Harvard University Archives
William Clarence Matthews, Class of 1905, Harvard College Registration Card
The form shown here, prepared at the time by the Office of the Recorder and completed at the beginning of the academic year, required a standard set of biographical information from each student: name, address, parent name and occupation, etc.
When William Matthews provided this information in 1901, he listed only his mother's first name, and left blank a space for her maiden name. Assistant Recorder Henry Smith Thompson annotated and initialed the form with the explanation that Matthews' mother, Elizabeth, was a former slave who had no last name before her marriage. This brief note highlights the depth of information that can be found in "routine" records held by the Harvard University Archives.
Born in Selma, Alabama in 1877, William Clarence Matthews made an impressive journey during a tumultuous era of race relations in the United States, from the halls of the Tuskegee Institute to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, before matriculating at Harvard College. He played varsity baseball all four years, and one year on the football team. Matthews’ athletic ability, sportsmanship, and fortitude on and off the field were remarkable. He worked various jobs to fund his Harvard education and attracted the support and interest of prominent members of the Harvard and professional community, including the preeminent educator, Booker T. Washington.
Matthews left the College before receiving his bachelor’s degree but returned to Harvard in 1904, after a brief stint as a professional baseball player with Vermont’s Northern League, for a year of study at the Law School. He received his law degree from Boston University in 1907. While at law school, he worked as an athletic instructor at the Noble and Greenough, Dorchester High, and Boston Latin Schools grooming the next generation of sports legends, including Leverett Saltonstall, Mal Logan, Bob Storer, and Fred Bradlee.
In 1913, after spending a few years in private practice, Matthews was appointed U.S. District Attorney by President Taft. Later on in his law career, Matthews also served as counsel for the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad and the political leader and activist, Marcus Garvey. Before his untimely death on April 11, 1928, Matthews was called to another presidential appointment by President Calvin Coolidge, as special Assistant to the Attorney General of the United States, first assigned to duty at Lincoln, Nebraska, and later on at San Francisco, California.
More information about William Clarence Matthews and four other black students at Harvard in the early 1900s is available in an online presentation prepared by the University Archives and based on an exhibition curated by Harvard student Emory West in 1972 titled, Black Students at Harvard, 1905-1913: Excerpts from an exhibition. The presentation highlights college life and the minority experience at the turn of the twentieth century, portraying college traditions and experiences that are still relevant today.