The Scarborough Pleasantry
“Last week in Kansas City Mo,” reported the American Citizen in a May, 1891, editorial titled "The Scarborough Pleasantry," whose mocking tone identifies its author as C.H.J. Taylor, “a number of persons answering to the name of Western Authors and Artists, held a meeting near the Coates house. After wrangling for quite a while over the propriety of their club’s name they had a sensation. The name of the learned Dr. William Sanders Scarborough was introduced by a classmate, for membership. Several fainted when the information was given that W.S. Scarborough, L.L.D., member of the European Philological Society, author of introductory lessons in Greek, contributor to all the first class magazines in America, Professor of Languages in Wilberforce, was a Negro.
The windows had to be hoisted and the newspaper reporters called. After restoratives had revived, the afflicted oratory began. It was rich.”
Scarborough was put up for membership – honorary membership, in effect, since he lived in Ohio – without his knowledge by a white former classmate at Oberlin College (which C.H.J. Taylor also claimed to have attended, although his name does not show up in College records).
The Writers and Artists Club was the recent creation of Arthur Grissom, a dime novelist who was on the staff of the Kansas City Daily News. Grissom and other club members envisioned it as a salon of Western literature.
W.S. Scarborough was probably the most distinguished African-American intellectual of the day. Born into slavery in Georgia, he completed a degree at Oberlin and became an outstanding classical scholar at Wilberforce University, author of a widely used text in Classical Greek. He was one of the first African American members of the Modern Language Association and a major influence on the career of the young W.E.B. DuBois.
The classmate, W.H. Tibbals, then a professor at Park College in Parkville, Missouri, later told Scarborough ([Scarborough, William Sanders. The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship. Wayne State University Press, 2005 p 111] that he had put him up for membership “to test the club,” perhaps taking a deliberate poke at the pretentions of Grissom’s organization.
As Scarborough himself recalled the event in his autobiography, “A heated debate followed but I was rejected, a few voting for me, some against, and some non-committal.” A report in the Omaha Bee, under the title “Artists draw the color line,” noted that after a “heated discussion,” the vote was 8 to 7 to reject the nomination, “most of the members present declining to be put on record.”
Scarborough chose not to comment on the latter point, but he did include in his account a summary of the controversy over the matter in Kansas City papers. The Star presented Professor Tibbals’ argument for presenting his name:
Professor Scarborough was a regular contributor to the Harper periodicals, the Forum, The North American Review, Frank Leslie’s Periodicals, and the Century magazine; that Professor Scarborough was a classmate of his at college, had graduated with the highest honors and today [was] the most brilliant alumnus of the class. He was furthermore a member of the American Philological Society, which contains such men as Professors Whitney and Marsh, Doctor Patton, President of Princeton College, and others, and that these men were not ashamed to sit side by side and grasp the hand of a colored man, who was in point of education and brilliancy every bit their equal. Professor Scarborough was the only man of that class who had ever received the degree of LL.D. But with all these facts the gentleman was rejected.”
The editorial page of the Star added its own criticism, saying that the club’s action showed “a narrow spirit not commonly entertained by men and women of letters.[…] Professor Scarborough is a man of distinction in the world of letters…. To exclude him on account of his color was to set up a false distinction, which, happily, is becoming obsolete in this country, but which is strangely at variance with the progressive spirit of the great West.”[Scarborough, William Sanders. The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship. Wayne State University Press, 2005, p 110]
In his Autobiography, Scarborough also cited an article in the Journal, which referred to the club’s secretary being rebuked at the next session for inserting in the minutes the statement that “the club showed by its action that it desired to be known not so much as an organization of brains, but to establish a white caste…” She was ordered to remove her opinion from the minutes.
Some papers, said Scarborough, called the incident “a scheme to use a prominent Negro to advertise an unknown organization,” but it was the Kansas City Times that, in his view, revealed “the true situation as fear of that bug-bear – social equality – when it said:
When a gathering of any kind is more definitely social and ladies participate the line is distinct. To argue about it as an abstract proposition is worth nothing while every human being knows that the condition exists and will change only very slowly. The literary club in question is largely social and two-thirds probably of its members are ladies. Without any notice whatever it was confronted with the dilemma of rejecting a man of admitted literary qualification or of doing without the presence of a considerable proportion of its members at meetings. [Scarborough, William Sanders. The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship. Wayne State University Press, 2005 p 111]
The controversy went on for some time, Professor Scarborough recalls, “and several leading Eastern and Western papers congratulated me for my ‘escape from such a crowd.’”
His rejection certainly did nothing to disrupt the progress of his highly successful career, including membership in many prestigious academic organizations, but it may have marked the beginning of the end for Grissom’s literary and artistic salon, which expired soon after the “Scarborough Pleasantry.” Grissom spent the rest of his career in obscure journalistic endeavors, mostly in New York, dying of typhoid fever in 1901. He is buried in Independence.
Professor Scarborough outlived him by 25 years, serving for twelve years as president of Wilberforce University and as a Harding appointee in the federal Department of Agriculture.
September 29, 2013