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Ferris State University Staff Uncover Forgotten Legacy of Diversity

David Pilgrim and Franklin Hughes
Ferris State University Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion David Pilgrim (left) and Media Specialist Franklin Hughes (right) review research materials they have gathered on African-American attendees in the university's early history.

In 2015, Ferris State University Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion David Pilgrim tasked Media Specialist Franklin Hughes with finding photographs of 1912 Ferris State graduate Gideon Smith, who went on to be the first African-American varsity athlete at Michigan State University (then Michigan Agricultural College). At the time, conventional wisdom at Ferris State held that Smith was its first African-American attendee, and Pilgrim wanted to commission campus artwork honoring him.

Hughes’ search for the photo, however, yielded much more.

“I started looking through yearbooks, and I noticed right away that there were a couple other black folks,” said Hughes.

“I showed David, and he said ‘Who are these guys? If they’re here at the same time as Smith, then maybe he wasn’t the first.’”

Hughes identified several other students from the 1910s, but the yearbooks offered little more information than their names and years of attendance. It was then that he remembered a detail that had always stuck with him—Gideon Smith had been from Hampton, Virginia. He went to the online database Hathi Trust and found digitized copies of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute’s magazine, Southern Workmen.

“There were rolls of the students who were at Hampton, so I started to look and found that some of these individuals who were here at the same time as Smith also went to Hampton,” Hughes said.

“When I started looking at Ferris yearbooks from a little later on, after 1916 and 1917, they would write the person’s name and hometown. And most of the African Americans would be from Virginia. And I thought, “Wow! This is something.”

The “something” that Hughes was uncovering was a significant effort on the part of Ferris State founder and then-president Woodbridge N. Ferris to offer opportunity to Southern African-American students of the era at his school, then Ferris Institute. Hughes found evidence that, between 1910 and the mid-1920s, dozens of African-American students—maybe more—originating at Hampton Institute subsequently enrolled at Ferris Institute.

“At that time, there were many schools in the South that, if you were an African American, you just could not attend,” said Pilgrim.

“Most of the students that we’ve identified were born, lived and died during the Jim Crow period. Jim Crow was their life, and it limited them, but they wanted to be limited less, and, like some other schools up North, Ferris was an opportunity. They would come here, take college prep courses, and then go to schools like University of Michigan or Northwestern.

Although Hampton Institute also offered college prep and vocational instruction at the time, Pilgrim explained, the offerings for students at Ferris Institute would have differed. Hampton Institute’s coursework would have prepared students for manual labor, which was considered appropriate work for African Americans in the Jim Crow South, whereas Ferris Institute offered training related to fields such as business and healthcare.

Based on the apparent number of African-American attendees from the Hampton area and records of Woodbridge Ferris’ personal correspondence with many of them after graduation, Hughes and Pilgrim surmised that he had offered at least an informal partnership with Hampton, an extraordinarily progressive initiative for the president of a rural Midwestern school in that era. Because they have not yet discovered correspondence or institutional records formalizing the program, Hughes and Pilgrim could only speculate as to its catalysts.

“When you look at the first Ferris class, it’s well documented that there were five women and 10 men. So, Mr. Ferris provided opportunity for women, as well, early on, when most places in the country wouldn’t do that. His wife and other women taught here, and we found that, in the late 1890s, international students were coming here. Ferris had English as a Second Language courses for these students,” said Hughes.

“I don’t think that you would have found that in most places around the country.”

“At that time in the U.S., the common economic experience was poverty. People lived hard, and they understood hardship. If you look at the life of Mr. Ferris, it’s not completely accurate to say that he came from humble beginnings. His family was poor, and they struggled, but he achieved great things, and he created an institution where other poor people were given opportunities to be successful,” said Pilgrim.

“Institutions in those days, the early 1900s, would have been much more aligned with the personality, the value system of their founder. This was his institution, and so it reflected a great deal of who he was, what he believed and how he lived his life.”

Another motivator for Woodbridge Ferris’s actions may have been unearthed by Fran Rosen, of Ferris State’s Library for Information, Technology and Education. While searching the microfilm records from Big Rapids’ newspaper, The Pioneer, she discovered that Ferris Institute brought African-American leader and Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington to Big Rapids to speak in 1902.

“The article from The Pioneer states that Booker T. Washington spoke about how similar the Ferris Institute was to the work that Tuskegee was trying to do, providing opportunities and general education for people who otherwise couldn’t have it,” said Hughes.  

“We know Mr. Ferris was attending conferences with Washington from 1913 to 1914. Washington was one of the most famous Hampton alums. So, we’re thinking maybe that’s the connection.”

Hosting Washington would have been a risky proposition for Ferris at the time. In 1901, Washington had dined with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House, which sparked a major national controversy because it violated Jim Crow norms. However, the Ferris and Big Rapids communities appear to have welcomed him, said Hughes.

“He was brought here by [founder Woodbridge Ferris and Ferris’ wife, Helen] and by the Ferris Cooperative Association—which was the alumni, students, faculty and staff. They brought him here, and the community welcomed him and embraced him, and it was a sold-out crowd,” Hughes said.

