HARPSWELL — Kamala Harris graduated from a historically Black university founded by and named for a white man from Maine.

She wrote of “the beauty of Howard. Every signal told students we could be anything – that we were young, gifted, and Black, and we shouldn’t let anything get in the way of our success.”

Oliver Otis Howard of Leeds graduated from Bowdoin and West Point. In the early days of the Civil War, he lost his right arm but refused an offer from the Maine Republican Party to come home and run for governor.

Instead, Howard served as Gen. T.C. Sherman’s principal deputy from the taking of Atlanta through to the end of the war. He received the Medal of Honor.

As the war concluded in Virginia, he was surprised to be summoned from the field to Washington, D.C. He was told that, before President Lincoln’s assassination, Lincoln had selected Howard to head the Freedmen’s Bureau, in charge of bringing recently liberated slaves their civil rights.

Undoubtedly, his moral character contributed to this assignment. In the midst of the horrors of war, he had become known as “the Christian general.”

As he assumed his duties, he had the backing of the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress and wanted the South to yield its opposition to equality for the freed slaves. One of their leaders was Sen. William Pitt Fessenden from Portland.

But Howard faced the opposition of his boss, President Andrew Johnson. Ultimately, Johnson and his Southern allies undermined Howard’s efforts. Jim Crow racism gradually emerged as the successor to mythical slave owner Simon Legree, the villain of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Without the strong support of the federal government, Howard’s efforts could not succeed. Both the White House and Congress began to turn their attention elsewhere.

Howard saw an opportunity to leave behind something positive from his efforts at the Freedmen’s Bureau. Even if Southern states would try to deny access to schools to African Americans, they paid less attention to higher education for which they had no financial responsibility.

He saw education for the former slaves as the best way to ensure they could be informed voters, clearly not what the South wanted. He set out to help in the development of educational institutions outside the reach of increasingly racist state governments.

Though he respected Booker T. Washington, a freed slave, founder of the Tuskegee Institute and a leader of the African American community, Howard had a different view of education. Washington believed Blacks should receive technical training. Howard believed in the kind of liberal arts education he had received at Bowdoin.

Through his federal office, he was able to have some funds directed to the founding of a university in Washington. He also was a good fundraiser. With private funding from religious organizations, a group, including Howard, would create a university. The other trustees insisted on its being named for him.

He would later serve as the university president and had his home, still standing, on its campus. He and the board saw to it not only that it offered a liberal arts program but also that it became a comprehensive university with law, medical and other graduate schools.

Kamala Harris had attended majority-white schools. The Washington Post reported about her decision to attend Howard University: “Harris wanted to be surrounded by Black students, Black culture and Black traditions at the crown jewel of historically Black colleges and universities.”

Gen. Oliver Otis Howard might have been pleased. Sherman, both his friend and critic, once wrote him, “I believe the Army and the Country construe you to be extreme on this (race) question.”

In this new day of racial consciousness, much attention has been directed to the words and actions of historical leaders. Sherman’s comment, almost certainly meant critically, would be high praise today.

Unlike many Civil War generals on both sides, Howard has no impressive bronze statue. His living memorial is the university that produced Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison and Sen. Kamala Harris.


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