Always a Smile, Always in Control

By Maria Di Mento '03 / March / April 2004
June 15th, 2007
As former president of the historically black Texas Southern University in Houston, Samuel Nabrit was a bold academic leader and an influential regional voice during the civil rights movement. Nabrit, the first African American to receive a PhD from Brown, died of a heart attack on December 30. He was ninety-eight and lived in Atlanta.

Nabrit’s life was marked by a series of firsts. He was the first alumnus of Morehouse College to earn a doctoral degree and was Brown’s first black trustee, serving from 1967 to 1972. He was also the first African American to serve on the Atomic Energy Commission in 1966. When Nabrit accepted the energy post, he told a newspaper reporter that race was “unimportant in the kind of service I have been called on to render. I am being appointed merely because I am a scientist and an administrator.” Nabrit had served on the National Science Board in the 1950s and was President John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to Niger.

It took the intervention of the class of 1894’s John Hope, who was then president of Morehouse, to get Nabrit into Brown. “They said that the biology department was like a family,” Nabrit told the BAM four years ago, “and that they were worried a Negro might disrupt that familial feeling.” After earning his doctorate, he began his career as a biologist and first became known for research he conducted from 1927 to 1932 at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he analyzed the regeneration and growth rates of the tail fins of fish. Nabrit’s findings provided a foundation for subsequent research on the regeneration of nerve and muscle tissue.

Nabrit then became a leader at three historically black colleges, first chairing the biology department at Morehouse and then serving as dean of the arts and sciences graduate school at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). In 1955, he became president of Texas Southern, where he served for eleven years. James Race, a former biology professor there, remembers Nabrit as a formidable, yet gracious and quiet, presence. “He had an air about him as to what was expected of the faculty and students, and that permeated the whole university,” he says. Nabrit’s contributions included bringing research grants to the university and more than doubling student enrollment. “Unlike most of us academics, he always had a clean desk with nothing on it except the morning newspaper,” Race says. “It personified how he was: very orderly, always a smile, and at all times in control.” Despite Nabrit’s customary suit and tie, however, Race remembers him donning an apron to serve spaghetti at annual faculty buffets. Thomas F. Freeman, distinguished professor of forensics at Texas Southern, notes that Nabrit’s sense of integrity didn’t please everyone. Nabrit once dismissed the head coach of the school’s nationally honored track team when he learned the man was recruiting runners who were not enrolled as students.

At the height of the civil rights movement, Freeman says, Nabrit invited students who had been kicked out of other historically black colleges for participating in marches and sit-ins to enroll at Texas Southern. Nabrit ignored the objections of some Houston officials when he supported student protesters at the school, yet quietly worked behind the scenes to make protests more peaceful.

Nabrit left Texas Southern to join the Atomic Energy Commission. He later became executive director of the Southern Fellowship Fund, which awarded grants to African American scholars completing doctoral degrees. When the fund shut down in 1981, Nabrit continued to work on numerous higher-education boards and became a proponent of early childhood education. Once, after delivering a commencement speech at a Houston high school, Nabrit learned that 90 percent of the students could not do college-level work. His response was to start a summer program at Texas Southern that recruited twenty-two Yale undergraduates to teach reading, math, and logical thinking to high school students. He is survived by a sister, Cecilia Adkins.

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March / April 2004