favor of the full-time hiring of Staughton Lynd, who had been fired from Yale University after he, the actress Jane Fonda and others spoke out publically against the Vietnam War in Hanoi, North Vietnam.
“I can remember staying up all night with students who were ‘sitting in’ at Roosevelt because they wanted Lynd to be hired,” said Miller. “It went on for about five nights, and Drake was there every night in solidarity with the students.”
Once described by a colleague “as perhaps the most distinguished faculty member ever to have taught here (at Roosevelt),” Drake founded at Roosevelt one of the nation’s first African studies programs; he advocated for formation of black studies programs on college campuses; he co-authored a pioneering book on life in Chicago’s Bronzeville, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in A Northern City; and he founded the first African-American studies program at Stanford University where he taught after leaving Roosevelt in 1969. At Stanford, he wrote Black Folk Here and There, a two-volume set examining a gamut of theories on race and racism.
“We came to teach at Roosevelt University for any number of excellent reasons, but after we arrived, it was Drake, interacting with the faculty and students, who gave the place its special meaning,” said the late Roosevelt University Political Science Professor Frank Untermyer, at a memorial for Roosevelt’s first African-American professor.
Drake was born Jan. 2, 1911, just before the start of the Great Migration of an estimated six-million blacks from the rural South to urban areas in the Midwest, East and West. His father, a Baptist minister, was from Barbados, while his mother, an elementary school teacher, was from the South.
His background, as well as experiences growing up in urban Pittsburgh, the Caribbean and rural Staunton, Va., helped shape Drake’s identity and pioneering contributions to African and African-American scholarship and thought.
“He was just dynamic, an intellectual and an imposing figure who knew a lot about the world,” said Christopher Reed (BA, ’63), a Roosevelt professor emeritus of history who had Drake as a professor, and who years later, as a history professor, moved to name Roosevelt’s black-studies program the St. Clair Drake Center for African and African-American Studies.
“I wanted to bring African Americans and Africans together in a combined curriculum and place for study that would open doors for better understanding of the overall black experience. I think this is what Drake would have envisioned had he been alive today,” said Reed. Roosevelt’s St. Clair Drake Center today is directed by Al Bennett, the Harold Washington Professor of Public Policy. “Our goal, 100 years after his birth, is to preserve St. Clair Drake’s legacy and to apply it to the world in which we live today,” said Bennett, who has been working through the Center to develop courses and events honoring Drake’s teachings and ideas.
Drake started at Roosevelt in 1946 after publication of Black Metropolis, a book he wrote with Horace Cayton that is still used in university classrooms and by African-American scholars, including Bracey, Reed and fellow Roosevelt graduate Darlene Clark Hine (BA, ’68). The Northwestern University African-American studies director and history professor remembers hanging on Drake’s every word when he dropped by Roosevelt’s cafeteria.
“Back then, we were like Drake groupies. Everything he said, we wanted to hear,” said Hine. The noted scholar believes Black Metropolis is as significant in documenting black urban life at the height of the Great Migration to industrial areas, like Chicago, as W.E.B. Du Bois’ path-breaking study, “The Philadelphia Negro,” was in capturing early black urban life at the turn of the 20th century.
“For those of us in Chicago and the Midwest who didn’t have access to Du Bois, there was St. Clair Drake. He brought the world to Roosevelt, and I never could have written about topics like the Black Renaissance without his work,” she said.
Initially, Drake wasn’t interested in an academic career. He wanted to be a health inspector on merchant ships, as he had served, intentionally keeping himself out of combat, as an officer with the U.S. Maritime Service during World War II. “The hours were regular. Saturday and Sunday were free – no papers to mark or lectures to plan for the following week,” Drake once wrote to Untermyer in a letter that outlines Drake’s work, and alludes to his regret over not having enough time in his early years as a scholar to actively fight Jim Crow.
The 1987 letter, among hundreds of historic artifacts on Drake in Roosevelt’s Murray-Green Library archives, also relates how a University of Chicago acquaintance “was brimful of enthusiasm” about the new Roosevelt College, now Roosevelt University, which was one of the first in the nation to admit students regardless of race, gender, religion or other factors.
