The Forgotten

  by Kari Molvar, '00


A cool autumn breeze swept across the campus green on the morning of September 9, 1890, as John Hope ascended the steps of Manning Hall. Inside the chapel students crowded into pews for the annual Convocation ceremony. Former graduates, professors and faculty filled the side aisles. The morning sun cast golden rays on the smooth mahogany floor as John Hope walked to the back row.

For this brilliant young African American, the day rang full of promise. After leaving Brown, Hope would go onto become the first African American president of Atlanta University and an early advocate of civil rights organizations, including the W.E.B. DuBois-led Niagara Movement, the NAACP, and the southern-based Commission on Interracial Cooperation.

When Atlanta University awarded him the Spingarm Medal posthumously, the chairman praised Hope, saying, "Dr. Hope proved to himself that there are no bounds or limits to be set for men and women because of their color."

On that same day a few yards away, Frank Levi Trimble stretched his legs out in his bed in Hope College dormitory. As a third year student, Trimble had sat through a similar convocation ceremony just a few years earlier. The memory of the experience lingered in his mind this morning as he readied the room for his new roommate, John Hope.

Like Hope, Trimble was one of the few African Americans in his class–he came to the University from the south in the early days of African American enrollment. Like Hope, Trimble believed Brown could provide intellectual freedom and fulfillment. Both expected to face hardships–beyond the smoothly polished Van Wickle gates tensions were mounting between blacks and whites; states like Mississippi had just instituted measures to prevent blacks from voting, including toll taxes and literacy tests.

These were the problems on the surface; the difficulties acknowledged by the collective conscience. But, Hope and Trimble would suffer burdens of a different kind–hardships that extended beyond the apparent difference of their skin color–that few in the University even realized before it was too late.

As the Convocation ceremony drew to a close Hope chatted with the students seated around him. He soon rose to leave and glanced out the window at his new dorm, Hope College–coincidentally named but after an unrelated Hope family. Anxious to meet his new roommate, Hope left the chapel and headed in the direction of the dorm.

After climbing three flights of stairs, Hope found his room, number 45, at the end of a long dark hallway. He pushed open the door and noticed Trimble sitting at his desk. A track uniform hung off the back of the chair, still damp with sweat.

"Hi, I’m your roommate," Hope said shyly. Trimble smiled as he stood to greet him. "Nice to meet you," Trimble responded, extending his hand.

Tall and handsome, Trimble moved with grace. His legs were long and muscular; he had the look of a well-conditioned athlete. When he smiled, his soft brown eyes twinkled; smooth laugh lines creased the corners of his mouth.

Hope placed his shoulder bag down and looked around at the room–this would be his home for the next four years.

Life in Hope College was not luxurious. Students carried water in pitchers from the well in the back of the building. A single drainpipe pumped out wastewater, which was deposited in bowls at the south end of the first floor. In the winter the pipes froze, forcing students to throw wastewater out of the windows.

Every room had two closets, one for clothing, the other for coal. Small stoves provided heat for the room; a large iron can, which remained firmly chained to the wall, held the ashes from the stove. When Hope moved in, the north wall was cracked, the timber rotting, and the interior worn and decrepit. Every year the university promised renovations; every year the students hoped for but never expected the repairs.

It was common knowledge that Hope College was the cheapest dorm on campus. But Hope and Trimble could not afford to complain. For students without considerable financial support, attending Brown was a challenge–many were forced to work part time jobs outside of classes. Those who could not make ends meet typically dropped out after the first year.

Fortunately Hope had a financial benefactor. Before coming to Brown, he attended Worcester Academy, in Massachusetts where he met and came under the guidance of Reverend Daniel Webster Abercrombie, the school’s headmaster. Abercrombie encouraged Hope to attend Brown and campaigned for his financial situation. Abercrombie knew the competition for financial aid would be intense–Brown offered only a limited number of one-year scholarships. Instead, Abercrombie managed to convince philanthropic Baptists in the community to pay for Hope’s tuition and housing his first year at the college.

