GGRWHC Follow-Up on Merze Tate Presentation

On a sunny but cold first day of spring, about 30 people gathered for good food and to hear about a remarkable woman, Merze Tate, whose story may have been loss forever in West Michigan if not for another woman with avid curiosity and a love for history—Sonya Bernard Hollins. As a free lance journalist and graduate of Western Michigan University (WMU), Ms. Hollins came across Ms. Tate’s name for a story she was working on. When she went to the WMU library, Ms. Hollins discovered two boxes full of memorabilia from Ms. Tate’s life.

With those two boxes and other research, Ms. Hollins has rediscovered an extraordinary woman who lived from 1905 – 1996. And, despite cultural discrimination as both an African American and a woman, Ms. Tate accomplished many firsts. Beginning with her family, she came from the first black family to live in Mecosta County. When she graduated from high school and applied to the University of Michigan, Ms. Tate was turned down because of the color of her skin. However, she was invited to attend Western Teachers College (later renamed Western Michigan University) by the president, Dr. Dwight B. Waldo, and in 1927 accomplished another first by becoming the first African American to graduate from that institution. In 1970, Ms. Tate yet again accomplished another first by becoming the first African American to receive the Distinguished Alumni Award from Western Michigan University.

The list of firsts continued throughout her life. After graduating in 1935 from Oxford University, in England, Ms. Tate became the first woman to be hired in the Howard University history department.  When she died in 1996, she left millions of dollars divided among WMU, Howard University, and Harvard University. According to Ms. Hollins, Ms. Tate earned the money mostly through her many book publications, which were used extensively at Ivy League schools, and her shrewd investments in the stock market.

So far, according to Ms. Hollins, her research into Ms. Tate’s life has left her with more questions than answers. Yet, she has come to admire her and her many accomplishments. In October 2014, when Ms. Hollins’ book is published, readers will have the opportunity to discover the fascinating Ms. Tate for themselves.

Ms. Hollins’ presentation was co-sponsored by the Grand Rapids Study Club (founded in 1901; Michigan’s longest continuously running African American women’s organization), and the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council.