The colleague “asked me if I’d consider joining the faculty. I shared his enthusiasm but reminded him that I hadn’t finished my work for the PhD,” Drake wrote. At the time, Drake needed a job as his wife was pregnant so “I told (the colleague) to tell Dr. (Edward J.) Sparling (Roosevelt’s founding president) that I was interested.”
A year after joining Roosevelt, with a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, Drake went to the United Kingdom (UK) to study a West Indian-Somalian seafaring community in Cardiff, Wales, producing the world’s first study on British race relations for his PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago.
While in England, he met many politically active Africans, some of whom were studying in London, and who would later go on to fight colonialism and change the political landscape in Africa forever. Among those Drake met: Jomo Kenyatta, who later became the first prime minister, president and founding father of Kenya; Nnamdi Azikiwe, who became the first president of Nigeria; and Kwame Nkrumah, who became prime minister and president of Ghana.
“There weren’t many people in those days interested in Africa or who thought African study was respectable,” said Matthew Holden (BA, ’53), the Wepner Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Springfield who used to talk regularly with Drake.
“We’d sit in his overcrowded office full of books and papers and talk about whatever came up,” recalled Holden. “Sometimes it was about living on the south side of Chicago and sometimes it was about the people Drake had met after World War II in the UK.”
Roosevelt alumnus Charles Hamilton (BA, ’51), a prominent civil rights activist and retired Columbia University political science professor, remembers Drake’s office. “I had taken a make-up exam for another professor in Drake’s classroom, and he took it and put it on his desk, and then he couldn’t find it. I was starting to panic because I needed it to graduate,” said Hamilton, who went one day to Drake’s office to straighten things out. “As I was leaving, I looked down on the floor and there it was – my exam. I couldn’t believe it,” said Hamilton. “That was Drake. He was absent-minded as they come and you couldn’t get mad at him.”
What Drake lacked in care about appearances, at the office and in his dress, he made up for with a depth and breadth of intellectualism few could match. “Drake’s life and work speaks to the many communities that crisscross the Atlantic Ocean and have been impacted by the slave trade,” said African-American historian and Oklahoma State University professor Andrew Rosa, who is currently writing a book on Drake. “It’s a life that is not only relevant to African-American struggles, but is also relevant to black struggles across the globe,” he said.
That thought was echoed by Professor Bracey. “Drake had the optimistic belief that the U.S. and the colonial world were moving inevitably toward a stage of cultural and racial assimilation that would leave ideas of racial superiority outdated and irrelevant,” he said. “Drake saw his task as analyzing how this process of assimilation was proceeding both in the United States and in the newly independent African nations.”
Drake embraced Pan Africanism, a movement begun in late 19th century England, which challenges imperialism and racism and advocates for blacks to be independent, ideally leading native Africans and those of African heritage to unite.
The African studies program that Drake and others established at Roosevelt in 1951 promoted anti-colonialism and African nationalism, a radical theme when contrasted to a rival program at Northwestern University, where bringing African nations into the Western world’s orbit was stressed. Drake also traveled often to Africa, meeting with leaders in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and other nations and for several years he was a professor at the University of Ghana. “In those days, Roosevelt University and Drake gave security and protection to African students who were on the run from trouble at home,” said Rosa.
In fact, Holden recalls dining one evening at Drake’s Hyde Park apartment with an African student who was on his way to study medicine at Stanford University. “He served spaghetti and meatballs, and there were not many meatballs,” said Holden. “After dinner, Drake went to his closet and took out a top coat and gave it to the student. Drake told him, ‘Here, you’d better take this. You’ll get cold on the bus.’ To this day, I don’t think Drake could afford to give away his topcoat.” The student, Njoroge Mungai, later became a physician and freedom fighter in Kenya, where he served as foreign minister after the nation broke away from British rule.
Anthropologist, sociologist, black studies scholar, one of the leading voices of the black diaspora movement, Drake can’t be easily categorized or quantified – a fact he knew himself and was proud to call his own. “I view my life as one vast participant-observation project and all the fragments I have written as sort of ethnographic reporting on the black experience in various places around the globe,” he wrote in 1981 while contemplating his autobiography.
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