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Four Blacks Named Rhodes Scholars for Next Year…

November 26, 2009 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( For the second year since 1994, four African-American undergraduates have won Rhodes Scholarships, which carry with them the privilege of studying at Oxford, England’s oldest and most venerated university.

Named for the South African mining magnate, Cecil John Rhodes, the scholarships, worth about $50,000 each for two years, have been prominent passports to gateways of power, privilege and prestige since they were created in 1903.

Two of the four blacks are men, and two are women. They are Andre McCall from Truman State University, Ugwechi Amadi, an MIT senior, and two Harvard College undergraduates, Darryl Finkton and Jean Junior.

Representing 12.5 percent of the total of 32 winners from colleges and universities in the United States, the four men and women will take their places at Oxford next fall with the 28 other scholarship winners from this country. All 32 scholarship winners were elected by 16 committees operating under the umbrella of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, based in Vienna, Virginia.

More than 7,000 winners worldwide have been selected since 1903, but no exact number for North Americans are unavailable because paper records for several years were not transferred to microfiche; at least 3,000, however, hailed from this country and Canada.

Along with blacks from this country, Africans from South Africa, Kenya, Zambia, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia and Swaziland were selected. Jamaicans and Caribbean were also chosen as well. Other scholarship winners of color will represent India, Germany, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

For most of the past 46 years, American blacks have won at least one Rhodes. Two African American seniors were chosen in 1963 – John Edgar Wideman, a University of Pennsylvania student, and J. Stanley Sanders, from Whittier College, near Los Angeles. In some of the years after Wideman and Sanders were selected, most recently in 1996, no blacks were chosen.

In 1907, Alain Locke, the intellectual wizard known as the father of the Harlem Renaissance, was the first African-American awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. That ignited a threatened boycott by the white, southern winners, who claimed they’d refuse their scholarships if Locke’s were not rescinded. Rhodes officials were not intimidated and said Locke’s selection would not be withdrawn. The southerners dropped their threat, but never spoke to Locke during his two years at Oxford.

No blacks were welcomed into the Rhodes circle of winners for more than a half century – 56 years – until Wideman and Sanders were elected in 1963.

Wideman is a distinguished professor at Brown University, a MacArthur Genius Award winner and a nationally acclaimed writer. Sanders, a respected Southern California attorney, is well known in political and business circles and was a mayoral candidate in 1993.

McCall, reached at his St. Louis, Missouri home by, is the the first Truman State University student to win a Rhodes Scholarship since its founding in 1867. Truman State’s president, Darryl Krueger, was apparently so thrilled by the marketing, publicity and advertising possibilities for the Kirkland, Missouri university that he expressed his gratitude to McCall. “Thank you. Thank you very much,” he told him.

For the the 21-year-old McCall, whose father, Alvin, is a cellist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and its only black musician, his election “was a tremendous relief.” Now relaxing on Thanksgiving break, McCall, who carries a 3.92 grade point average and tutors freshman logic, said he “felt a fair amount of pressure to win this scholarship for my school and my family.”

A religion and philosophy major, McCall, whose mother, Anna, is a violist, will study philosophy at Oxford. He has a double minor in English and Music and is captain of the swim team.

Amadi, also on Thanksgiving break and in a relaxation mode at her Camden, North Carolina, home, “was so excited by the news (of her victory) that I called my mother, who started crying while I was screaming into the telephone.”

The brain, cognitive science and literature major said she “couldn’t believe it was happening to me.”

After being re-interviewed by committee members on Saturday, Amadi prepared for the possibility that she might not win a scholarship. “I texted my family and said, ‘You know what, its been amazing, but this is as far as I’m going to go,'” she said.

Soon afterward, though, the 2008 Burchard Scholar, recognized for excellence in the humanities, got the good news.

My mouth dropped open,” said Amadi, whose father, Confidence, is a professor at Elizabeth City State University. Her mother, Felicia, is an accountant.

Nearly a thousand miles away, Wideman was preparing to board a train from Providence, Rhode Island to New York City, where he lives. A prolific writer whose credits include nearly 20 books and a stack of honors, Wideman said, “These scholarships mean many things and many opportunities for these four young people and their milestones of achievement.”

But,” said the Asa Messer Professor and Professor of Africana Studies and Literary Arts, “I’m not particularly impressed by the number of African-Americans chosen this year, or in any year, because the number of blacks selected since 1903 is still minuscule.”

Wideman noted that “the money which endows the Rhodes was stolen from African bodies working in mines for European colonies. Yet the story is not that simple, one of good guys and bad guys, and I commend the Rhodes committees who have elected this year’s group of outstanding young people.”

Although four African-Americans were chosen this year, Wideman said, “their presence today makes us mourn for all those who never were considered in the competition, even as we celebrate those who won.”

Sanders, who earned a degree from Yale Law School after his stint at Oxford, said, “a barrier was broken for African-Americans when Wideman and I were elected, and I’m proud of that.” For the 56 years before their election, he mused, “it was as though the Rhodes officials at Oxford were saying, ‘You made a mistake with Locke. One’s enough; don’t send us anymore!'” And so, said Sanders, “They didn’t!”

That history notwithstanding, Sanders said, “the Rhodes experience means that there’s a different life ahead, which changes you, forever.” Even if scholars wanted to, he said, “its not as though you could get rid of all the honorifics and trappings that come with a Rhodes.”

Written By F. Finley McRae

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