In our March issue, Ann Arbor writer Linda Walker '66 MSW told the story of Henry Jamison (Jam) Handy's suspension from the University in 1903. While working as a campus correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, freshman Handy (who went on to pioneer in corporate public relations) had ridiculed Prof. Thomas Trueblood for allegedly dropping to bended knee to demonstrate for his male students the proper stance and delivery of a marriage proposal. Walker follows up that award-winning story (it took a bronze medal in the 1995 national competition of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education) with the following saga of another accomplished student of Professor Trueblood's.
At the turn of the century, the art of public speaking still played such an important role in society that the professor of elocution, Thomas C. Trueblood, even though lacking a graduate degree, was the highest paid member of the faculty.
In addition to his teaching of oratorical skills in classes that virtually all students were required to take, Trueblood created and supervised the debating and oratorical contests held within the University and against other universities. As a profitable sideline, he delivered speeches and taught elocution throughout the nation.
In those days the campus followed the success of intramural and extramural elocutionary teams as eagerly and proudly as it did the athletic squads. In a typical year-end roundup of U-M teams'successes, for example, the Michigan Daily wrote that the football team "was far and away ahead of anything in the west," and in the next breath noted that "our oratory and debating has been of the best." And Professor Trueblood, in relating to the Daily his orators' success in a match against the University of Chicago, used military imagery in telling of the "the skirmish lines [where] there was no point that was not taken and retaken in the fight."
Like many areas of American life, collegiate athletic teams were becoming resegregated in the early 1900s under the rising influence of racists who sought to reverse the gains in social equality that followed the Civil War. Oratory and debate, however, still provided African American students on many campuses their only opportunities for competition and, for the most accomplished speakers, national recognition. The Chicago Tribune, for example, reported on two prize-winning Black orators at major contests held at Yale University. In 1902, the newspaper cited George Williamson Crawford's taking third prize as evidence of African American merit, and in 1903 it reported that, presumably after hearing him speak on the subject, unidentified parties had asked contest-winner William Pickens of Chicago to "raise an army" and become emperor of Haiti.
The Michigan Daily reprinted a story from the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch that described the success of a 1902 graduate of the U-M law department, George W. Conrad, who obtained a job as a claims agent for the Pennsylvania Railway after graduation. The Daily editorialized that Conrad's hiring was a fitting answer to "some people [who] have expressed their doubt of the ability of the colored man to fill a reliable position well, and have been sarcastic about the future success young graduates among the colored race who have gone out from this University." The Daily added that Conrad had "obtained a position of responsibility and dignity rarely attained by his white college
friends at so young an age."
Against this background, we can better appreciate today the excitement on campus in the spring of 1903, when Professor Trueblood set about organizing the annual series of campus oratorical contests that would determine Michigan's representative and alternate in the major annual regional contest of the Northern Oratorical League to be held in Minneapolis that May 1.
Forty students were vying for the two positions, and among those who caught the attention of the Daily was Eugene Joseph Marshall of Detroit, a senior in the law department and one of 28 African-American students at Michigan in the academic year 1902 (only four of whom were women). The Daily published a mini-profile of Marshall:
"Eugene Marshall, the colored orator, who graduates from the law department in June, has already several openings for his life work. He has an offer from the Collegiate Prohibition Association to travel through the south delivering lectures. He has also offers of positions as a teacher in two Baptist colored colleges.
"While he has not yet closed with any offer, he expresses his intention of devoting himself to the work of elevating his race by education.
"Marshall has been working his own way through college. While doing it, his life has not been a bed of roses. He came here with $50. After paying $45 tuition fees in the University he was left with $5. With this small start he has made his way. He is employed at the Sigma Phi house. He is a hard student and to find time to study in addition to his work he sleeps few hours."
Marshall was in the final field of six when the U-M finals took place on March 13, at University Hall. The details from the Daily's coverage of the campus contest convey the significance of oratory as a form of mass education and entertainment from ancient times till the electronic age: Detroit Mayor W. H. Maybury presided at the campus finals; Prof. L. L. Renwick was at the organ; the three judges of thought and composition included the president of Ohio State University; and the three judges who would determine how well the students delivered their orations included a Toledo judge.
Taking as his subject the "heroic manner" in which Alexander Hamilton had fought
for the unity of the American colonies and the passage of the US Constitution, Marshall won the U-M finals.
"For the first time in the history of American universities, a colored man has won his highest honors in oratory in fair and free competition with all comers," proclaimed the Ann Arbor Argus. "The announcement of his victory will be read with pleasure by all who are working for the betterment of the colored race."
Marshall, now Michigan's champion orator, was subjected to a dizzying round of activities in the days before he departed for Minneapolis. On April 27, Prof. and Mrs. Trueblood entertained him and the other debate and oratory winners at their home on East University Avenue and presented Marshall with the Chicago Alumni Medal. At the team's send-off on April 29, Marshall delivered his oration to the general public packed into University Hall, and then left to board the train for Minnesota with, as the Daily stated, "the best wishes of all."
Against contestants from the Universities of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Chicago, Northwestern and Oberlin College, Marshall came in second (after Northwestern's orator). The Daily reported that the audience had received the speech of "Michigan's colored orator" with an ovation and that "not the slightest discrimination against him on account of his color was observed from the time the delegation left Ann Arbor. Special pains had been taken by Minnesota that he should be received and cared for just as members of other delegations."
Marshall graduated in June 1903, and the next year the Detroit Tribune covered his speech to the "colored inmates" at Jackson prison on the celebration of Emancipation Day. Following the tenets of Booker T. Washington, Marshall advised that "the true way to solve the Negro problem in the opinion of the speaker was to stop agitating it and it would solve itself."
Records of Marshall's subsequent career are scanty. In 1941, the alumni office of the Law School sent questionnaires to its graduates, and Marshall replied on his form that he had received a PhB degree from the University of Chicago in June 1908, and was practicing law at his residence on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.