First Black Undergraduate Dies
Published: Thursday, March 15, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 23:03
Samuel Halsey Jr. (SFS ’53), who died last month at the age of 87, left behind three siblings, four children and more than a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
But he also left an enduring legacy at Georgetown as the first black undergraduate to be admitted to the school.
Valedictorian of his high school class, Halsey had briefly studied at North Carolina A&T State University before serving in the army during World War II. After returning to the United States, he studied accounting at Howard University before applying to Georgetown as a transfer student.
In 1947, University President Fr. Lawrence Gorman, S.J., asked administrators to include at least one black student in the next freshman class. That did not happen, but as the culture of the university began to shift over the next three years, black students were admitted to graduate programs, the medical school and the law school.
Finally, in 1950, the university accepted Halsey to the School of Foreign Service, making him the first black undergraduate in Georgetown history.
“In 1949, when I was checking with the area universities, the University of Maryland and [The] George Washington University would not accept my application because I was ‘Negro,’” Halsey wrote in correspondence to Georgetown when the university established the Samuel A. Halsey Jr. Citizenship Award in 2002.
Until the middle of the 20th century, Georgetown lagged behind many of its peer institutions with regard to racial issues. Middlebury College, the first college to admit black undergraduates, did so in 1823. Harvard University’s first black student graduated in 1870, Yale’s in 1874 and the University of Pennsylvania’s in 1883.
According to Georgetown historian and former professor Fr. Emmett Curran, S.J., Georgetown wavered about whether or not to admit its first black student.
“It was … prejudice that they didn’t think it was in their tradition to admit African-American students,” Curran said. “This was traditionally a very Southern school, and I think that tradition lingered the longest in the College.”
Georgetown College did not admit a black student until the 1960s.
Curran described the university as isolated and cut off from the wider Georgetown neighborhood, which was predominately black until the 1940s. He added that the few black graduate students on campus at that time often went unnoticed.
“That was a time when the [School of Foreign Service] had two divisions — a day division and an evening division — and all the black students were enrolled in the evening division. They really weren’t all that visible,” Curran said. “I daresay [that] your typical Georgetown University undergraduate did not know African Americans were attending [the school at that time].”
It was in this environment that Halsey began his first days on the Hilltop.
Despite the isolation and discrimination he faced, Halsey excelled. By the time he graduated, many of his professors were lobbying for him to attend Georgetown Law, though he ultimately decided not to.
Finding a job after graduation proved another battle for Halsey, as many employers refused to hire a black man — even one with a college degree. But Halsey wrote that Georgetown provided support during his job search.
“During the period [between] September 1953 [and] December 1956, I mailed approximately 300 applications for employment but received not a single offer of employment,” Halsey wrote. “In my efforts to find employment, the support of officials at Georgetown University was truly outstanding. I will never forget it.”
Halsey eventually went on to receive an MBA in accounting from Michigan State University in 1963. He then served in the Air Force’s Audit Agency from 1957 to 1976 and co-founded his own management firm in 1991 along with his son, Paul.
The university established the citizenship award, which honors outstanding black alumni, in Halsey’s name to ensure that his legacy would remain alive at Georgetown.
That same year, University President John J. DeGioia presented Halsey with the President’s Medal, an award that has also been gifted to Afghani President Hamid Karzai and Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Despite the recognition Halsey received, his son said that he did not speak frequently about his accomplishments.
“He was pretty humble about attending [Georgetown],” Paul Halsey wrote of his father in an email.
Halsey was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on March 7 and Georgetown’s director of affirmative action, Michael Smith, spoke at his funeral service.
“When [Smith] stood up during the funeral service and talked about what Georgetown stood for — its Jesuit principles and focus on the character of students and potential students’ character — it was quite the compliment, because he said in the decision makers’ application of Georgetown’s high ideals, my dad qualified and embodied those ideals,” Paul Halsey wrote.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Smith spoke at Halsey's burial. Smith actually spoke at the funeral service. The corrected version was posted at 11:08 p.m. on March 28.