How A White Civil War General From Maine Led The Creation Of The Nation's Premier Black University

Aug 20, 2020

Civil War General Oliver Otis Howard, of Leeds, Maine, was the driving force behind the creation of Howard University, alma mater of Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris.
Credit Courtesy Gordon Weil

Sen. Kamala Harris, Joe Biden's picked for vice president, is an alum of Howard University, a school that turns out to have a tie to Maine. Here to tell us about it is Gordon Weil, a former state official and the author of "The Good Man: The Civil War's 'Christian General' and His Fight for Racial Equality." Weil spoke with Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz.

Gratz: Gordon, welcome.

Weil: Thank you, glad to be here.

So what is it that ties Maine to Kamala Harris's alma mater, which is in Washington?

Howard University was created largely through the efforts of a man by the name of Oliver Otis Howard, a native of Leeds, Maine, a graduate of Bowdoin College and the Military Academy, who was a leader in pressing for higher education for African Americans after the end of the Civil War. And what he was able to promote was the creation of academic institutions for African Americans all across the American east, the pre-eminent one of which was the university in Washington DC, which the trustees chose to name after him.

But why was Howard, who was a white Civil War general, interested in creating a university that would serve freed African American slaves?

I think there are two reasons. One was his own personal experience. He had had the very unusual experience - for a young kid in Maine in the 1830s - of having a slightly older African American boy living with the family for about four years, and became his playmate and workmate. And he attributed his attitude in later years to his very early experience. Secondly, he was frustrated by the opposition of the south, and of Andrew Johnson, to really giving the former slaves full equality. He was in charge of something called the Freedmen's Bureau, which was supposed to oversee that, but it really became impossible. He was fighting his own government.

And the other thing that's kind of interesting about this is that he was pushing the idea of a liberal arts education. Why was that?

What he wanted to do is produce voters and leading political figures. And you couldn't do that with somebody with a technical education. And he had had, obviously, a liberal arts education at Bowdoin. He knew what it encompassed. And from the very outset, the very first day, the college at Howard University was a liberal arts college, coed, biracial, very liberal in its approach, and accompanied by graduate schools in medicine and law and a number of other fields.

What was it like when you found out that it was a Howard grad, Kamala Harris, who was chosen to be a vice presidential candidate, and a historic one at that?

Well, I think Howard deserves more credit than he gets. Obviously, the university's a great monument to him. But we hear a lot about other Civil War generals, even on the losing side, like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. We certainly hear about Grant and Sherman and a number of others on the northern side, and even Chamberlain, who also went to Bowdoin. You don't hear much about Howard. And so I got some satisfaction out of seeing how important Howard University had been to Kamala Harris, to know that this resulted over more than 130 years after the initial efforts of a man who didn't get enough credit for the great things he had done.

Gordon Weil, former state official and author of "The Good Man: The Civil War's 'Christian General' and His Fight for Racial Equality." Thank you, sir, for the time. We really appreciate it.

My pleasure. Thank you.

Originally published at 7:37 a.m. Aug. 19, 2020.