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Springfield College's first four year diploma A story of William Beckett, an educational influencer

By: Angelica J. Core

William H. J. Beckett, an African-American or Negro according to the archives, graduated in the class of 1906. Beckett was the first man to get a four-year degree at Springfield College. He majored in Physical Education but originally came to Springfield College from Baltimore with the idea of majoring in social work. However, Dr. James H. McCurdy, who was in charge of the physical recreation for the Army Young Men, convinced Beckett to pursue physical education instead.

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The Plessy v. Ferguson case, otherwise known as the Separate but Equal bill, was passed in 1896. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially separate facilities, if equal, did not violate the Constitution. Officials claimed that segregation was not discrimination. This bill was passed six years before Beckett traveled 338.9 miles to Springfield College, and ten years by the time he graduated.

When did Springfield College integrate? That is unfortunately not in the archives. It looks like it happened organically. The College never made an official announcement about it. Beckett was one of two African-Americans in the class of 1906, the other being Walter Arthur Giles. In fact, there were African-American students at Springfield prior to this time, although the College was not a four-year institution back then. One interesting story is that of Robert Hamlin.

Although Beckett was the first African-American to receive a diploma, he was not the first African-American to graduate from Springfield College. Hamlin graduated in 1904 before the college gave four-year degrees. Hamlin was originally from Springfield and began working in YMCA facilities around 1890. He worked at the Providence, R.I. YMCA facility, first as a librarian from 1893 to 1895 and then as an Assistant Secretary from 1896 to 1905. After graduating from Springfield College he served as the Secretary of the Colored Men’s Departments in the Brooklyn, N.Y. facility from 1906 to 1910. While he was attending Springfield College he was on the football team, and the fellow players seemed to fully support him. After their game against Yale University, the team went to New Haven, Conn., for dinner but when the hotel declined to serve Hamlin the team paraded out. In the Springfield College Family Album, 1984, they stated that earlier black graduates faced difficulties but the campus prepared them to deal with those problems.

The fact Springfield College did not announce that it accepted people of color says a lot. Some could argue that the North was not as racist as the South, so those colleges and universities were able to stay away from the confrontation. Beckett, being from a borderline southern state, was used to being separated, so to come to a campus that did not separate him from others was a change.

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According to the Springfield College Commencement Program of 1906, “this was the first time that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts conferred the right for Springfield College to give degrees of Bachelor and Masters of Humanics and Physical Education.” The College decided that those who were majoring in physical education would get their degrees first, in alphabetical order by last name. Beckett being the first ever to get a degree was pure luck, not something the College felt like it needed to do to prove its ‘color-blindness.’

Beckett’s life at Springfield College was very quiet. His life picked up after graduation. From 1907-1910, he was the physical director for Colored High and Training School in Baltimore, Md. Also in 1907, he introduced basketball to the high schools in Baltimore. Four years later, he became the physical director of the colored YMCA in Washington, D.C. Beckett was the founder of the oldest Negro intercollegiate conferences (CIAA).

Although McCurdy convinced Beckett to change his major, he did not lose that social work passion. He used physical education as a platform, but he cared about ‘the student’ before ‘the athlete.’ He was an influential coach to many young men, but he wasn’t “Coach.” To them, he was “Pops.” He believed it was important to build men first, and coach second. He trained boys on how to take care of themselves before anything else. Beckett coached many well-known names, like Howard Drew, a Springfield native who went on to compete in the Olympics for track and field.

During World War I, Beckett was a lieutenant and a director of physical education for the officer’s training camp for colored men at Des Moines, Iowa. The Executive Order 9981 was issued on July 26, 1948, by former President Harry Truman, which abolished discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces. World War I took place from 1914 to 1918. This shows that Beckett was a man of change, integrity, and service.

Additionally, he has authorship to several books, one being “Physical training- A factor in Negro Life.” Reading through what Beckett did shows that he primarily wanted to help African Americans.

Beckett caring for the young men did not go unnoticed. In 1945, he became the first Negro scout leader to get a Silver Beaver award, which is only given to a few men each year for outstanding and distinguished service to boyhood, both in and without the scout movement. Two years later on June 14, 1947, he was the first African American to receive the Tarbell Medallion Award at Springfield College. The award is presented to alumni who were well known in their professions, but also maintained active interest and support of the College. The Tarbell Medallion was established because of the late Edward Tarbell of Springfield, Mass. who also graduated from Springfield College in 1889.

What was Springfield College like when Beckett was here? A few buildings scattered around and classes that had 40 people at the most. The College had recently been saved from debt and the possibility of closing. Donations to keep the school open came from all over, including Native Americans associated with the International Committee who donated $600. Shortly after that, six Native American men came to Springfield College, but their experience sounded somewhat segregated. They had their own religious courses, fields, and sports equipment -- a totally different experience than Beckett’s. There were no documented complaints of unfair treatment or formal complaints because he was the first to receive a degree, or that he simply attended. Beckett and his wife donated as much money as they could to the College. After Beckett died, his wife continued to donate what she could.

Beckett died at 71 years old after his health had been failing him for several years following his retirement as the athletic director of Sumner High School for 35 years.

Five years ago, there was a scholarship created in his name: the William Beckett Teacher Preparation Scholarship. The scholarship is full tuition and fees renewable to an academically qualified Springfield Public School student, who after graduating, will return to the same district to teach. There’s a preference that it’s given to underrepresented or diverse groups -- the groups that Beckett spent his whole life looking out for.

Created By
Angelica J. Core
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