His life reached from one touchstone of the African-American experience to another – from just after the Emancipation Proclamation all the way to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In that extraordinary stretch of time, William Johnson Trent lived an extraordinary life. The son of freed slaves, he pursued education with a vengeance, and it took him all the way to a college presidency.
Judy Scales-Trent, a SUNY Buffalo Law emerita professor, tells the life story of her paternal grandfather in a newly published book, A Black Man’s Journey From Sharecropper to College President: The Life and Work of William Johnson Trent, 1873-1963 (Monroe Street Press).
The biography was a 10-year project for Scales-Trent, who knew her grandfather from childhood trips from New York City to his home in North Carolina. But, she says, “I only knew him as a college president. I had a sense of him being quiet, sort of settled in himself. His home was right across the street from the college, and I was thrilled because he had a key and we could go into the library.”
It was a long way from Trent’s youth in western North Carolina. Raised in a family of sharecroppers – former slaves who farmed the land in exchange for 40 percent of the yield – he was a plow-hand by the time he was 12. His schooling was meager and sporadic; classes were held only four months a year, when there was no planting or harvesting to be done. Nevertheless, Scales-Trent says, when he was 17, the family decided that he should leave the farm and pursue an education.
He was accepted to Livingstone College, a small, historically black college in Salisbury, N.C., affiliated with the AME Zion Church. Tuition was free but room and board amounted to $6 a month, real money in those days.
The academic challenge was a steep one, too. Church-sponsored black colleges like Livingstone typically included elementary and secondary, or “normal,” schools. When he started at Livingstone, Trent was reading at a fourth-grade level. Eight years later he had earned his bachelor’s degree, in a curriculum modeled on Princeton’s. He graduated at the top of his class.
From there he went on work in what was then called the Colored Men’s Department of the YMCA, in Asheville, N.C., and Atlanta. The Y, Scales-Trent points out, played a vital role especially in the black community, among other things providing a safe haven for farm boys of any race coming into the city and giving them a place to stay, Bible classes, sports and literacy instruction.
Trent had been with the YMCA for 27 years when his alma mater called and asked him to become its president. He would serve for 32 years in that role, becoming a well-loved figure on campus. Scales-Trent begins her book with the gala celebration in 1950 of his 25th anniversary as president. “They loved their president, they understood his contribution to the school, and they wanted to do him proud,” she writes.
In researching and writing the biography, Scales-Trent drew on her father’s voluminous files, did extensive research in archives and libraries, and even was able to interview former students and teachers at Livingstone, with support from a Baldy Center grant and one from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The students sometimes called him W.J. Go Home Trent, she learned, because he was so strict on discipline. You broke the rules, you went home. In the archives of Livingstone College she found “the most amazing document,” a college catalog from 1887, listing the books her grandfather would have studied early in his time there – then UB Law librarians located the books themselves.
For the author, the project was a foray into the work of a historian. “I started out saying I didn’t understand how he could go from the field to a college presidency,” Scales-Trent says. “I’ve discovered how historians work. They have a jigsaw puzzle and they don’t have all the pieces. They have to go find the pieces, and the picture on the jigsaw puzzle box is not even complete. It was so much so fun. I think historians have a ball.”
And her subject’s life, of course, is situated in the larger story of the African-American experience over his 90-year lifespan. “All his life he was serving young black people in the South and opening doors for them,” she says. “He’s a story of resilience and courage and hope.”
Not to mention wry good humor. Scales-Trent tells of the time there was a guest speaker at the college. “President Trent, how long would you like me to speak?” he asked.
“You may speak as long as you want,” the president responded. “We will listen for 20 minutes.”