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Harry T. Pratt: MICA History Maker

MICA walked boldly into the unknown in 1891, enrolling its first black student

Posted 09.01.13 by mica communications

It was more than a century before America would elect its first African-American president, and no one in the country knew what the future of race relations would be. As is its tradition, however, MICA walked boldly into that unknown in 1891, enrolling its first black student, Harry T. Pratt, more than six decades before the Supreme Court of the United States ordered public schools to desegregate in 1954's Brown v. Board of Education decision. The courage MICA showed was only trumped by Pratt's heroism and the legacy the MICA history maker left in Baltimore and across the country.

When Pratt enrolled at MICA, few institutions not solely dedicated to African Americans would admit them, especially in Maryland, which was at the time considered part of the South. Pratt's admission was a national controversy and spectacle, with The New York Times declaring his admission, "a departure which has never before been attempted in this city." The writer implored MICA's board not to admit him, but they not only admitted Pratt; they admitted three additional black students between 1892 and 1895.

Pratt's time at MICA could not have been easy. More than 100 students withdrew in protest, and by the time he graduated, the school bent to the pressure and adopted a policy restricting admission to "reputable white students." That move put it squarely in sync with U.S. government policy. About the same time the Supreme Court ruled in the Plessy v. Ferguson case that "separate but equal" facilities for whites and blacks was an acceptable law of the land.

It is clear, however, that his MICA education empowered Pratt to assume leadership roles in education, culture, and public policy throughout his life. Perhaps this was spurred when Pratt won an Honorable Mention award upon graduating from the Maryland Institute's Free-hand Division of the Night School, which included illustration and the first classes in anatomy and art history, in 1895.

Drawing was not his only talent, however. A noted violinist, Pratt went on to become an influential music teacher at the city's Colored High and Training School. There he served as mentor for legendary Baltimore music educator and orchestra leader William Llewellyn Wilson, who in turn taught a young Cab Calloway. Pratt served as principal of elementary and junior high schools in Baltimore, eventually becoming one of Frederick Douglass High School's longest-serving principals, a tenure that lasted from 1934 to 1945.

As Fredrick Douglass was Baltimore's only public high school for African Americans until 1937, Pratt was at the epicenter of education for blacks in the city. Under Pratt's leadership, the school's graduates included Harry A. Cole, who would become the first African American ever elected to Maryland's State Senate and to serve on the Maryland Court of Appeals (equivalent to the state's Supreme Court); and Parren Mitchell, who would follow in Pratt's footsteps by becoming the first African American to graduate from the University of Maryland en route to being elected as the state's first African-American congressman and subsequently founding the Congressional Black Caucus.

Pratt rounded out his influence through commerce. He owned a dry cleaning business, real estate properties, and the early The Baltimore Times newspaper. His passion for the empowerment of African Americans gained him national recognition. A speaker at venues across the country, Pratt's writings are part of the Library of Congress' collection. As fourth vice president of the National Negro Business League, he was a lieutenant of Booker T. Washington, an iconic advocate for African-American economic empowerment. Like Washington, Pratt was a fierce believer that African Americans should use whatever skills they had and start their own businesses promoting those services.

It is worth noting that history reconciled some of Pratt's views. In an 1898 article published in The Baltimore Sun, he strongly advocated that voters of all races should be educated enough to form intelligent opinions on the issues that affected them and suggested that the lack of educational opportunity for African Americans would make them less-than-ideal voters for a generation. Pratt was at once frustrated by the condition of African-American communities and tireless in seeing them uplifted; critical of educational attainment among blacks and the leader in advancing it; skeptical of the ability of African Americans to vote and the educator of those who would change the face of politics. Cole and Mitchell's achievements can be seen as validation of Pratt's early beliefs and vindication of his demonstrated lifelong commitment to education for African Americans.

Of course, MICA again began admitting black students immediately after 1954's Brown v. Board of Education decision reversed Plessy (the plaintiff's lawyer, future Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall, graduated from Frederick Douglas High School while Pratt was a teacher there), and Pratt remains a MICA history maker whose influence in Baltimore and around the nation has echoed for decades.

The assistance of the MICA Archives was indispensable in the writing of this article.

Read: About MICA's history in Making History / Making Art.

Harry T. Pratt from an image of the Presidents of National Negro Business League. (Courtesy the New York Public Library)