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Nearly a century ago, Pitt alumnus Charles Florence was known on campus as a skilled orator. He ultimately became a Harvard scholar and university president. His wife, Virginia Proctor Powell, was equally gifted and also a Pitt graduate. For the first time, through original research, their lives are reclaimed for the University community.

The Great Debater


Florence's senior-year photo from the 1918 Owl.

At first, the young school principal can only stare at the handsome property she recently purchased. It’s a redbrick Colonial home built by her former professor, Charles Florence, a man she recalls as exacting and rigid. These long-ago memories wash over Barbara Grey as she heads toward the front door, along the cement walkway, practically gliding toward the home with wooden shutters and a yard full of bushes. She turns the key and enters the echoing rooms where sunlight dances with dust.

Inside, she finds that many of Professor Florence’s personal papers are still there, left undisturbed. All the walls are painted white, and in the front entry is a gilded-framed photograph of a much younger Florence in a dark suit and bow tie. A slight smile is on his face. Dark wood bookcases with claw feet sit in the living room and dining room, seasoned by years of holding vintage books and family treasures. Upstairs, in the study, rests an old typewriter on an even older desk surrounded by bookshelves. Grey climbs the wide stairs to the attic and finds a trove of musty postcards, yellowed newspaper clippings, and age-brittled letters. They spill out the sepia-toned past of a professor who’s no longer here, reflecting the life of a remarkable Pitt alumnus.

Entered in the journal on Friday, April 13, was this note, written in an elegant, swooping hand: “full dress suits for Georgetown.” In that phrase rests a hint about Florence’s extraordinary life. The note refers to the attire needed for a big upcoming debate.

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The Florence house in Richmond, Va.

The rust-colored leather journal is dusty and worn, no bigger than the palm of a hand. It chronicles 1917, a busy year for University of Pittsburgh senior Charles Florence, who was active with Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He lived in a Hill District boarding home where he paid $3.50 for two weeks’ rent. He attended Ebenezer Baptist Church and was a patron of the Loendi, a men’s club in the Hill neighborhood. Among the books and magazine articles he was reading were “Negro Migration” and “The Epic of the Black Man.”

Entered in the journal on Friday, April 13, was this note, written in an elegant, swooping hand: “full dress suits for Georgetown.” In that phrase rests a hint about Florence’s extraordinary life. The note refers to the attire needed for a big upcoming debate.

For any college student in the early 1900s, debating—being able to think, speak, and argue critically and effectively during public discourse—represented the highest level of classic academic attainment. And Florence was particularly good at it. During most of his Pitt undergraduate years, 1914-1917, he was an African American man who led an integrated debate team during a time when most of the nation’s institutions of higher education remained shuttered to Blacks. His leadership of the debate team came only six short years after the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and nearly two decades before the all-Black Wiley College debate team (of movie fame) made history in the 1930s by defeating all-White college teams.

In an era of oppression and stereotypes, how did Florence rise? First, he was the son of a preacher, so perhaps the art of oratory was part of his DNA; also, by the time he arrived at Pitt, he had polished his public speaking skills by having already worked as a small-town school principal; and though there may have been limits to Black admittance, race relations at Pitt weren’t as overtly harsh as on other campuses. In Oakland, Black students did manage to integrate choruses, athletics, and clubs.

Florence was born May 5, 1890, in Brownsville, a small Western Pennsylvania town pulsing with railroads and coal mines. He was the fourth oldest of 12 children. His Baptist preacher father, Leslie Silas Florence, was a politically active man who started his own church. Undoubtedly, in the family’s home came the lessons of faith and perseverance that steadied the younger Florence against the prejudice of a nation struggling to shake off the legacy of slavery.

Following Reconstruction, ministry and education were twin ladders that offered upward mobility for many African Americans. Young Florence planted his feet on the rung of education and steadily climbed, taking his place amid an emerging pool of college-trained African Americans charged with racial uplift by stressing education and social leadership.

He finished South Brownsville High and took a summer session at Southwestern State Normal School, a small teacher-training institute that became California University of Pennsylvania. Then he attended Storer College, a school set upon a hill in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., originally established to prepare former slaves and their children for the “great work of life.” After Florence graduated in 1909, he was named principal of Garrison, an all-Black two-room schoolhouse in tiny Grafton, W.Va. It is unclear how long Florence worked in Grafton, but by the fall of 1914 he was enrolled at Pitt, studying education. He was 24.

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The wedding of Virginia Proctor Powell
and Charles Florence

On campus, Florence was founder and president of the Pitt Lyceum and secretary of the International Polity Club. He joined the varsity debate team his sophomore year and soon was the team’s captain. Frequently, Florence was chosen to give the closing rebuttal in debate contests, likely a sign of his oratory prowess. Pitt’s 1918 yearbook predicted that he would become another Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), one of the general public’s best known and most widely admired African American leaders of that era.

Florence’s final semester at Pitt was interrupted when he left to serve in World War I. According to his journal, in January 1918 he sailed from Hoboken, N.J., on the ship America. He slept in the cold and dark of steerage and wrote of being “frightened at [the] sound of waves against [the] ship.” On a frozen fifth day, the rough seas made the young soldier “sick: sick: sick.” The ship sailed for 17 days. His scribbled notes say he smiled at porpoises and that enemy submarines prowled nearby. On the morning of the 17th day, a relieved Florence spotted the rocky harbor of Brest, France. Finally, he was able to take “off clothes [and] sleep for first time in 7 days.”

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Virginia Proctor Powell

After the war, Florence returned to Pitt and earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1919. In July of that year, he received a small white envelope with a 2-cent stamp. It was a letter from the president of the all-Black Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute offering the young educator a position with the promise of “$80 per month for the working months.” Florence accepted the offer and worked in Virginia for two years before returning to Pitt to pursue a master’s degree in education. He finished in 1923, earning all A’s his final semester. During this time, he also deepened his relationship with Virginia Proctor Powell, whom he had met four years earlier. An only child and a descendent of one of Pittsburgh’s most prominent Black families, she was eight years his junior.

By most accounts, the diminutive Powell was as smart and ambitious as Florence. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1919 with a degree in English and liked to say she was a student there during its “days of manless dances.” After Oberlin, she went to Minnesota as a YWCA mentor. She was there a few months before returning to Pittsburgh, hoping to teach in the public schools. That did not happen. Though integrated for students, the school system was closed to Black teachers.

Instead, Powell went to work in her aunt’s salon, a job she didn’t like. Because she had always adored books and reading, Florence suggested that she apply to be a professional librarian. She did.

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The 1917 Pitt debate team. Charles Florence, the team’s captain, is seated in the front row, second from right.

When admitted in 1922 to the Carnegie Library School (now Pitt’s School of Information Sciences), Powell shattered a racial ceiling. She did well in her course work. But school was not without its indignities. As she visited local libraries for her practical work, she was not allowed to assist White patrons or to associate with White children. Powell, however, had a white-gloved persistence. Her quiet, warm manner drew children to her; they eventually sat in her lap and kissed her farewell at the end of story hour. A year later, in 1923, she completed her degree and became the first African American woman to graduate from a professional library school. A plaque outside Pitt’s School of Information Sciences now commemorates her achievement.

Though engaged, the couple delayed marriage so Florence could focus on his career. Now, with his Pitt master’s degree, he headed South, back to the Virginia institute where he had previously taught. He lived Spartanly in a dormitory for single men. At the school, he initiated a Freshman Forum, a choral society, and a drama club.

Meanwhile, Powell went to New York, where she worked in a Brooklyn library and mingled with the writers and artists of the flowering Harlem Renaissance. The soirees she attended made the society columns. She was the first Black woman to pass the New York High School library exam.

By 1929, Powell had easily embraced the New York parties graced by “gladioli and ferns” and the “smiles and soft chatter of lovely women.” She vacationed in Chicago, Detroit, and in a cottage on Idlewild beach. Meanwhile, her fiancé, Florence, flourished at the Virginia school. Though now a dean, he took a leave of absence and went to Harvard, where he studied for a doctorate in education administration. By 1931, he had completed his exams and course work and was ready to tackle his dissertation. That same summer, Florence accepted the presidency of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., and, after a nine-year engagement, the scholar took a wife. Florence and Powell were married in July 1931 in a garden ceremony in Milford, Conn. The bride wore white lace and a wide-brimmed hat. She cancelled a European tour to accommodate the wedding.

