The Black Classicists of Central Texas

A group of researchers have launched a new exhibit exploring Black thinkers and educators in Austin.

By Sean SaldanaMay 1, 2023 4:06 pm, , , ,

When it comes to documenting history, researchers face one massive problem: you can never really be certain about things that happened in the past.

Speaking from an armchair in her University of Texas at Austin office, Classics professor Ayelet Lushkov tells me how she deals with this: “I work on Roman historical writing and our basic tenet is that they’re lying all the time.”

The fact that the study of Ancient Rome and Greece – the classics – have been heavily affected by partisan historical accounts is hardly surprising.

“History in the ancient world was a vehicle for entertainment,” she tells me, “and those are people who bother to put down what they were thinking, right?”

Researching and documenting humanity’s foundational stories, Lushkov admits to me, “is a guessing game.”

History is impossible to be certain about, in part due to its biased storytellers, but also for a number of more mundane reasons.

People misremember stories, they pass away, or most commonly of all, they never bother to record their experiences in the first place.

Sean Saldana / Texas Standard

Ayelet Lushkov is a Classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

In the Texas Hill Country, you don’t have to look hard to find lacunas in the historical record. 

A series of mysteries is proudly on display in East Austin – printed in bright red letters, above a white brick arch at the entrance to Austin’s first Black middle school: Kealing.

The institution was named after Hightower Theodore Kealing, a man who ran Austin’s first school for Black children in 1884, but didn’t get a Wikipedia page until 2019. For every verifiable piece of information about Kealing’s life, there are a series of conflicts, some of which will likely never be resolved.

Researchers know that Kealing was an influential leader in Austin’s Black community at the turn of the 20th century, heavily involved in the African Methodist Epispocal Church, an influential academic writer, and that he was important enough to get a school named after him.

At the same time, the list of information about his life that’s been in dispute includes his birthplace, the year he was born, the year he died, and even his first name. Kealing’s file at the Austin History Center had him labeled “Hubert” as recently as 2018.

It’s also known that Kealing’s philosophy as an educator centered around teaching the classics, a discipline focused on, Lushkov tells me, “the big questions. What is human? What is worth thinking about? What have humans worried about throughout time?”

Over the past few years, Lushkov and a group of researchers at the University of Texas have studied thinkers and educational leaders like H.T. Kealing

They’ve recently debuted an exhibition called “Black Classicists in Texas,” a project that involved a lot of, according to Lushkov, “graduate students just going through boxes and boxes of material at the Austin History Center.

Documenting the contributions of Black Latin and classics teachers in Texas from 1880 to today has produced an exhibition that’s narrow in scope, but broad in ambition.

“We’re hoping that this would be a good beginning to start putting together a fuller view of Black education in Austin,” Lushkov tells me. 

A month and a half before the exhibition launch, I visit UT Classics professor Pramit Chaudhuri in his lab at the student activity center.

As the elevator takes me to the fourth floor, the mid-semester hum of student life fades. I find Chaudhuri alone with his backpack, laptop and research materials sprawled across a white conference room table. 

“Excuse the mess,” he tells me as I get settled.

Chaudhuri is the de-facto leader of the Black Classicist research team, focusing in particular on the life and contributions of a man named R.S. Lovinggood.

“He came from a very, very poor family in South Carolina,” Chaudhuri explains.

Defying poverty, Lovinggood managed to become a college graduate with a degree in classics from Clark University (now Clark Atlanta University).

In an autobiography Lovinggood wrote, he describes raising enough money to send himself to college by picking cotton, selling a watch, and getting rid of, “a pistol for which I had no use for $3.00.”

In 1895, Lovinggood moved to Marshall, Texas, where he became chair of the Greek and Latin department at Wiley College. Then in 1900, he was elected to become the first president of Sam Huston College, an opportunity that brought him to the state’s capital city.

R.S. Lovinggood.
University of Texas at Arlington via the Black Classicists in Texas website

Today, college presidents start their jobs by getting set up in corner offices with luxury desks. This was not Lovinggood’s experience.

“There were animals in the basement of the building that had to be cleared out when he arrived,” Chaudhuri tells me.

