When you ask the friends of Harold Wade Jr. ’68 what he might have become, had he not died so young, they get sweetly and painfully carried away. “He would have run for office, and people would’ve voted for him and trusted him,” says Adrian Johnson ’68. Cuthbert “Tuffy” Simpkins ’69 rolls out an even loftier scenario: “Harold would’ve been a candidate without the personal flaws. An Obama, but much more savvy about how to deal with people who hate you no matter what you do for them. A combination of Obama and JFK, without Kennedy’s personal shortcomings and Obama’s naiveté.”
Still others scale it back from the nation to the College—but are no less wistful. Like Frank Motley, former assistant dean of students: “Harold would have spent much of his life making Amherst better than it was.”
If the name Harold Wade strikes a chord, it might be
because you’ve thumbed a copy of the history book he wrote, 1976’s Black Men of Amherst. Or maybe you’ve seen his smiling likeness on the Octagon mural. Or, to come at it sideways, you could have met up with one of the 21 Wade Fellows, African-American alumni representing the Wade Memorial Fellowship, who have come back to Amherst these past four decades to help students ponder potential careers, possible lives.
If you’re well-versed in the illustrious, sometimes fraught history of African-Americans at Amherst, you know that Wade was a founder of the Afro-American Society, the first black-majority organization at the College and the forerunner to today’s Black Student Union. Some of you watched Wade become a rising star on the political stage. In fact, when he died in 1974, Wade was working as an aide to Paul Gibson Jr., New York City’s first-ever black deputy mayor. In the New York Times obituary, Gibson called the young man’s death “a tragic loss not only for his family but for the entire city, with particular emphasis on blacks in the city.”
A few reading this, undoubtedly, knew Wade firsthand. Unlike the rest of us, you have the privilege of being able to conjure him whole in your mind, this tall, fearless, talkative, funny, astute, politically progressive, jazz-loving, change-making diehard Mets fan. The work-within-the-system strategist who, tongue firmly in cheek, sometimes signed letters “H. Rap Wade.” (It was a play on the name of the radical African-American activist H. Rap Brown, who famously said “violence is as American as cherry pie.”) The same guy who, as the mayor’s aide, insisted that Manhattan parades should be routed through Harlem, rather than a whiter neighborhood, because, as Simpkins imagines Wade saying, “black people like parades too!”
Finally, and most notably to the Amherst community, there’s Wade the archivist and writer. The one who asked his readers to forgive him for possible “emotional excess” in writing Black Men of Amherst because, when it comes to black history, “sometimes excess is necessary to counteract the sin of omission.”
There are multiple sides to this black man of Amherst, of course. But whether you knew Harold Wade in reality or by reputation, it turns out there is more to learn about who he was, what he stood for and how his legacy refuses to fade away. Let’s get to that story.