Washington wasn’t the only prominent African American to pass through Ferris’ halls in the early 1900s. Pilgrim and Hughes identified several significant African-American figures among the Hampton-Ferris attendees:

  • Russell Dixon went on to become the first African American to earn an advanced dentistry degree from Northwestern and launched the first U.S. school of dental hygiene open to African-American students at Howard University, was later appointed by Surgeon General Thomas Parran to the Medical and Health Committee of the National Defense Council and by President John F. Kennedy as regent of the National Medical Library.
  • William Gibson went on to become one of the first African Americans to receive a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism,was a sports writer and then executive editor of Baltimore newspaper the AFRO-American, and later became the executive editor for Johnson Publishing, which published Ebony, Jet and Tan magazines.
  • Belford Lawson became a renowned civil rights activist and the first African American to successfully argue a Supreme Court case, New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery (1938). He was also the first African American to address the Democratic National Convention and served as an advisor to John F. Kennedy during his senatorial and presidential campaigns.
  • Percival Prattis became city editor of the Chicago Defender, news editor of the Associated Negro Press and executive editor of the Pittsburgh Courier. He was the first African-American news correspondent to be admitted to the press galleries of both the U. S. House of Representatives and Senate.

Pilgrim and Hughes even discovered more information about Gideon Smith, whose image was the catalyst for all that they had uncovered. He became the head football coach of what is now Virginia State University before returning to Hampton Institute to become its head football coach, establishing a 102-44-12 career record. He was posthumously honored with the American Football Coaches Association’s 2014 Trailblazer Award.

However, Pilgrim and Hughes eventually did determine that Smith was not Ferris’ first African-American attendee. That honor goes to Middleton Pickens, who graduated from the Pharmacy program in 1901. Though apparently not a part of the Hampton-Ferris initiative, Woodbridge Ferris supported Pickens’ further educational efforts.

“As far as we know, [Pickens] is the earliest African American to attend the Ferris Institute—16 years after its founding, which is pretty early on. We know that Mr. Ferris provided promissory notes and loaned money to him after he earned his pharmacy degree from Ferris, to attend the Detroit School of Medicine, from 1902 to 1906,” Hughes said.

Pickens would go on to rally important support for Woodbridge Ferris in his gubernatorial campaigns.

“in 1904, Pickens started an independent group for voters of color in support of Ferris, in Detroit. Apparently, he was rallying African-American voters to vote for Mr. Ferris, a Democrat. At that time, African Americans voting Democrat was unheard of, but here is Middleton Pickens, setting up these groups and organizations to help Mr. Ferris,” said Hughes.

Pilgrim and Hughes also found evidence of an even earlier African-American football great than Gideon Smith on Ferris’ campus: Nate Harris, a Negro-league baseball star who also played football.

“Nate Harris played on a team called the Leland [later the Chicago Union] Giants. In 1902, the team relocated to Big Rapids. After that season, Harris stayed in Big Rapids, and he enrolled at Ferris Institute. This puts him here eight years before Gideon Smith, who was here from 1910 to 1912. Harris enrolled at Ferris, played football for Ferris and coached the Ferris football team.” said Hughes.

“In one of the reports of the championship game in 1902, he kicked, a 30-yard drop kick right before the half, which was phenomenal, and the whole student body ran onto the field and carried him off the field at halftime, cheering and celebrating. So, Nate Harris was a part of the community.”

That being said, Pilgrim and Hughes also uncovered instances of discrimination toward African-American students in Ferris’ early history, but they point to responses by Woodbridge Ferris in which he challenged the campus and community members involved to overcome prejudice. Hughes cites how, speaking at the Lincoln Jubilee in 1915, Ferris related one such instance.

“One of the things Mr. Ferris talks about is how he held his college accountable to his values. There had been an incident with an African-American woman who attended Ferris—we don’t know she was, but we know she was biracial, so it wasn’t necessarily evident right away that she was of African descent. When the women in the housing unit found out, they wanted her removed from the house,” said Hughes.

“He said, ‘On the following morning, I said to the school that I had supposed I was living in Michigan, but I concluded after describing this situation that I was living in Louisiana. The Ferris Institute is one of the most democratic schools in the United States. It has no color line; it has no age limit; it has no prior requirements for admission. It is open to every man and woman, every boy or girl who is hungry for an education.”

Pilgrim explained that latter sentences from that quote have been drawn from frequently by contemporary diversity advocates on campus to generally characterize the early progressive spirit of the school and its founder, but that, in omitting the first sentence, important context is lost.

“The last part of that quote I’ve seen over the years, around campus and in different books with quotes of his, but it’s different when someone has the opportunity to ask themselves questions like ‘Why did he say that?’ ‘What was going on?’ ‘What does that say about him?’ ‘What does that say about the university?’ You’re dealing with a different period in America’s race relations at the time, and he addressed it, talked to everybody involved, challenged the racial ideas of the individuals that were involved, challenged them to be fair,” said Pilgrim.

“If you just take the last part he says, it sounds like some sweet, beautiful comment, but it’s not accurate without the context.”

Pilgrim and Hughes assert that, in those details, is a better understanding of Ferris State University’s founder.

“One of my messages to our campus now is that we did not create Ferris—we inherited it. So, you need to understand what your inheritance was,” Pilgrim said.

“When you tell the story of the Hampton-Ferris connection, then you tell a more accurate story of Ferris’ history, about the institution and the founder.”

Pilgrim and Hughes are seeking help from readers to help tell this developing story. If you have information or media content related to diverse Ferris Institute attendees from 1900 to 1930, or if you are interested in providing research assistance, please email [email protected].

For an in-depth interview with Pilgrim and Hughes on the Hampton-Ferris attendees, visit

Caption: Ferris’ Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion David Pilgrim (left) and Media Specialist Franklin Hughes (right) review research materials they have gathered on African-American attendees in Ferris State University’s early history.