On Sunday, June 17, 1917, as Harvard’s president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, addressed the graduating seniors at the start of Commencement Week, he cautioned them saying “this is no ordinary Baccalaureate Sunday to speak of the careers, the duties, the responsibilities, and the snares of a peaceful life.”1 Then, America was in the throes of war, having declared war on Germany two months earlier, on April 6, entering the fray in World War I.
In fact, as Lowell took the podium that afternoon in Appleton Chapel to address Harvard’s Class of 1917, so many of them were absent, having already enlisted in the army, that an editorial in The Harvard Crimson described that year’s commencement “as sad as a dance record at 10 in the morning.”2
But, among the few members of the Class of 1917 listening to Lowell’s speech that day was a most extraordinary young man, popularly known as “the African prince.”3
His name was Plenyono Gbe Wolo.
Born in Grand Cess, Liberia circa 1883 into a Kru chieftaincy, Wolo was conferred with his bachelor’s degree a few days later, on June 21, becoming the first African to graduate from Harvard.
“The bugle has sounded and the youth is girding on its armor. The call affects men in three different ways. There are those who could go to battle, but, unless compelled, will not; those who want to go but cannot; and those who both can go and will go. In the community at large there are many of the first of those classes…I have nothing to say to them here, for they are few among our students. The men who graduate this week belong almost wholly to the other two categories…,”5 Lowell continued.
And, indeed, “over ninety per cent”6 of the members of Harvard’s Class of 1917, who Lowell would later refer to as “the choicest of their kind”7 joined the war effort.
Some would pay the ultimate price, while others were recognized for valor in combat, including Archibald Roosevelt, the son of Theodore Roosevelt, America’s 26th President and Eugene Leon Coates Davidson, an African American student on Harvard’s varsity wrestling team.
Wolo too was no less the choicest of his kind and the story of his journey from his village and kinfolks to become a student at one of America’s most; he was popularly known at Harvard as ‘the African prince’
(Source: New Era Magazine: March 1916)