Clearing chickens and hogs out of the building was Lovinggood’s first order of business. From there, he spent the rest of his life fundraising, expanding and advocating for Sam Huston College. 

“He kind of killed himself during it,” Chaudhuri says.

By the time Lovinggood passed away in his early 50s, he had helped arrange a Classics Department on campus, establish a faculty of 19 and attract a student body of 500.

The school Lovinggood helped build is still around today, just under a new name –  Huston-Tillotson University – and since its founding, it’s become, in the words of current president Melva Wallace, “the centerpoint of the Black and Brown intelligentsia.”

Lovinggood is central to the Black Classicists in Texas exhibition because in 1900 he published a 50-page pamphlet arguing that every Black student should receive a classical education.

“The Greek and Latin classics furnish us excellent means of moral culture,” he wrote.

Lovinggood felt that to solve the problem of underachievement at the turn of the 20th century, Black communities should take on the challenge of classical education – even in the Jim Crow South.

In another passage, Lovinggood writes, “there is no caste in the world of thought. Money can not buy admission into this society. Culture is the only currency that will purchase admission.”

The front cover of Lovinggood’s pamphlet. Courtesy of Huston-Tilloston University

To many Black thinkers at the time, the lofty pursuits of learning a dead language or studying ancient texts felt like, at best, a second-order priority when considering the challenges facing their communities. 

A few generations after Emancipation, little had changed for Black Texans in the countryside.

“You are still doing exactly the same work that you were doing as an enslaved person,” explains former University of Arkansas professor Carl Moneyhon. “You’re still getting up in the morning, going for breakfast, then going out in the fields and working – and your chances of moving up from that world are small.”

Black Americans’ slim odds at upward mobility gave rise to a different class of scholars – ones who were more pragmatic about living in a country of de jure racism. 

Leaning forward in his chair, Chaudhuri explains that, “there’s this big debate at the time about whether Black institutions should be invested in teaching Latin to students or whether they should be focusing more on what was perceived as practical or education… also known as industrial education.”

Proponents of industrial education argued that by focusing Black Americans’ educational curriculum more narrowly on vocational employment, you could improve the living conditions of more Black people overall. 

The idealistic pursuit of knowledge preached by Lovinggood clashed with the cold pragmatism of industrial education advocates. 

Reciting the talking points of the pro-industrial education advocates, Rice history professor James Sidbury asks, “Do we need to have educational institutions that are teaching the most advanced knowledge we have? Or do we need vocational kinds of things? Because what our people need is to be able to make a living.”

Lovinggood’s arguments in favor of classical education have been unconvincing – at least in practice. 

Today, few students of any racial or ethnic background receive much of a classical education beyond required reading in school.

“By the end of the 19th century,” Sidbury explains, “the academic disciplines, as we now know them, emerge – and so colleges and universities move away from a classic, Greece and Rome focus.”

The decline of the classics in Texas higher education is something Chaudhuri’s research team saw reflected at Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black college in Prairie View, Texas. 

“Two faculty are teaching Latin at Prairie View at the beginning of the 20th century,” he tells me. He takes a quick breath before the big reveal: “By 1910, zero.” 

As I’m packing to leave after the interview, Chaudhuri mentions that near the end of the semester, he’s taking one of his classes on a tour of Black Classicists in Texas after it launches.

Before I can finish asking if I can tag along, he cuts me off: “Absolutely.” 

Late morning in the lobby of the Benson Collection, a library on the outskirts of campus, Chaudhuri warms his class up with a question: “It’s whose birthday today?”

A group of about ten students trade glances in silence. A few seconds later, Chaudhuri gives them the answer as if somebody should’ve known, “April 21 is the birthday of the City of Rome.”

Chaudhuri kills a few more minutes with smalltalk before leading the group through the Benson’s main area and down a hallway, toward the Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room. 

“I know it feels like it’s an area where people are doing serious archival research,” Chaudhuri says to me while herding students in the corridor, “but it’s actually an exhibition space.”

Before heading in, students store their backpacks in a designated set of lockers outside the room – an easy way to make sure nobody walks off with any of the priceless materials. 

Inside, the class turns its attention toward a large poster board pinned to the wall reading “Black Classicists in Texas: A Local History of Latin and Greek in Black Education, 1880 to the Present Day.”

