"A Black Man’s Journey from Sharecropper to College President" — a Biography for our Times of Racial Unrest

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New Biography Portrays an Exemplary Life Full of Lessons in Determination, Courage and Hope

Black students want change. In their view, all students should receive an education which includes a truthful history of racial issues in America. They also want an education which celebrates men and women who lived good lives, helping build a stronger, more just society, instead of celebrating the lives of others, like slaveholders, who helped destroy lives. Now is the time for “A Black Man’s Journey from Sharecropper to College President: the Life and Work of William Johnson Trent, 1873-1963.”

An intimate portrait of the life of a black man who lived from just after emancipation to the boycotts and sit-ins of the 1950s and 1960s — it not only tells of his journey from the farm to a leadership position in the black middle class, it also describes this world he came to inhabit. Through interviews with family, family friends, and former students and teachers, the reader will come to know him through his marriages and his losses, his children and his friends, his love of music and his love of books.

Born in 1873 and raised in western North Carolina by family members who had been slaves, William Johnson Trent started his life as a sharecropper. He would go on to become one of the most important leaders in what was then called the Colored Men's Department of the YMCA, an organization created to help young men make the transition from farm to city. He then became president of Livingstone College, a black school created by the AME Zion Church.

Trent was able to make such a radical change in his life because of the energy, passion, and commitment of the black community during the early years after emancipation, and its desire to create institutions that would educate and guide black youth. The black AME Zion Church created Livingstone College in 1882. And the black community created a YMCA in Charlotte by 1883, at a time when the Ys were created to help young men make the transition from farm to city. Trent would spend his life working within these organizations, helping them develop and thrive. He was also one of the founders of the United Negro College Fund in 1944.

Commenting on this book, Yale historian Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore wrote: “Based on extensive research in rarely accessed African American sources, this poignantly rendered work lifts the veil that obscures black life during the Jim Crow period. But more importantly, it recovers an African American hero who never stopped trying to fulfill the potential of his fellow African Americans. William Trent will remain an inspiration to you long after you close the book.”


Judy Scales-Trent is Professor Emerita, School of Law, State University of New York at Buffalo. Her many publications include scholarly articles, book reviews, essays, poetry, and the book “Notes of a White Black Woman: Race, Color, Community.” William Johnson Trent was her paternal grandfather.

“A Black Man’s Journey from Sharecropper to College president: the Life and Work of William Johnson Trent, 1873-1963” (Monroe Street Press, February 29, 2016) by Judy Scales-Trent, includes photos; Paperback ISBN: 9781942545385; 394 pages, $25.00, fully indexed. Distributed by Ingram.

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