Some 1700 students of African descent have graduated from Harvard Business School. Like their classmates –and students today—they chose to pursue graduate management education for more than a toolbox of professional skills. They came to HBS seeking a broader vision and greater opportunities, with a desire to make their mark in a wide range of fields and in their communities.
Yet for decades after its founding in 1908, only a handful of intrepid black students negotiated the path to HBS; until, amidst the growing struggle for societal change, five students in the Class of 1969 founded the African American Student Union (AASU). Their commitment became a driving force behind the dramatically increased enrollment of African American students in the following decades—students who were of Harvard Business School, not simply in it, and helped to shape its future.
The Early Graduates
“There weren’t any MBAs that I knew about, but I had this very strong conviction that if I could get a professional education in the field of business, that is what I wanted. There wasn’t any question in my mind about what I wanted.” H. Naylor Fitzhugh (MBA ’33)
The first known African American graduate of Harvard Business School was a member of the Class of 1915. Wendell Thomas Cunningham, the son of a former slave.
Norris B. Herndon and Benjamin Tanner Johnson received MBAs in 1921.
Herndon’s father, Alonzo F. Herndon, had been born into slavery on a Georgia plantation in 1858. After the Civil War, he moved to Atlanta and became a pioneering entrepreneur and real estate investor. In 1905, he founded the firm which grew into The Atlanta Life Insurance Company (today’s Atlanta Life Financial Group), one of the most significant black-owned businesses in the country, and established himself as one of the foremost businessmen and civic leaders of his era. He said,
“If I thought that anything with which I was connected would always be small, I would not want to be in it.”
A graduate of Atlanta University, Norris Herndon came to Harvard to prepare to follow in his father’s footsteps, and through the years he oversaw the expansion of Atlantic Life. He also furthered the family’s longstanding commitment to philanthropy and community involvement, and by the 1960’s he was contributing to the NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The Herndon family home in Atlanta is now a National Historic Landmark.
Herndon’s classmate Benjamin Tanner Johnson was also a member of an extraordinary family. He was the son of Halle Tanner Johnson, the first African American and the first female licensed to practice medicine in Alabama, and Reverend John Quincy Johnson. He was also the nephew of renowned painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first African American artist to have a work included in the White House collection.
Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr., graduated from Harvard College in 1921 and the following year, as a student in the Business School, led a protest against Harvard’s recently enacted policy to exclude blacks from freshman dormitories. He subsequently did graduate work in journalism at Northwestern University and in 1931 was the first African American elected alderman in Evanston, Illinois. He also became the state’s first black assistant school superintendent and was a lifelong activist fighting for the desegregation of schools and public facilities and equal pay for teachers.
The Business School held the first classes on its new Soldiers Field campus in 1927.
Monroe Dowling, a fellow alumnus of Lincoln University and lifelong friend of Thurgood Marshall, graduated from HBS in 1931. His subsequent professional career in the public sector included service as an accountant for the State of New York and, briefly, as Collector of the Third Internal Revenue District.
H. Naylor Fitzhugh
The HBS Class of 1933 had one black student: H. Naylor Fitzhugh. A Washington, DC native, Fitzhugh’s excellent high school academic record won him a scholarship at age 16 to Harvard College. After graduating with honors in 1931, he crossed the Charles River to enroll in Harvard Business School where he concentrated his studies on accounting and marketing. Diploma in hand, he returned to Washington to continue his career as an independent salesman. He was soon involved in creating the New Negro Alliance of Washington, which led protests and ultimately pursued landmark legal action against major companies that did business in black neighborhoods but refused to hire black employees. He served as the organization’s business manager.
In 1934 Fitzhugh was invited to join the business curriculum faculty at Howard University. Few blacks were pursuing degrees in business, which Fitzhugh sought to change over a 30-year teaching career. He taught accounting and later developed the marketing program at Howard after completing doctoral study in the field at Columbia’s business school. He organized Howard’s Small Business Development Center, and as the business program continued to grow he chaired its advisory committee.
As times changed and the doors of opportunity began to open, many of Fitzhugh’s former students rose to senior executive positions in corporate America or became successful entrepreneurs. Among his numerous mentees was Lillian Lincoln who, with Fitzhugh’s urging, became the first African American woman to graduate from HBS as well as one of the founders of the African American Student Union in 1968.
Through the years, Fitzhugh received, and declined, plentiful offers of corporate jobs. But in 1965 the top executives of the Pepsi-Cola Company enticed him to accept the high profile position of vice president of Special Markets and leverage his expertise in targeted consumer marketing. He consulted on advertising and furthered Pepsi’s support for educational and public affairs programs including sponsorship of the groundbreaking PBS series, Tony Brown’s Journal. He helped guide Pepsi’s philanthropic activities and outreach into the community. In 1968 he created the award-winning Learn and Earn program which introduced young people to business through hands-on experience. He also carefully monitored the progress of minorities he helped to recruit for the company.
Upon his retirement in 1974, Black Enterprise hailed Naylor Fitzhugh as “the dean of black businessmen.” Many accolades and honors followed, including the Heritage Award from the Executive Leadership Council and the Distinguished Service Award from Harvard Business School. A regular attendee of the annual AASU conference, Fitzhugh helped found the HBS Black Alumni Association and served as its first chairman in 1978. He remained active as a consultant and community leader until his death in 1992.
In 1996 a committee led by Nancy Lane (PMD 29), Dennis F. Hightower (MBA ’74) and Professor James I. Cash, established an endowed professorship in Fitzhugh’s name. In 2000, Professor David A. Thomas, a recognized authority on mentoring, executive development, and the challenges of creating and managing a diverse workforce, was named the first incumbent of the H. Naylor Fitzhugh chair. In 2002, the African American Student Union renamed its annual conference in his honor, a fitting tribute to a man revered for his career in business and business education who thought of himself, first and foremost, as a mentor. And his portrait, commissioned by AASU in 1993 and presented as a gift to the school, hangs today in a busy corridor of Aldrich Hall to commemorate his groundbreaking role as a champion of diversity.