To its side are three large glass cases containing historic photos, scans of book excerpts and a series of blurbs tying Black thinkers in Texas to the world of Greco-Roman antiquity.

The display is big enough to cover more than a century of history in Central Texas, but small enough that Chaudhuri has to be pragmatic with his presentation to the class.

Motioning toward the posterboard, he directs the students, “Can you start by kind of crowding around here? You’re not gonna be able to read otherwise.”

Patricia Lim / KUT

Pramit Chaudhuri, associate professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, lectures to his class at while touring the "Black Classicists in Texas" exhibit he contributed to at the Benson Latin American Collection Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room on April 21, 2023.

Chaudhuri starts by informally quizzing the class on Texas’ influential Black educators in the 19th and 20th century – figures like Hightower Theodore Kealing, L.C. Anderson and David Abner Jr. 

The details of their lives blend together – born into or right after slavery, acquired multiple college degrees, prominent leaders in their communities – so Chaudhuri sums up their contributions in a single sentence.

“These are people who are instrumental in the development of education in Texas, but generally even people from Texas haven’t heard of them,” he tells the group.

After a little more discussion on classical education and the role it played in influencing Black educators, Chaudhuri turns his attention to the crux of the Black Classicist worldview.

He assumes the role of R.S. Lovinggood: “We need this stuff in order to make our teachers think flexibly, historically… the stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily get from just doing industrial education.”

Courtesy of the Black Classicists in Texas website

A screenshot from the 3D tour of the Benson Latin American Collection Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room display as part of the "Black Classicists Exhibit."

After class, I chat with Karmyn McKee, who’s studying sociology, and while she’s sympathetic to the pro-classics worldview, she’s not entirely convinced.

“At the time, Black advancement was very narrow and very few colleges would let us in,” she tells me ​matter-of-factly.

Her tone shifts from detached to conflicted: “I think an equal balance between industrial and the liberal arts is good, but to be a jack-of-all-trades can be bad. So I think at the time, the industrial side probably would have won.”

Black Classicists in Texas is an exhibition featured at three sites: one at the Benson Collection, another at the George Washington Carver Museum in East Austin and another at Huston-Tillotson University.

It also includes a self-guided tour that takes people throughout Central Austin, ending at the city’s oldest cemetery.

“The tour ends at Oakwood Cemetery, which is the final resting place of R.S. Lovinggood,” project researcher Elena Navarre tells me, “as a way for visitors to not only reflect on their experience in a contemplative and respectful space, but to bring a sense of totality to the end of the exhibition.”

Michael Minasi / KUT

Texas Standard reporter/producer Sean Saldana interviews Greg Farrar on April 26, 2023, in the Oakwood Cemetery Chapel in Austin.

Last Wednesday, I met Greg Farrar outside the chapel at Oakwood Cemetery, a limestone fixture of local history with steeped wooden gables and gothic windows.

He greets me with a pamphlet about the cemetery’s history and fishes a set of keys out of his army green cargo pants. He shoves the chapel’s door open, leads me inside, and we get settled at a table under the building’s dark wooden arches. 

Farrar is not a native Texan. He moved to the Hill Country in 2019, a life change motivated by a desire to, “visit old family roots.”

He’s understating his connection to Austin.

Greg Farrar is R.S. Lovinggood’s great, great grandson and over the past few years, he’s relocated from the West Coast, taken a position as an exhibit assistant at Oakwood and become the world’s leading expert on his great, great grandfather.

“Lovinggood is similar to a lot of other hidden figures in history, especially when it comes to people of color,” he explains, “where their stories and the things that they did in their lives were forgotten.”

Michael Minasi / KUT

Greg Farrar, a descendent of Reuben Shannon Lovinggood, is pictured on April 26, 2023, in Oakwood Cemetery Chapel in Austin.

As part of his work with Oakwood, Farrar has helped research and create a list of more than 2,700 burials in a three acre section of the cemetery – an attempt to rectify bad record keeping in the past.

“Records are kind of scattered on how accurate they are, especially when it came to people of low socioeconomic class and then also people of color,” Farrar tells me. 

One area where this is especially true is in the part of the cemetery that used to be segregated  – also where R.S. Lovinggood is buried.

