Monday, February 13, 2012

John Langston Harrison - Class of 1887

John Langston Harrison
Marietta College's Fourth African-American Graduate

John Langston Harrison (1866-1940) entered Marietta College as a freshman in the fall of 1883, a candidate for the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy. Harrison’s path to higher education had been made a little easier by the successful college experience of his older brother, Charles Sumner Harrison, who had been Marietta’s first black graduate in 1876. A third member of the family, Walter Clifton Harrison, would complete his studies at the College in 1891.

The Harrison brothers were the sons of George W. Harrison (1829-1897) and Maria E. (Harris) Harrison (1834-1898) of Harmar, a village across the Muskingum River from Marietta. The couple and their nine children lived near David Putnam, Jr., a noted abolitionist and Underground Railroad worker. Also living nearby was David’s brother, Douglas Putnam, who served as the secretary of Marietta College’s Board of Trustees from the time of its corporation in 1835, until his death in 1894. It is likely that the Putnams were influential in the Harrison’s decision to send their sons to Marietta College.

John Langston Harrison and ten other young men graduated during Marietta College’s Fifty-Second Annual Commencement on June 29, 1887. Harrison delivered an oration that day entitled, “Nature and the Divine Reason.” Following graduation, he served as a principal in the public schools of Topeka, Kansas, and later in the schools of McDowell County, West Virginia, retiring in 1936.

Although his primary career was in education, Harrison was also an author. His published works include Short Stories, in 1909, and A Lesson Learned and Other Stories of the Color Line, in 1912. In 1937, Harrison wrote an essay in which he looked back at the years when he was a student at Marietta College:

"Some Reminiscences of Far Off Days"

“Last June marked the fiftieth year since graduation of the Class of 1887. (That’s a mighty long time to look forward to, but a very short time in retrospect.) The class graduated eleven men and now but two remain – Russell L. Janney and the writer. Of course it was a distinguished and ‘noble’ group, maintaining a high average of scholarship and showing great athletic ability. Its attainments were many and the class prided itself on being the apple of the eye of the faculty.

“Many pleasant memories cluster about those bright college years from 1883 up to and including 1887. The student body was small in number but large in spirit and mischief. Israel W. Andrews, and later John Eaton, headed the institution. Professors Beach, Chamberlin, Phillips, Mitchell, and Biscoe awed us by their erudition. Our class was among the last to sit under the inspirational teaching of Pres. Andrews in his exposition of the Constitution.

“Back then, as now, athletics assumed major proportions, but with this difference – we had to finance the games out of our pockets, shallow as they were. Football, baseball, track and tennis were the chief sports. Tennis was confined to a favored few. The annual ‘Field Day’ on the campus was a gala occasion and always drew a large crowd. Competition was keen for prizes furnished by Marietta business men.

“We excelled in baseball, for the College team was never defeated in the four years from ’83 to ’87. It was fast and clicked perfectly. Frank Jordan, now of the University of Pittsburgh, was catcher, the writer was pitcher, Ban Johnson [founder of baseball’s American League] first base, Tom Church [brother of civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell] second base, Art Clark third, and Kent Loomis short stop. The other players have somehow faded from my memory. Beverly, fortified by two professionals imported from Wheeling, was defeated five to three. This victory so elated the boys that they staged an hilarious celebration in the band wagon on the way home, which, reaching the ears of President Eaton, caused him to decree an enforced vacation of two weeks for three players.

“Our football was a modified form of soccer. Dean Alderman brought back the Rugby game from Phillips Exeter Academy, but we preferred our own game to that. The sport was largely intramural, although we did play teams from surrounding districts. Charlie Dawes [U.S. Vice President, 1925-29] captained a College team which played a hard fought game with the Devol boys at the Fairgrounds. A great crowd (admission free) was in attendance. We won.

“Rodney M. Stimson, affectionately known as ‘Stimpy,’ was the librarian. He was possessed of a grim and sardonic humour which greatly endeared him to the students. One Wednesday afternoon at the assembly, he was making an address. Toward the last of it he said, ‘I don’t know why they keep asking me to talk. I can’t make a speech – never could. I recall my first attempt. I was a lad of seven. I wore curls and had on a frilled waist with a broad stiff collar. I also had on a little pair of pants.’ That last statement was the signal for a tremendous outburst of thunderous applause which so discomfited the speaker that he quit then and there. As he resumed his seat, though, he gave the boys an appreciative grin.

“Roaming the campus one dark night, four of us sophomores, looking for freshmen, stopped at the college pump for a drink. A little distance away we dimly discerned a white object couched modestly at the foot of a tree. Investigating, it proved to be a large demijohn covered with wicker work. We shook it and a cheerful gurgle emanated. Lugging our prize to Fred Corner’s room in the dormitory, it proved to be filled with the finest of crab apple cider. Summoning other kindred spirits we held a wild orgy of drinking, after which we carried it back to the pump, filled it with clear water and deposited it tenderly in its original place. Early the next morning it had disappeared. To this day its ownership remains a deep, dark, mystery. We wished we could have seen the face of the saddened and bewildered owner as he poured out the first anticipatory drink. We prayed he was a freshman.

“Looking back through the vista of fifty years, the inconsequential things of college life are sweeter to the memory than are the sips at the Pierian spring. Perhaps we did not drink deeply enough. Ironically, Greek, Latin, philosophy, mathematics and science are nebulous things, while the pranks and mischief stick like burrs. Perhaps a higher philosophy than ours recognizes an eternal fitness of things beyond our ken.”  - John L. Harrison, '87
Always a loyal Marietta College alumnus, John Langston Harrison represented his alma mater during a dedicatory event at Howard University in 1939. He subscribed to Marietta’s alumni magazine and contributed to the alumni fund, once sending eight dollars and commenting that, “I only wish I could make it eight thousand as a partial payment for what I received by attending Marietta.”