Trimble had no such benefactor. The son of a Baptist preacher, Trimble’s family had little access to financial support. Although he seldom discussed his economic hardship, it was a continuous struggle for Trimble to survive without the financial help of family or friends. Even Hope found it necessary to work part-time jobs despite the support of Abercrombie. All of Hope and Trimble’s earnings went toward paying their tuition; both roommates acknowledged that there was little money left over for "extra expenses," such as food.

Each afternoon, Hope and Trimble hurried down College Hill to find work with the local catering companies. The majority hired on a first come, first serve basis, making it essential for them to arrive early. Lack of food became a constant concern for Hope. He later told his sons, "A man who has never gone hungry because of lack of funds has missed an experience not easily forgotten. For a good four years, I was not able to buy enough to eat. I hope you boys will never have to go through what I went in college."

But as Hope lay on his narrow bed at night, his limbs aching from lifting heavy dish crates, he looked across the room at Trimble’s empty bed and knew his situation could be more intense.

After attending classes and working at a similar catering company, Trimble’s energy had to endure late into the night. Track practice kept him going until at least 10 p.m. As the afternoon light turned into shadowy dusk, the team practiced sprints, hurdles, and jumps. Trimble pushed himself harder and harder until he could feel his muscles burn. He ran faster and faster as the night wore on. And when practice was finally over, he scarcely remembered turning off the light as he crawled into bed. Sleep hit him hard; the exhaustion tore through the core of his body. When Hope turned over in his bed to look at Trimble, he could see the pain in his eyes.

On weekends Hope and Trimble ventured off campus for social interaction with the Providence community. By the early nineteenth century the abolition of slavery in Rhode Island had left almost all African Americans free. However, blacks continued to be victims of racial violence. In 1822, Rhode Island passed a stringent disfranchisement law that stripped all African American property owners of their political rights. Two years later, whites destroyed the Providence black community of "Hard Scrabble," and in 1831 a race riot destroyed the black sections in "Snow Town" and Olney Lane.

African Americans fought back by establishing their own organizations to address their needs. New black churches sprang up representing every denomination. The most popular included the Second Free Will Baptist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Meeting Street Baptist Church. The majority of the city’s African American leadership came from these churches, with the ministers sometimes in the vanguard. In 1855, a historian wrote that in Providence the "black church had no challenge as the cultural womb of the black community."

When Hope and Trimble arrived in Providence, the church was still the center of African American life. In 1890, the two decided to join the Pond Street Baptist Church on the West Side of the city. Here, Hope formed several close friendships that lasted him the rest of his life.

Two women in particular, Mary Jackson and Roberta Dunbar–later charter members of the NAACP–become fast friends of Hope. Together, the group organized a small African American literary club called the Enquirers. At weekly meetings held in the homes of their fifteen members the group discussed Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and the biographies of Frederich Douglass and Toussaint-Louverture. No documentation exists to show if Trimble joined the Enquirers, but given his influence on Hope, it was not an unlikely assumption.

For Hope and Trimble, the Pond Street Church filled an important void in their lives. Hope wrote in his diary that the community opened up his eyes to the need for leadership and better education among African Americans. The predominantly white campus at Brown afforded Hope little opportunity for a candid debate on such topics; few university forums provided thorough discussions of racial issues. The campus did not offer the two men much in the way of social interaction either.

Fraternities were the dominant social force at Brown in the late nineteenth century, with almost forty percent of the student body belonging to the Greek system. And while classmates regarded Hope and Trimble as popular and well liked, neither pledged membership to a house. For students like Hope and Trimble there was unwritten rule that fraternities did not admit African Americans.

Years later, Hope revealed to a fellow classmate that one fraternity had considered asking him to pledge, despite the whites-only rule. But in order to join, the fraternity told Hope he had to "pass" as a white and, as such, give up his African American identity. Hope sharply declined the offer.

While Hope claimed no evidence of overt discrimination during his time at Brown, he wrote in his diary that African Americans at Brown were "cautiously aware that the University was but a step from the world outside."

By the fall of 1891, Hope and Trimble’s lives were closely interwoven with the African American community of Providence and the Brown campus. In the early fall, Hope was elected class treasurer and joined the Brown Daily Herald as one of the founding members. He reported on everything from football to politics–and even entertained the idea of becoming a journalist.

