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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 507

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This is the grave of Frederick Douglas Patterson.

Born in 1901 in Washington, D.C., Patterson was named for the great black leader Frederick Douglass. But he had a tough early childhood. Both his parents died of tuberculosis when he was 2. He had an older sister named Bessie. He moved in with her and she decided to basically sacrifice her life for the young boy. They moved to Austin, Texas. She spent a $8 of her $20 a month salary to send him to the best schools available for African-Americans in Austin, at what is today Huston-Tillotson College. Well, he certainly took to that education. He won scholarships for higher education. He did his undergraduate work at Prairie View Normal and Industrial Institute, which is now Prairie View A&M. a historically black college in Texas. Interested in sciences, Patterson went to Iowa State College, where he received a doctorate in Veterinary Medicine in 1923 and then a masters in General Science in 1927. Now, Patterson was in a unique position. He was the only person of color doing what he did at Iowa State. This led him to reflect on race. He later wrote: “I learned a lesson with regard to race that I never forgot: how people feel about you reflects the way you permit yourself to be treated. If you permit yourself to be treated differently, you are condemned to an unequal relationship.” Honestly, from the privileged perspective of a white lefty in 2019, that sounds more than a bit like half-blaming African-Americans for the racism they faced. What Patterson I think is actually doing is expressing black masculinity and self-assertion against a very difficult society. The man was certainly no political revolutionary, but he was seeking to find his place in a racist white world and places for the next generation as well.

Patterson went on for a second Ph.D. at Cornell, in Veterinary Pathology, which he got in 1932. He then started teaching at the college level, first at Virginia State College for four years. Eventually, he became the head of the School of Agriculture at Tuskegee Institute, the legendary black school founded by Booker T. Washington. In fact, Patterson became the president of Tuskegee in 1935, still only 33 years of age. He married the daughter of the previous president the same year.

Patterson would lead Tuskegee for the next 18 years. His major work there was moving it from small mechanical college to a university with significant numbers of graduate programs. Following his own interests, perhaps the most important of these was the School of Veterinary Medicine. In fact, the veterinary school at Tuskegee became so good under Patterson’s leadership that the state of Alabama opened up funds to send white students there, which I believe is the only occurrence of this in the Jim Crow South. Up to the present, the school claims to have graduated 75 percent of the black veterinarians in the nation. He also founded engineering and aviation programs, the latter of course being associated with the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. It was Patterson who worked his connections with the federal government to establish the air base there and helped pave the way for the desegregation of the material.

In 1944, Patterson also founded a broader program for black education: The United Negro College Fund, which hands out 10,000 scholarships a year for education at historically black institutions today and has raised over $3.6 billion since its founding. President Truman named Patterson to his President’s Commission on Higher Education in 1946. It would have been awfully easy for Truman to go with an all-white committee at that time and it is to his credit that he did not.

One thing that nobody brings up when discussing Patterson is the Tuskegee Experiments, where white doctors used the school to run their uncontrolled experiments on giving black men syphilis. This technically started a year before Patterson became president, but it continued well after his tenure ended. The extent to which Patterson really knew what was going on is something I don’t know. I can’t find a single thing about it. But it was happening at his school under his watch so I have trouble saying that he has no responsibility for anything that happened there, even though I am fully sure that he was not cognizant of the full horrors of it. At worst, I imagine it’s a lack of knowledge and control over what was happening with the white doctors he allowed into his school at the height of Jim Crow.

Patterson retired from Tuskegee in 1953, but remained involved in issues of education for the underprivileged. He directed the Phelps-Stokes Fund from 1958 until 1969, dedicated to improving quality of education for the poor of all races. He also did a lot of work to get HBCU’s on better financial footing, still a major issue for them today.

In 1987, Patterson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died in 1988, at the age of 86.

Frederick Douglas Paterson is buried at Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. I am highly grateful! If you would like this series to visit other black leaders of the 20th century, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Dorothy Height is in Brentwood, Maryland and Daisy Bates is in Little Rock, Arkansas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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