Dr. Quintus Jett remembers digging through archives far and wide as he researched the campus’ history while working on a project for Rutgers University–Newark’s Advancement Team from 2016 to 2018. He already had learned a lot about RU-N's fascinating, complex origin story when, toward the end of that two-year stretch, he happened upon an important figure largely unknown to the RU-N community, a person whom he believes was the first African-American female graduate of the colleges that became RU-N, and possibly the first Black female graduate in Rutgers University’s history.
That student was Louise Lottie Bullock, who graduated with a degree in psychology in 1937 from RU-N's predecessor school, the University of Newark, which was formed between 1934 and 1936 from five of the many schools dotting the Newark higher-educational landscape at the time and, a decade later, would be absorbed by Rutgers University and become RU-N.
Bullock, who was from Montclair, NJ, started in 1933 at Dana college, one of the schools to merge into the University of Newark. According to Jett, she was part of a graduating class with a progressive composition for the time period.
“In 1937, Louise was one of 16 women among the 34 graduates of the University of Newark’s College of Arts & Sciences,” said Jett. “Think about that. Nearly half of the college’s graduating class were women, and one of them was African American. That is remarkable but also very much in line with how the University of Newark saw itself—as a public-service school providing opportunity to nontraditional, immigrant and working-class students, women and, increasingly, people of color—which is similar to how Rutgers-Newark sees itself. There’s continuity to the school’s mission throughout its history.”
Bullock’s story, and her unearthing by Jett, takes on special resonance as the campus celebrates Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month March. It is a tale that foregrounds her groundbreaking achievement while highlighting the role that RU-N and its predecessors have played in transforming the lives of countless students from Newark and the surrounding region.
A Family Legacy
Louise Bullock was born in 1911 in Louisville, Ky., the youngest, along with her twin brother Louis, of six children of Charles Harmon Bullock and his wife, Lottie Dulcena Lewis. In 1916 Louise moved to Montclair with her family, where her father, a prominent Black leader in the early 20th-century Colored Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) movement, was transferred by the national YMCA leadership to serve as director of the colored Y there until his retirement in 1935.
Louise attended school in Montclair through high school and performed in a 1936 production of Brother Mose at the Montclair YWCA, a production of the federal theater project of the Works Project Administration (WPA). She was a day division student at Dana College and the University of Newark, which also held classes at night to accommodate students who worked full-time. Louise marched in cap and gown with 176 other graduates as part of the third annual commencement exercises for the University of Newark, held at the Mosque Theater in Newark on June 10, 1937, where George H. Nettleton, Lampson professor of English at Yale, spoke.
In 1937, Louise was one of 16 women among the 34 graduates of the University of Newark’s College of Arts & Sciences.
Louise would go on to do graduate work at New York University and the New York School of Social Work, and served as a director of “Negro work” in United Service Organizations (USO) club activities for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YMCA), working in Newark, Oswego, NY, and Mashpee, Ma. She also served as a play teacher and assistant director of a community center run by Newark’s Board of Education.
Jett, who taught operations management and business innovation at Rice University and Dartmouth College, was on the faculty of RU-N's School of Public Affairs & Administration (SPAA) from 2009 to 2016 before moving into his role for the Office of Advancement. While conducting research on Louise, he received an assist from former RU-N student Cheryl Bullock Hannah, who was raised and lives in Hackensack, NJ. Bullock Hannah is a granddaughter of Louise’s older brother Charles Jr. and has taken up the mantle of Bullock family historian.
“There has always been a strong presence of education and moral direction in my family. We have been very community-minded for generations,” said Bullock Hannah. “My great-grandmother's father was Rev. M.T. Lewis, founder of the Delevan Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Va., and my great-grandfather, Charles H. Bullock, the son of former slaves, himself graduated as salutatorian of his high-school class and worked as both a teacher and journalist before joining the YMCA. His wife, my great-grandmother, also was a teacher. Just going to college as a person of color back then was a big deal, as it was for my great-aunt Louise.”
In fact, Louise’s father, Charles H. Bullock, organized colored YMCA’s starting in his hometown of Charlottesville, Va., before transferring in 1900 to Brooklyn, NY, where he organized the borough’s first colored branch, then to Louisville, Ky., in 1906, and finally to Montclair. Under his leadership the Montclair colored branch built another, more modern building, which opened in 1926 and became known as the Washington Street Branch YMCA.
Charles H. died in Montclair in 1950. In 2005 the Washington Street Y was demolished to make way for the Charles H. Bullock Elementary School, which opened in 2010 on the Y’s former site and was the first new school in Montclair in 80 years. A photograph of Charles H. is located in the school entranceway, memorializing his contributions during his tenure.
Piecing Together the History
The history that Jett and Bullock Hannah have helped to uncover is very much a work in progress, as Jett attests, and many of the primary sources he discovered reside at places outside the Rutgers–Newark and –New Brunswick library system. While conducting his research, Jett was intent on putting Louise’s accomplishments into historical context as best as he could, given the information available at the time.
Along the way, Jett saw evidence of an African-American male graduate from Dana College in the early 1930s and says there may be others yet to be discovered from one of the University of Newark's five predecessor institutions. He also says the university recognizes two Black females as the earliest graduates of Rutgers–New Brunswick in 1938: Julia Baxter-Bates (NJ College of Women, now Douglass Residential College) and Alice Jennings Archibald (Rutgers Graduate School of Education). He adds that, absent any others who came before, Bullock may very well be the earliest Black female graduate of the entire Rutgers University system. (The school recognizes James Dickson Carr, Class of 1892, as the first Black man to graduate from Rutgers University.)
“There’s a case to be made for saying this, though more research is needed,” said Jett. "What's important to remember is not only does Louise Bullock appear to be the first Black graduate, male or female, of the University of Newark, but she also graduated from RU-N's predecessor institution, which at the time was both co-educational at the undergraduate level, when Rutgers–New Brunswick was not, and was saying in its promotional literature that it was enrolling students for both day and evening classes and was accepting students without regard to race, color or creed. Clearly, the University of Newark wanted to show that this place is for everybody, as Rutgers-Newark does today.”
The impressive family lineage discussed in this story by Cheryl Bullock Hannah extends beyond Louise’s father, Charles H. Bullock. His father, Burkley Bullock (1830–1908), Louise’s grandfather, was a remarkable person in his own right, and an important figure in Charlottesville, Va., and the history of the University of Virgina. For more on him, please see here.