Vernie Merze Tate was born to Charles & Myrtle K. (Lett) Tate February 6, 1905 in Blanchard, Michigan. Born on her family’s farm in rural Isabella County, as a child Merze walked nine miles to school, time which she spent memorizing poetry or historic battles. Both her maternal and paternal great grandparents were some of the first African American families that settled in the area, coming from Ohio in response to the Homestead Act of 1862. Consequently, Merze grew up with all white classmates and friends in a world that would not always treat Merze, because of her gender as well as her race, with the full respect she deserved.
Nonetheless, Merze excelled intellectually. She graduated first in her class from Battle Creek High School, and upon entering college at Western State Teacher’s College (now Western Michigan University or WMU), she was the first black student. She graduated in 1927 again at the top of her class. Unfortunately after graduating, Merze quickly found that schools in the state of Michigan did not hire black educators to teach at the high school level. Officials at the University took action and loaned Merze money so she was able to travel the Midwest and look for jobs. She had many offers but finally settled on the new, segregated all-black Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Merze continued her own educational journey, taking graduate courses in Modern European history, learning French, German, and Spanish all while teaching high school. Over her summers she studied at Columbia Teacher’s College and earned an M.A. in 1930. In 1932, Merze received a $1,000 fellowship from the sorority she joined in Indianapolis (Alpha Kappa Alpha) and set out to study at Oxford University in England. This in and of itself was a bold dare. Merze first had to pass screening at the American Association of University Women who, at that time, did not admit black women as members, all before being accepted into Oxford’s graduate program. She succeeded, and headed to Oxford to study, graduating in 1935 as the first black woman to earn a graduate degree from Oxford University.
Back in the United States she started as dean of women and instructor in history at Barber-Scotia College in Concord, North Carolina. From there she went to Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1938 she got the bug to complete a Ph.D. after attending graduation at Harvard with a friend. Merze listened to the awarding of the Ph.D.’s., read the titles of their dissertations and felt that her work at Oxford was well within their league. She started thinking. After the ceremony ended, Merze made an appointment the next day with the dean of the graduate school at Radcliffe and began working that summer towards her Ph.D.
She earned a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University in 1941, the first black woman to do so, and the following year was hired on at Howard University in the history department. She was the first black woman in the history department at Howard, and fought vigorously against the gender discrimination and wage inequality she experienced throughout her tenure there.
By age 37 she had achieved an incredible amount, most of them as a groundbreaking first, but she did not stop there. In 1942 and 1948 she published books on disarmament. Beyond her academic successes, she also managed to travel extensively throughout the world, which many times guided her academic pursuits. While studying at Oxford she traveled to Germany, France and Switzerland. In 1950-1951 she won a Fulbright to teach a geopolitics course in India. This Fulbright trip took her around the world, traveling to many countries and a total of 44,000 miles. She made another trip around the world in 1958 and published two more books during the course of the 1950s. In the 1970s she traveled to Africa twice. She retired from Howard in 1977, but never stopped her research and kept writing research manuscripts long after.
In retirement Merze served on the committee of the Black Women Oral History Project, and served on the salary and promotions committee for Howard to try to fix the injustices in the academic system that she experienced as a woman in a male-dominated environment. Though her main focus in this committee was on gender discrimination, she was also acutely aware of her status as one of the few black historians of her time.
In 1996, at the age of 91, Merze passed away in Washington D.C., and is buried alongside her mother in Blanchard, MI. As the great granddaughter of pioneers, Merze never let discrimination get in the way of her reaching her goals and dreams. Her legacy lives on in the Merze Tate Travel Club as well as in her prolific giving to WMU, Radcliffe and Howard, endowing full scholarships and programs that are named for her, continuing to support academic excellence as well as a thirst for travel and a wider understanding of the world around us.
Written for Sheroes of History by Regina Gorham
Find out more…
The Merze Tate Explorers website has lots of information & photos about Merze.
You can see some more picture of Merze throughout her life in the video below: