Merze Tate was a professor, scholar, author and diplomacy expert who achieved a series of notable firsts in her lifetime. Tate is the first African-American to graduate from what is now known as Western Michigan University, and the first African-American woman to attend the University of Oxford.
Born February 6, 1905, in Blanchard, Michigan, Tate excelled as a student, although schools were inadequate for Black students during her youth. Tate entered Western Michigan Teachers College to join the profession in her home state. Racist hiring practices prevented her from being hired in Michigan, so she took a job as a teacher in Indiana.
Not much is known about this period of Tate’s life, but she became known for exposing her students to the value of travel via a club she began during her early teaching days. This zeal for globe-trotting would become a hallmark of Tate’s further education and career.
Tate attended Oxford in 1932 studying European diplomatic history, advanced economics and international law, among other subjects. In 1935, she earned a Bachelor of Literature degree from the institution, becoming the first Black American to receive the degree. Tate also studied at the University of Berlin while in Europe. She returned to the States to teach history at Barber-Scotia College in Concord, N.C.
Tate’s impressive achievements didn’t stop there. She become the first African-American woman to earn a PH.D. in government and international relations from Harvard University (then Radcliffe College).
As an author, Tate published seven books, which focused on the United States and the practice of disarmament or demilitarization. Because of Tate’s global influence and her role as a reporter, she was accused of being a spy, although those allegations were never confirmed.
Tate taught at Maryland’s Morgan State College (now Morgan State University) and was the Dean of Women at the school. She later became one of the first two women to join the faculty of Howard University’s Department of History and worked there until her retirement in 1977.
Tate, who never married or had children, died at the age of 91 in 1996.