Contact Us    Find People    Site Index
page header
 future students linkscurrent students linksfaculty and staff linksalumni linksparents linksvisitors links

Glimpse of a Visionary: Jeffrey Campbell ’33
By Steve Peraza ’06

Jeffrey Campbell ’33 is generally thought of as St. Lawrence’s first African-American graduate. In a University Fellowship paper, Steve Peraza ’06, a history and sociology double major from New York City, contends that Campbell deserves to be recognized on different and broader grounds. “Much of the attention brought to Jeffrey Campbell’s name at St. Lawrence University has centered on Campbell’s social status as the first African American student to graduate,” Peraza writes, “not his accomplishments as an exemplary American citizen committed to his ‘faith and works’. Campbell may never have accepted that legacy; he might have more readily identified with a legacy that posits him as a progressive-minded and intellectually motivated Unitarian Universalist minister.”

The son of a blue-eyed, blond-haired white woman and a Black Boston attorney, Campbell admits in a brief autobiographical sketch that he bore the psychological and social “burden” of mixed racial lineage from his birth on March 1, 1910 (he died September 16, 1984). Perhaps those moments in which the Campbell family had to guard their safety because of racial discrimination led Campbell to ignore his “racial condition” and “establish [his] individuality” as a human being and not a Black human being.  

More “Useful” Values
Campbell does not see himself as identifying with “blackness”’ first and foremost, but rather attaches himself to more “useful” values. Throughout his writings, both as a youth and as an adult, Campbell consistently positions himself as valuing education, personal integrity, intellectual freedom and tradition.

Paramount among all of Campbell’s values and beliefs, all of his personal convictions and the occupations he chose to fulfill them, was the mixture between faith and works, i.e. between theory and practice. Campbell’s conceptualization of faith, combined with his whole-hearted commitment to it, not only conditioned the way he would think and behave in his life, but also placed him as a perennial critic of the status quo, the “bourgeoisie” and capitalism.

Jeffrey Campbell’s Ideal University
Nowhere are Campbell’s criticisms of society more cogent than in his analyses of the collegiate experience of St. Lawrence University both as an alma mater and as a privately-owned business. No essay discusses the negative effects of the outside world on St. Lawrence University, as well as the University’s inability to live up to its founding principles and ideals, as does “How I Would Achieve My Ideal University,” published in The Laurentian in 1932.  Campbell does not directly condemn St. Lawrence University, but he does condemn the University’s inability to facilitate an education fides et veritas, “in faith and in truth.” As he would say later in his autobiographical sketch: “I found [St. Lawrence] without a philosophy for tackling entrenched prejudice.”

The University’s social limitations, for Campbell, were directly tied to its connections to the outside world. He felt that the University’s officials and students limited their intellectual growth in order to perpetuate the institution’s prestige and wealth.

Why He Wrote
Campbell wrote to achieve his humanity, and to challenge his readers to do the same. To achieve humanity for Campbell meant to recognize the individual peculiarities and complexities of all human beings and to accept them as part of God’s creation and the grace it promises to all of its subjects. It is in the latter sense, alone, that Campbell identifies himself within the struggle for racial equality in America.

Campbell does not, however, identify himself as a black man fighting for racial equality. He entered the national debates about race, not to end the brutal racial discrimination and disenfranchisement of blacks in America, but rather to delineate how racism in America tarnishes the humanity that joins all people.

Campbell should not be seen as a Civil Rights pioneer because his message did not address race per se. Instead, his message focused on his religiously influenced vision of God’s creation as one of brotherhood. This, and not social and racial equality, was Campbell’s goal in discussing the social limitations posed by a racialized society. In light of Campbell’s goals as an intellectual and writer, the legacy that St. Lawrence University ascribes to Campbell should underscore his qualities as a visionary thinker, for evidence suggests that Campbell, himself, might not have supported institutional attempts to inscribe him as the grandfather of diversity.

St. Lawrence University · 23 Romoda Drive · Canton, NY · 13617 · Copyright · 315-229-5011