Farrar agrees to take me to his grave. Locking up the chapel, he gestures toward the Historic Colored Grounds.

“You know, a good chunk of early Black Austin is right here,” he tells me. 

On the walk over, Farrar gives me a sense of the mission of Oakwood Cemetery, which now operates as part of the City’s Parks and Recreation Department and focuses mostly on historic preservation. 

“We’re telling the stories of the 23,000+ people who are buried throughout the grounds, but especially the people whose stories were never really told at all,” he says. 

In 2021, a National Endowment for the Humanities gave the City of Austin enough resources to create a digital model of hundreds of surviving headstones in the Historic Colored Grounds.

After a short stroll down a white gravel path, a granite monument with the Lovinggood name comes into view. Lovinggood shares a large gravesite with seven of his family members.

“R.S. is buried here next to his second wife, Mattie,” Farrar tells me, adding that she “worked as a librarian at Sam Huston College.”

Lovinggood’s headstone is brief, listing just his name, birth year and the year he died. It’s also almost impossible to see. This spring, thanks to Farrar, it’s been engulfed by bluebonnets.

“If you look at what we now call the Historic Colored Grounds,” Farrar tells me, “there’s not as many bluebonnets. If you go to the other parts of the cemetery, The Old Grounds, there’s a lot over here. Here, not as many.”

Farrar set out to solve this problem, starting with the Lovinggood gravesite. Even near the tail end of a flowering season that came early this year, bluebonnets envelope all eight headstones – the first time it’s ever happened.

“It’s my hope that they kind of keep spreading,” Farrar tells me, “and then everyone who’s buried here will also have some flowers.”

Over the past few years, Greg Farrar has become a leading authority on the life of R.S. Lovinggood. He’s read his books, speeches and has even been, to his knowledge, the first in his family to visit Lovinggood’s birthplace.

“I went back to South Carolina and got to see where his life started and was there for about three days to just explore the area,” Farrar tells me. “I’m still processing that trip.”

I ask him about how Lovinggood –  a man tasked with building an educational institution at a time where nearly half of all Black Americans were illiterate and even graveyards were segregated – could think that studying the Ancient Greco-Roman world was imperative for Black students. 

“He knew what they were all up against,” Farrar tells me. He then impersonates his great, great grandfather: “We need to be educated. We need to do as much as we possibly can to come up from where we were.”

In his book defending classical education, Lovinggood writes, “here in this home of the free, it is the Negro’s duty to strive to be the best educated, the most patriotic citizens America has.”

Lovinggood had high expectations for Black Americans. Even the inscription on the Lovinggood monument is in Latin: “In memoriam.”

Michael Minasi / KUT

The Lovinggood family graveplot is pictured in Oakwood Cemetery on April 26, 2023, in Austin.

When R.S. Lovinggood first arrived at Sam Huston College in 1900, he was welcomed with a list of problems to solve.

What’s now “the centerpoint of the Black and Brown intelligentsia,” started as a single building with livestock in the basement. They didn’t even have furniture.

“The students sat on trunks while I gave them a lecture and went out to beg chairs, dishes, beds,” Lovinggood later recalled, “both White and Black; all responded liberally.”

This story about Lovinggood, a community advocate above anything else, came to mind at the end of my conversation with Greg Farrar.

Standing outside of the Oakwood Chapel, the sun slipping below the horizon, Farrar told me about a project he’s working on – a restoration of an abandoned East Austin pool. He’s helping turn it into a garden.

“You can re-imagine the space,” he explains to me, “even if it’s something that was previously abandoned. You can bring new life into something, give it a new purpose.”

The day we met, Farrar spent several hours installing string lights on the property. He needs to get them up soon. There’s a big event right around the corner.

“I’m working so that by Juneteenth, when [the City of Austin has its festivities], it’ll just really wow people,” he tells me.

It’s then when it hits me: “You know this is the most Lovinggood thing you could do, ri-”

“Right?” he interrupts. 

It’s clear the comparison has dawned on him before when he tells me, “just as R.S. worked on and built things, it’s kind of neat to build something in Austin and to honor that legacy.”

Black Classicists in Texas is available through the end of the year.

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