Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends
Herman Hemingway ’53, Brother of King, Shared Civil Rights Leader's Dream
Herman W. Hemingway ’53, the first black man to graduate Brandeis, has lived up to the promise of the civil rights movement’s anthem. He has overcome.
Overcome bigotry in the armed service. Discrimination in housing. Racism among employers. This and more, he has overcome.
Like his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brother, Martin Luther King Jr., Herman Hemingway had a dream, on a smaller scale, to further the cause of social justice, to fight racial prejudice, to advocate for the poor.
And unlike King, Hemingway — who returned to campus on Jan. 21, as keynote speaker for Martin Luther King Day observances — has lived to see much of his dream realized.
“We saw the inequities that existed around us,” Hemingway says, speaking of perspectives he and King shared when he was a freshman at Brandeis and King was a graduate student at Boston University. “You can’t stick around and see that without trying to do something about it. Otherwise, you’re responsible for it.”
Hemingway was born near Dudley Station and grew up in Roxbury at a time when Roxbury, Mattapan and Dorchester were still heavily Jewish neighborhoods.
It was a time of scant opportunity for black youth, and when his father died, leaving his mother with three children, “we were really struggling. Even at age 12, I was looking for part-time work, pushing carts at supermarkets, whatever.”
After a first run-in with a racist potential employer, “I joined the NAACP Youth Council. We decided to picket department stores that wouldn’t hire black clerks and barbershops that wouldn’t cut blacks’ hair,” he recalls. “My job was to go to the barber shops.”
This led to an early lesson -- that seeming discrimination wasn’t always the real thing. “Messed up my hair plenty,” Hemingway says with a laugh. “They just didn’t know how to cut black hair.”
With his mother’s support and the backing of “a fantastic Irish librarian” he entered Roxbury Memorial High – where the swimming pool sat unused to avoid having white and black students swimming together. He was active in student organizations and became senior class president.
“There were 10 black kids in our class of 120,” he recalls. “Sadly, I think I was the only one who went to college at that time. My whole family, except my mother, was against it. They said I’d end up working in a factory anyway. Frankly, people laughed at me.”
Harvard, Boston College and Brandeis – then just a year old – offered him full scholarships. He chose Brandeis because he thought it was “innovative and exciting,” and because many of the white friends who’d helped him get elected class president were interested in the place. “They were Jewish kids, and they were excited about going to Brandeis,” Hemingway says. “We had our own posse, without using that term. Three of the group went to Brandeis.”
Hemingway majored in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies because he was considering a career in the foreign service, and because he admired Ralph Bunche, who in 1950 became the first black man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, for his work negotiating the armistice that ended fighting between Arabs and Israelis in the late 1940s.
Hemingway studied Hebrew and Arabic, and dated Bunche’s daughter for a time while she was at Radcliffe. He also went out with a young woman named Coretta Scott – the future wife of Martin Luther King Jr.
In general, social life was difficult. At Brandeis, Hemingway recalls, dating opportunities were limited and he pledged Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity that drew members from campuses around greater Boston. One of his pledge brothers was a much older, very serious graduate student from Boston University -- Martin Luther King Jr.
“We (pledges) were kids, and he was already working on his Ph.D.,” Hemingway says. “He came in late to the first meeting, and said one of the rules was that there was going to be no profanity.”
“He didn’t insist on prayer, he had a quiet religiosity,” Hemingway recalls. “He was older than the rest of us, and he shared what he was learning about Gandhi and nonviolence. He had a plan that did not involve the civil rights movement; he was going to be the leader of the conference of black Baptist churches. He was thrust into that role in the movement, and abandoned the master plan that had been set up by his father.”
On graduating, Hemingway was drafted, and told he could go into the Army for two years or join the Air Force for four years and serve in the Middle East, where he could improve his language skills. The force had recently been integrated, and he was pushed toward officer candidate school – then told that there was a quota for blacks and it already had been filled.
Stationed at Loring Air Force Base in far northern Maine, he started a philosophy club, played bass drum and wrote on jazz for the local newspaper. He was scheduled for posting to Libya when he complained about restrictions on black servicemen dancing with white girls at the air base service club.
“That was it – they froze me,” he says. His voice cracks; a tear runs down a cheek. “They came to Boston and investigated everything about me to see if I was a communist because they said I’d tried to disrupt the air base.”
It was the height of red scare, when thousands of Americans were persecuted on the basis of unfounded suspicions that there were communist. The government eventually determined Hemingway was no communist, but official awareness of his past activism in the NAACP, the Progressive Party and Brandeis protests against the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg ended his military prospects. The government apologized, and allowed him early release. Mustered out, he enrolled in law school on the GI Bill.
There, he tangled again with authority, objecting to professors’ use of the “n” word and to case studies involving slavery that were being used in property law assignments. “After that, they discouraged me from staying in law school,” he says, becoming emotional again. “But there was one professor – they were trying to drive him out because of his age – who said ‘Hang in there, you’re going to be a good lawyer.’ Because of him, I stayed with it.”
A distinguished alumni award from that law school now rests on the mantle of the Hemingway home in Chestnut Hill, alongside an appreciation from the Boston City Council and other mementoes from a long and varied career as an attorney for the indigent, an administrator of public housing programs, and an architect of the Boston Housing Court and the Mayor’s Office of Human Rights.
Growing weary of government, Hemingway became a community research fellow at MIT, then went to Nigeria, where he taught law for three years and became the adviser to a student team that won third place in an international law competition, defeating Oxford and Harvard law school. Hemingway was headed for a new career in higher education, but needed a way in.
Help came from Brandeis’ founding president, Abram L. Sachar, who recommended him to a former assistant who had become president of Boston State College. He was appointed chair of Boston State’s public service department, and went on to become a tenured professor and chair of the criminal justice department at UMass-Boston. Also at UMass, he was a senior fellow at the Congressionally funded McMormack Institute, which led to State Department-sponsored assignments to teach about American democracy in eight African countries.
Now a professor emeritus at UMass Boston, he continues to practice law and is particularly engaged in representing defendants in district courts.
“All sorts of wonderful, incredible, strange things have happened,” Hemingway says. “I cannot get over how good God has been to me, how much gratitude I feel for the opportunity to be here at this time.”
Published On: January 21, 2013