Vernie Merze Tate, the professor born to farmers who toured six continents

Michael Eli Dokosi May 13, 2020 at 11:00am

May 13, 2020 at 11:00 am | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

May 13, 2020 at 11:00 am | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Merze Tate, ca. 1924 via blackpast.org

Never married and without children, Vernie Merze Tate applied herself to scholarship. As a woman of many firsts, she was the first African-American graduate of Western Michigan Teachers College, first African-American woman to attend the University of Oxford, first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in government and international relations from Harvard University (then Radcliffe College), as well as one of the first two female members to join the Department of History at Howard University.

Tate was born during a terrible blizzard in rural Blanchard, Michigan on February 6, 1905 to Charles and Myrtle Tate, both farmers. She became a historian, political author, world traveler, philanthropist, professor, scholar and expert on United States diplomacy.

Her grandparents although black benefited from the Homestead Act of 1862, allowing them to move further west from Ohio to purchase land cheaply in the predominantly white Mecosta County in Michigan. Brilliant even while young, Tate won an oratorical contest at Battle Creek High School and graduated valedictorian at Blanchard High School. She received a scholarship to Western State Teachers College (now Western Michigan University) and became the first African American to graduate, earning a teaching diploma and bachelor’s degree with honors in 1927.

Despite her excellent academic career, Tate could not find employment in the state as at that time, Michigan would not hire African-American teachers in its secondary schools. Tate nonetheless stayed in academia and got help teaching at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, Indiana while studying for her master’s degree in history from Columbia University. 

After graduating in 1930, Alpha Kappa Alpha, a black sorority awarded her a scholarship that helped defray the costs of her studies at Oxford University in 1932. In 1935, Tate earned a bachelor of literature degree (B.Litt.) in international relations and became the first African American to receive a degree at that institution. She returned home to study political science at Radcliffe College, the prestigious all-female school that later merged with Harvard University. In 1941, she obtained her Ph.D. and was the first black woman to do so at Radcliffe.

Tate toured six continents underlying her fondness for travel. In the early 1930s, Tate, who was fluent in five languages, took German classes at the University of Berlin. After hearing Hitler speak however she cut her stay short. In the 1950s, she was a Fulbright Scholar and lecturer for the U.S. Information Agency and visited India, Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Tate taught at several historically black colleges and was an administrator at Bennett College and Morgan State University before arriving at Howard University. She was hired as the first black woman historian in the history department and taught there for 35 years before retiring in 1977.

She was a prolific scholar who published five ground-breaking books, three by Harvard and Yale, and dozens of journal articles on diplomatic history, international relations, and imperialism including The Disarmament Illusion: The Movement for a Limitation of Armaments to 1907 (1942), The United States and Armaments (1948), and The United States and the Hawaiian Kingdom: A Political History (1965) as well as several articles.

Later in her life, she was a world traveler and international correspondent for an African-American publication visiting the White House annually.

After a visit to Paris in 1931, she traveled to Switzerland where she entered a summer program of study at the Geneva School of International Relations. By the end of her eight weeks in Europe, she had visited 15 countries, touring historical sites and museums. She noted in her diary that her status as a “colored American” had made her “quite a curiosity myself.” She ended her trip in Liverpool where she boarded the Duchess of Richmond for her return trip to Quebec.

via Wikipedia Commons

She would have another extended stay abroad – in India in 1950-51 when she was a Fulbright scholar. Tate was so proud of the exceptional life that she donated her professional and personal papers to Howard University, along with travel photographs and films; at her death in 1996, additional materials were donated to Western Michigan University.

It’s curious then that Tate’s life’s work has all but disappeared from the narrative of black women’s history despite her best attempts to make sure that her legacy survived her death in 1996.

On June 27, 1996, Merze Tate died of cardiac arrest at Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C. She was buried in a cemetery near her birthplace in Blanchard, Michigan. In 2014, her hometown dedicated the Tate Memorial Library in her honor.

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