Until the turn of the twentieth century, students at Massachusetts Agricultural College were nearly all male and nearly all came from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Racial and ethnic diversity was not particularly high in the small student body, but neither were there formal policies barring the admission of women or people of color. What diversity there was came in the form of a steady stream of international students, drawn largely from Japan, Brazil, and Turkey rather than from the English-speaking world, and after 1897, by an equally small number of African American matriculants, many from the southern United States.
As far as can be determined, all American students who entered MAC during its first twenty five years were white, and there is little to connect the student body with what might be called the African American experience. Two notable exceptions are the brothers William H. Bishop ('82) and Edgar A. Bishop ('83), white Rhode Islanders who taught at historically-black colleges, Tougalou and at Talladega and Hampton, respectively, however there seems to have precious little contact otherwise with African American students.
During the administration of President Henry Hill Goodell, however, the student body began slowly to change from its all-white, all-male origins. Most writers credit Goodell's successor, Kenyon L. Butterfield, with firmly establishing coeducation at MAC, yet much of Butterfield's innovation and success came on a foundation laid by Goodell. During his twenty year administration, Goodell initiated some important changes in the curriculum, introducing electives, graduate study, and an array of short courses, winter programs, and special classes to suit a student body that was recognized as having varied preparation and diverse needs. Although the total numbers of women and African Americans remained small, the evidence from the latter years of Goodell's tenure suggests that the college administration made at least an informal decision to accept African Americans, if not to recruit them, more or less coincident in time with their decision to attract women to campus.
The first African American student to attend MAC was probably George Ruffum Bridgeforth, who arrived in 1897 as a member of the Class of 1901, and for the next decade, African American students – usually only one – appeared in classes that numbered between 25-75. As far as can be determined, African American students lived in the dorms and boarding houses side by side with their white classmates, one some occasions sharing quarters. As a group, these pioneering students participated fully in the life of the college – with the noteworthy exception of fraternities – and they made their mark in both athletics and academics.
At least two of the African American pioneers were members of the popular College Shakespearean Club, one was director of the student Reading Room, and several joined the varsity or class football teams. William H. Craighead's time as captain of the football team in 1905, makes him perhaps the first African American captain of any sports team at a predominantly white university; his captaincy came shortly after Matthew Bullock became the first African American head coach at a predominantly white university.
Perhaps more notably, these pioneering graduates were academically accomplished and left an important legacy in education. While at MAC, Bridgeforth, William H. Craihead ('06), and Benjamin Franklin Hubert ('12) were all recipients of the Flint Oratorical prize and William W. Peebles ('03) received the First Burnham Prize, but it is their record after leaving MAC that is particularly telling: six of the nine taught at an Historically Black College or University – two becoming presidents – and of the other three, one became a dental surgeon and another was a County Extension agent teaching African American farmers in Virginia.
While African Americans continued to enter MAC after Goodell was succeeded in the Presidency by Butterfield in 1906, the already small numbers decreased. There appears to have been no formal decision either way with regard to continuing to accept African American students, and since MAC did not identify its students by race, it is difficult to determine how far those numbers declined. The African American presence of campus remained small until the beginning of active recruitment in the latest 1960s.
Existing records make it difficult to ensure that all African American students at the College have been identified, but the following list includes nine men who are known to have attended MAC before the First World War. The list is surely incomplete and we are as yet unable to identify the first African American woman to graduate from the College, but this small group left an impressive legacy.