WMU’s Merze Tate broke color barriers around the world

Black History Month

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — The Western Michigan University community is honoring the legacy of Merze Tate, who was the first Black woman to graduate from the institution when it was known as Western State Teachers College. 

Tate graduated in 1927 and went on to break many barriers in the United States and around the world. 

Sonya Hollins began researching the WMU graduate for a book and was inspired to form an organization in her memory. 

“She traveled the world twice, spoke five languages, was a Fulbright Scholar in India. I saw her diplomas from Oxford University where she was the first African-American graduate and I’m thinking, ‘Why don’t I know about this Michigan woman?’” Hollins said. 

Tate went to high school in the small town of Blanchard, Mich. After the school burned to the ground, she was named valedictorian in the 10th grade. 

Merze Tate

“While other students were excited that school was over, she was like, ‘No, no I want to go on to college, I need two more years of high school,’ so she moved to Battle Creek and worked as a maid,” Hollins said. 

As a Black woman in the 1920s, Tate experienced discrimination firsthand as she worked to continue her education beyond high school. 

“She was accepted to the University of Michigan but when they found out she was African-American, they denied her admission,” Hollins said. “Dr. Waldo, who was the president of Western Michigan University, found out about Merze because he knew her employer in Battle Creek and that’s when he got her a scholarship.’”

Tate graduated from Western in three years with a four-year degree and became a history teacher at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, where she started a travel club for students.   

“At that time, when she graduated 1927, they didn’t allow African-American teachers to teach high school in Michigan,” Hollins said. 

After teaching high school, Tate moved to England and became the first African-American to graduate from Oxford University in 1935. Tate had plans to live in Europe and spent time traveling around the continent.

“She ends up going to a rally and there was a man speaking there and it was in a German, and when she finished leaving that rally she said, ‘I’m leaving Europe because this guy is gonna really start some trouble here,’ and that was Adolf Hitler,” Hollins said. 

Tate had a long list of degrees, including a master’s from Columbia University. She was the first Black woman to receive a doctorate in political science from Harvard, taught at historically Black colleges, published many books and became a millionaire by using her skills investing in the stock market. 

>>More stories: Honoring Black History

Tate endowed some of her estate to Western Michigan University, providing funding for the Merze Tate Grant and Innovation Center.  

In 2008, Hollins was inspired by the travel club Tate established at Crispus Attucks High School and formed one in Kalamazoo. 

“The Merze Tate Explorers program provides an opportunity for girls to see the world, girls who particularly may not have had the financial means to do so,” Hollins said.  

Maya Daniels, a senior at Portage Northern High School, joined the program in 2013. 

“I’ve been to Washington D.C., Japan, I went to U of M. We stayed on the campus. We’ve been to Olivet College,” Daniels said. 

Kalea Barnes, who attends Kalamazoo Central High School, is also a high school senior in the program. She says Tate is an inspiration for her and all the members of the Merze Tate Explorers.  

“She changed people’s lives in the past and it’s changed my life, and I believe that she deserves more recognition for this,” Barnes said.   

For more information on the program, go to merzetate.org.  

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