The couple arrived in Missouri during the Great Depression. But life at Lincoln, one of the nation’s most prestigious Black colleges, was good. According to some, Florence was an aloof president and not very friendly, but he set high expectations for Lincoln. He helped enroll one of the school’s largest freshman classes, pushed the school to full accreditation, and encouraged his professors to pursue PhDs, earning the school the nickname “the Harvard of the Midwest.”

In the 1930s, in the field of Black academia, no post was more prestigious than being named president of a Black college. Florence’s hometown newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, wrote that he deserved the honor because of his “thorough training and long successful educational experience.”

In a stately brick home on the 27-acre Missouri campus, the couple lived a rarified life. Though not working, Mrs. Florence busied herself with reading clubs and social activities in Jefferson City. The couple’s circle of acquaintances included a who’s who of Black America. College founder Mary McLeod Bethune and noted historian Carter G. Woodson visited campus. Lincoln professors Sterling Brown, the poet, and historian Lorenzo Greene and his concert-pianist wife, Thomasina Talley Greene, were counted as friends.

But the good life there didn’t last. Florence experienced a rocky dismissal from Lincoln in 1937 when the board of curators asked him to leave after alleging that he tried to tie the school’s growth directly to state politics. Florence resigned, taking with him a $2,100 settlement, and headed back to Harvard for advanced study.

A year later, the professor landed in Richmond, Va., a city he had visited on his way to war camp almost 20 years earlier. He was appointed head of the education department at Virginia Union University, a Black college that has groomed generations of ministers and educators.

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Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, 1918. Florence is in the front row, far right.

Back South, the couple lived apart for eight years, as she had accepted a librarian’s job in the Washington, D.C., schools. Failing health brought her home to Richmond, and the reunited Florences, who never had children, settled into middle-class respectability. He was a writer for The Journal of Negro Education. She was a public school librarian, and they lived on a tree-lined street nicknamed Doctors’ Row for all the professional Blacks who resided there. Their charming brick home was full of books. Most occasions for visitors were semiformal as the Florences were rarely casual. He wore white shirts and ties in the summer. They filled their time with civic activities and worked to make the All Souls Presbyterian Church—one of the few integrated congregations in the 1950s—a success.

Florence was proud of his intellectual achievements, and he wasn’t afraid to show it. When he first went to war, he wrote a letter beseeching his commanding officer to remove him from the regiment—not so much because it was segregated, but because most of the soldiers were not college-educated. He felt he should be with a more accomplished squadron.

Florence retired from Virginia Union in 1956. The president of the college, J.M. Ellison, heralded him as belonging to “that group of scholars who place high premium on knowledge as a fundamental requirement for all who would enter the teaching profession. His emphasis is equally strong on character and thoroughness. Such teachers receive their greater rewards in the after years.”

So it was for Florence, who died in 1974. (His wife lived another 17 years, until 1991.) Not many knew him as the young man who put on suits and broke barriers in debating circles. Not many knew he never received his doctorate from Harvard. Supposedly, his advisor suggested changes to his dissertation, and Florence refused them, standing by his original research. As a consequence, he was never granted the degree.

What people knew was that he was strict but caring. They knew of his strength and that in his nearly 50-year career, he molded hundreds of teachers. One of those teachers is Barbara Grey, who, in 1982, bought the Florence home on the corner of Langston and DuBois streets in Richmond, Va. Every time she turns the key, she enters a special place where the sun still dances. Seemingly all that’s left of Charles Florence are his words, which still fill the house—perhaps a fitting tribute to a man who was a great debater, tenacious scholar, and pioneering educator.

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This story by Ervin Dyer is based on his original research and written from census records, a journal notebook, newspaper clippings, historical records, government archives, and interviews.

 

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