Editor's Note: Mark Whitaker, the former managing editor of CNN, is the author of "My Long Trip Home: A Family Memoir" and "Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance." The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
(CNN) - When I heard the stunning news that Princeton University was removing the name Woodrow Wilson from its famed School of Public and International Affairs in belated acknowledgment of the racist views held by the former US President and one-time head of that Ivy League institution, the first thing I thought of was my father's experience as a Black man at Princeton. In this current era of racial reckoning, it's an instructive story about the gap between lip service and real institutional change, and the figures who can get tragically tarred when they are thrust prematurely into that chasm.
The story begins promisingly. In 1956, C.S. "Syl" Whitaker, Jr., after graduating with high honors from Swarthmore College, became the first Black graduate student ever accepted by the university's prestigious politics department. My father wrote his doctoral thesis on the transition from colonial rule to independence in Nigeria, and it was published as a book entitled "The Politics of Tradition." After receiving his PhD, he was recruited by UCLA, where he earned tenure and became an assistant graduate school dean by his early 30s.
Then in 1969, following the more publicized uprisings at Berkeley, Columbia and Harvard, Princeton's small contingent of Black students occupied New South Hall in protest over the university's investments in South Africa. In a calculated bid to deflect those costly disinvestment cries, the president Robert Goheen and then provost, William Bowen, instead agreed to another student demand: the creation of a Black Studies curriculum. Since my father was one of the few Princeton alumni who achieved his level of academic stature, they set out to lure him back with a seemingly attractive offer to chair a new "Afro-American Studies Program" and a tenured position at the Woodrow Wilson School.
My father accepted, but he soon discovered that the university was not really serious about creating the academically rigorous Black Studies department that he envisioned. A 1968 committee led by Princeton economist William Baumol had recommended an annual budget of $500,000 for a program that would eventually include eight tenured professors, a library, a research center and graduate instruction. But by the time my father arrived, the first-year budget had been slashed to $63,000.
My father had to make it a condition of his hiring that the university provide a small building on the fringes of the campus and enough funds to buy sparse Danish modern furniture. He was the only tenured faculty member in the program, and he had to patch together a course offering featuring administrative staffers with an interest in Black history, visiting junior professors from other colleges, and occasional guest lecturers, including a book editor and aspiring novelist named Toni Morrison.
At the same time, sadly, my father fell victim to another Princeton tradition: chronic drinking. As a graduate student, he had come under the influence of a charismatic, older White professor in the politics department who was also an alcoholic. Now back in his mentor's orbit, and tormented over the lack of support he was getting from cynical administrators and dubious White faculty, my father began to drink more heavily than ever.
That vice had long been tolerated among Princeton's White faculty. But it was soon concluded, by the administration but also by my proud father on his sober days, that it would not do for someone who was supposed to advertise the university's new commitment to Black scholarship. When his attempts to quit drinking at a local clinic failed, the university stripped my father of his chairmanship and eventually got him to give up tenure and resign by promising to foot the bill for expensive rehab treatment.
While my father struggled with his demons, acting chairmanship of Afro-American Studies was handed to Badi Foster, a Black graduate student who had helped lure him from UCLA. But Foster was only given the rank of lecturer and a mere $20,000 boost in the program's annual budget. Frustrated after two years as a placeholder, he announced plans to leave for a full-time position at Rutgers. The job was then given to a newly hired associate professor of Near Eastern Studies named John R. Willis. After one year, Willis, too, concluded that the cause was hopeless as long as Princeton refused to create a real department rather than a program of hodge-podge requirements from other disciplines that awarded students only a patronizing "certificate of proficiency."
In 1973, Princeton hired sociologist Howard F. Taylor from Syracuse to head the program, and Taylor at least brought stability by remaining in the post for 15 years. But it was only when Princeton named the philosopher and wildly popular lecturer Cornel West to head its renamed Program in African-American Studies in 1988, that it began to gain real cachet. West was succeeded by Valerie Smith (now president of Swarthmore), who secured a prominent home for the program in Stanhope Hall in the middle of the campus. Still, it was only five years ago, under the leadership of the eminent religious scholar and TV commentator Eddie Glaude, Jr., that African American Studies was made a full-fledged department in which undergraduates could concentrate. Meanwhile, in an overdue celebration of its older Black luminaries, Princeton named a Hall and an auditorium, respectively, after Nobel laureates Toni Morrison and economist Sir Arthur Lewis, and a Center for Equality after Carl A. Field, the university's longest serving Black administrator.
Along with the latest decision to rename the Woodrow Wilson School, these concrete changes reflect another broader lesson: about who sits at the highest tables of decision-making. As Princeton's Provost in the '80's, Neil Rudenstine helped the university lure Cornel West; then as president of Harvard in the '90's, Rudenstine hired and empowered Black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. to build the best Department of African-American Studies in the world. As a Princeton associate dean, Ruth Simmons supported Valerie Smith in her expansion efforts before becoming the first Black president of Smith College and Brown University. Princeton's current President, Christopher Eisgruber, was guided toward the Woodrow Wilson resolution by university Trustee Brent Henry, a prominent Black medical attorney who, fittingly, received his undergraduate degree from the Wilson school in that fateful sit-in year of 1969.
Yet as Princeton comes to terms with its imperfect legacy on race, it should not forget the first generation of Black scholars and administrators who were sent into battle with so little reinforcement. In my father's case, he proved himself when, after leaving Princeton and drying out, he became a dean at Rutgers and the University of Southern California. Foster went on to chair the Phelps-Stokes Fund for African development and has only recently been acknowledged by having a senior prize named after him. Willis stayed on at Princeton to become a full professor and do prescient work on the global reach of Islam.
These beleaguered early pioneers didn't fail Princeton: Princeton failed them. Perhaps it is time for the university to follow the grand decision about Woodrow Wilson with the modest amends of finding a place either to hang the portraits of these scholars or otherwise honor them as a group on campus.