Traveling Exhibit Featuring Outstanding Michigan Native moves on

By Sonya Hollins, editor

Merze Tate at Oxford University, 1932.

KALAMAZOO (MICH)-In 1935 she became the first African American to graduate from Oxford University. She was an expert in disarmament and was invited to attend a United Nations conference regarding world issues where she met General Dwight Eisenhower. In 1950 she was a Fulbright Scholar in India and befriended India’s first Prime Minister and his daughter, Indira Ghandi. She held patents for two household appliances, spoke five languages and the college professor left millions to universities across the country upon her death.

The woman is Michigan native and 1927 Western Michigan University graduate Merze Tate. The accomplishments Tate achieved over her lifetime are more than many in the 21st Century can fathom. She was born in 1905, however, had she been born any later in life, she may have surpassed the accomplishments of such admired women as media mogul Oprah Winfrey and political dynamo and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham-Clinton.

A snippet of Tate’s life is part of a traveling exhibit. The photo exhibit will end Thursday, June 30 at the Gail Sydnor Gallery of the Black Arts and Cultural Center, located in the Epic Center, Suite 203. The exhibit will move on to other Michigan and national museums.

More than 50 photographs taken by Tate during her twice-journey around the world as an educator, photographer, and representative of the U.S. State Department are a part of this one-of-a-kind exhibit. The exhibit features some of the thousands of photographs Tate took during her lifetime.

The exhibit is curated by Community Voices editor, Sonya Hollins who has been researching Tate for more than six years. Hollins’ plans are to write a soon-to-be-released book on the woman who accomplished so much, however is known by so few.

Tate was born in Blanchard, Mich., to family who were among the first Negro Settlers of Mecosta County. The family’s history is too intriguing as the Tate and Letts of Ohio has an historic marker on their Ohio Settlement which was once an underground railroad station. The example Tate saw by her family of perseverance and determination led to her being fearless in the world and breaking down barriers in the areas of education, politics and her hobby, Bridge. She held a national Bridge championship title, however, because she was African American, she was not accepted into bridge clubs. She would found her own in Washington D.C. which is still around today.

The photographs Tate took around the world share of her adventures in places such as India, Africa, Asia and the Netherlands. Tate traveled to everyplace she dreamed about growing up as a child. The one place she did not get a chance to venture was into space. She felt she was well on her way in fact, when Pan Am offered registrations on their first flight to outerspace. It never happened, however Tate was quoted about the price she paid for the ticket as saying, “it was out of this world.”

Tate’s life at WMU was always a treasured one. The Merze Tate Center (home of the Gear Up Program) in Sangren Hall was funded by her efforts along with scholarships in her name. She left $1 million to the institution as well as millions to Radcliffe at Harvard University where she was the first African American to earn a PhD in Government, and Howard University where she was one of the first women hired in the school’s History Department. She would retire from Howard University, but not after making her mark as an educator at Morgan State, Wayne State and Barber-Scotia colleges.

Her accomplishments have been recognized in various ways including a place in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in Lansing. What Tate accomplished in her life during a time of segregation and racial turmoil was tremendous. She died in 1996 at the age of 91. During her last years she suffered from Alzheimer’s.

For more information regarding Merze Tate, future exhibits or the Merze Tate Travel Club for Girls, email Sonya Hollins at:

Sonya Bernard-Hollins

Administrative account for the Community Voices website.