— By Spencer Jourdain

Harvard_APA
Charter members of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Sigma Chapter. Edwin Bush Jourdain, Jr. (seated center) elected as its first president. Edward “Ned” Gourdin is standing in back row second from left.

. . .

Throughout his college years, Edwin B. Jourdain Jr. (Gint) enjoyed engaging in every aspect of university life available to a black student. He loved to attend the university orchestra and glee club concerts, carefully storing away the events’ ticket stubs, and was a big fan of the football and baseball teams and the famous Harvard crew. He attended each of the occasional receptions, or “teas,” for students with Harvard faculty and on rare occasion with President Lowell, where he would recall the gracious conduct of Mrs. Lowell toward all students regardless of color. Gint’s frank confidence, gracious manners and impeccable New England speech compared favorably with any of the Porcelain types. Leo Hansberry would later observe that Gint had clearly mastered the very culture that excluded him and thereby was able to see both its good and bad points in an objective way—the trait of a fine anthropologist.

Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr. “Gint”

By the autumn of 1920, the senior year of the Class of ’21, the collection of black students at Harvard and nearby universities had, in its own separate Darwinian evolution, produced an impressive roster of brilliance, epitomized in the Nile Club participants. The older black graduate students of the Nile Club had proved themselves as formidable intellects and had become admired mentors for the black undergraduate students. Such earned veneration was not new to Charles Houston. He had graduated from high school at the age of fifteen as one of the most outstanding graduates of legendary Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. At Amherst College, Charlie had graduated Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian in 1915, and he had rendered admirable military service in World War I. Harvard Law School professor, and future Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, said that Charlie Houston was one of the most brilliant students of any race ever to study under him at the Law School. Houston received his LLB in 1919 and went on to earn his Doctorate of Jurisprudence from the Law School in 1923. Houston would go on to become Dean of Howard University’s Law School and the architect of the NAACP’s legendary Legal Defense Fund.1 He and Gint would remain lifelong friends and sometimes collaborate on civil rights issues.

Jesse Heslip would become president of the National Bar Association and a constant contributor to legal battles of the NAACP. He, too, would remain a lifelong friend of Gint’s. Jesse’s classmate at the Law School Class of 1923, Raymond Pace Alexander, would serve as counsel for the NAACP, president of the National Bar Association, honorary consul to the Republic of Haiti in 1938, and founder of a prestigious black Philadelphia legal dynasty.

The black students in the Class of ’21, Ned Gourdin, Leo Hansberry and Edwin Jourdain, had been at the chronological median of a rare black experience in the Nile Club and were now poised for further accomplishments. Leo Hansberry would get his PhD in anthropology, and as a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., would become one of the nation’s leading scholars on African history and culture. Leo would be honored by the founding heads of state of Ghana and Nigeria, Kwame Nkrumah and Nnandi Azikiwe. A school of sociology at the University of Nigeria would be named for him.2 Graduating in 1921 with an MBA, the new degree from the graduate Business School, Norris Herndon would prove his ability as head of the nation’s largest black insurance company.

Ned Gourdin would go on to Harvard Law School to study under Roscoe Pound. Soon after graduation, he sailed for Paris to participate in the 1924 Olympics. Even though having an unusually low performance day, Ned would nonetheless win a silver medal in the long jump. (The fabled Paris Olympiad would produce the triple gold medal swimmer and later star of Tarzan movies, Johnny Weissmuller. The exploits of dash champions Abrahams and Liddell at the 1924 Olympiad would be depicted over a half-century later in an Academy Award–winning movie, Chariots of Fire.) Ned would become the commanding officer of the black Massachusetts 372nd Infantry, serve as a colonel in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, and retire in 1959 with the rank of brigadier general in the National Guard. In 1958, Ned would become Massachusetts’s first African American Superior Court justice,3 all in all, a bravura performance for a student who sometimes had to walk to his Harvard classes with newspapers stuffed in his shoes to keep out the winter cold.

Gint would be admitted to the Harvard Graduate School of Business, mindful of his father’s exhortations to go to a professional school to obtain some practical skills with which to face the difficult world of segregate America. He would carry with him an abiding interest in journalism, both as a writer and as a prospective publisher. Like Du Bois and Trotter, journalism would be an effective way to continue the fight for black civil rights and full participation in American society.

Washington, D.C.’s Dunbar High School, in a burst of brilliance, had produced in only a few decades a host of participants in the Nile Club and an alumni roster that would include Nile Club participants Allison Davis, Rayford Logan, Charles Drew, William Hastie, Montague Cobb, Sterling Brown, and Benjamin O. Davis. Dunbar (formerly the M Street) High School might have been aptly identified as a major source of the Nile.

book
Spencer Jourdain’s book

There were only a dozen blacks throughout Harvard University and often fewer at other major colleges of the area. The journey to get there was so difficult that the Nile Club wound up being one of the most powerful assemblages of intellect imaginable. Gint would stand out in the memory of his college friends for his earnestness, easy grace, concern for others, and commitment to the black struggle for equality in which he had such deep roots. That year, several of the black students formed a Harvard Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. They included Charles Houston, Ned Gourdin, and Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr. The group elected Gint as their first president, and Charlie Houston served as the Chapter’s first treasurer. . .

. . .

Notes: This article is an excerpt of Chapter 13 from Spencer Jourdain’s book Dream Dancers: New England Preservers of the Dream 1620–1924, Volume One, available now at www.lulu.com.

Photo: Sigma chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, Harvard University. First chartered c1920. Photo part of the Edwin B. Jourdain collection, Shorefront archives.

  1. “Brown at 50, Fulfilling the Promise: Charles Hamilton Houston,” Howard University School of Law, http://www.brownat50.org/brownbios/BioCharlesHHouston.html.
  2. James Mohr, “Hansberry, Leo (1894–1965),” http://www.blackpast.org/aah/hansberry-william-leo-1894-1965.
  3. Ned’s life story and his portrait hung in honor in Old Suffolk County Courthouse: see, Daphne Abeel, “Edward Orval Gourdin: Brief Life of a Breaker of Barriers,” Harvard Magazine, http://harvardmagazine.com.
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