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Cushing’s African-American History

In honor of African-American History Month and Cushing’s dedication to diversity, we did a little digging in the Cushing archives to learn more about our own history. We thought to tell the story, as far as we knew it, about our first African-American student. But as is often the case, the archives provided a wealth of information and we couldn’t limit ourselves to just one story.

Cushing’s first African-American student was Oscar Henry Williams, a member of the Class of 1915. His nickname was, according to the senior edition of The Breeze, Oscarwallapus. From Boston, he came to Cushing in the fall of 1911, and so was a four year student as well as Cushing Academy’s first African-American graduate. He was the orchestra’s first fiddle all four years and a “mainstay on the line” for the football team. He served as president and vice president of the Polymnian Society, which focused on parliamentary rules, debate, music, oratory, and composition. In 1912, he won the $10 Brayton Prize for “faithful work and exemplary conduct.” In 1913, he won the Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bond Prize, also $10, for his junior essay entitled “Modern Apple Growing in New England.”

Harry Payne
was a member of the Class of 1922. He was born in Richmond, Va., but “had to come north to play football” according to his senior page in The Breeze. He must have been pretty good as he was regularly sighted in the end zone in both 1922 and 1923 when he came back for a post-graduate year. He was selected as All-New England prep school quarterback while at Cushing. His athletic ability was not limited to football, however, and he was a member of the basketball and baseball teams, the latter of which he was captain in his final year. He attended Howard University, entering in 1924, and his athletic ability served him well; in 1936 he was named head football coach at the school.

Mae T. Wright
was a member of the Class of 1923. A native of Baltimore, Md., she came to Cushing for only one year. She was active in Germanae work and, according to The Breeze was “a student of no mean ability.” But her time at Cushing is just a small part of her story. During the summer of 1922, she met and became close to Jean Toomer, a poet and novelist as well as an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She also maintained friendships with a number of other authors and performers, including Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Paul Robeson. She intended to attend Smith after graduation, but was refused admission and ended up at Tufts University where she was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate. She also received a master’s degree from New York University and served as president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council as well as national president of Delta Sigma Theta. She spent 41 years teaching English and Latin in the Baltimore school system before she passed away in 1995.

William Bryan Geter
was valedictorian for the Class of 1925. Known as Billie to her friends, she was a native of Jacksonville, Fla. She was celebrated for her dancing, played the piano, was a member of The Breeze staff, and served as her class secretary.

If you have additional information to add about these alumni or if there are other alumni whose stories you would like us to tell, please contact our office at alumniprograms@cushing.org or 978-827-7400.

Cushing Academy

39 School Street
Ashburnham, Massachusetts 01430

Cushing Academy

Cushing Academy exists for students and develops curious, creative, and confident learners and leaders. Founded in 1865, Cushing is a co-ed, college preparatory boarding and day school for students in grades 9-12 and PG. Our students, who come from over 30 states and 30 countries, excel in our outstanding academic, art, and athletic offerings. We welcome you to visit our community and beautiful 162-acre campus in Ashburnham, Mass., just one hour from Boston, to experience all that Cushing has to offer.