During the same term, the university elected Trimble to Phi Beta Kappa in recognition of his extraordinary academic talent–Trimble had apparently scored near perfect marks in all of his classes for the past three years. President Andrew praised him at the induction ceremony, signaling him out as one of the "most brilliant men on campus." Trimble excitedly told Hope of his plans to attend Harvard University next year for a teaching degree.

Hope wrote home to his parents in complete awe of Trimble’s accomplishments and his dedication. "He has come to Brown with the avowed purpose of being a teacher among his people," Hope wrote. Perhaps inspired by Trimble, Hope told his parents that he too was considering a career in education. For both roommates, the future appeared full of hope, success seemed within their grasp.

By November of 1891, however, Hope wrote home telling his parents of his financial difficulties. "It is increasingly difficult to scrape out a bare existence," he wrote with despair. The funds that Abercrombie had secured for him were designed only for one year and now Hope had to support himself. He worked longer hours at the catering company, yet his wages barely paid the mounting tuition and housing bills. At the end of the day, the headwaiter sometimes gave Hope a basket of food to take home–the leftovers never seemed enough to satisfy his hunger.

Trimble appeared to be wearing thin too, although he rarely discussed his finances. Hope noticed that his diet seemed to consist largely of syrup and bread and that he had lost a lot of weight lately. A constant cough seemed to plague him too.

When Hope cautiously asked Trimble’s withering body, Trimble brushed him aside. "I’m fine," Trimble said, affecting indifference. But Trimble knew his health was failing him. It would not be long before he could no longer hide his weakened condition.

In the winter of 1891, Hope came home one evening to find Trimble in bed. Surprised that he was not at track practice, Hope turned on a light. He reeled back in terror as he discovered Trimble, shaking with the covers pulled tight up to his chin. Sweat trickled down his forehead, his skin was cold and clammy to the touch; the bed reeked with the rank smell of vomit. Before he ran for help, Hope saw Trimble’s eyes close, as his breaths became slow and raspy.

Health reports confirm that Trimble collapsed on campus early in the winter of 1891. He left soon after in December for a period of undefined convalescence. Students on campus whispered that Trimble had tuberculosis but the university gave no official word for his absence. Rumors flew, but after a few months, it seemed no one paid much attention to Trimble’s disappearance. University medical records did not document his condition and the Herald neglected to mention Trimble’s absence from the track team. It seems the man President Andrew called "the most brilliant student on campus," had simply faded from memory.

Hope, however, did not forget Trimble. Soon after his departure, Hope wrote to Trimble’s parents and anxiously inquired about his roommate’s health. Letters came back from Trimble’s father–doctors in Tennessee confirmed that Frank had tuberculosis. His condition, the doctors told them, might improve if Frank’s body could fight off the infection. Hope thought back to Trimble’s diet of syrup and bread; a sinking fear spread through him that he might never see his roommate again.

Tuberculosis reached near epidemic proportions in urbanized centers of industrialization, such as New York, Chicago–and even Providence, Rhode Island–in the late nineteenth century. The disease usually dwelled in the city, or in areas with poor sanitation and over crowding, where the lack of hygiene allowed the infection to multiply quickly.

Infection from tuberculosis occurs in two ways, either by the respiratory route or by drinking milk infected with the tubercle bacillus. Most humans acquire tuberculosis by inhaling minute droplets of the disease, spread by sneezing, coughing and even talking, which can contain hundreds of infectious cells.

Once acquired, tuberculosis attacks the lungs with vigor. Often a person does not feel any symptoms apart from a raspy cough that lingers for months. Proper nutrition is crucial in fending off further infection from the disease. Without adequate food and rest, however, infection can seep into the bloodstream and throughout the body, causing severe damage to the bones and joints. At this stage, recovery from the highly fatal disease is unlikely.

Winter turned into spring as Hope waited for Trimble’s return. Occasionally letters from Trimble’s parents came; the news was never promising. Hope knew Trimble’s health was failing despite Trimble’s determination to fight off the infection. Finally, a letter came saying that Trimble couldn’t hold on much longer. Hope boarded a bus for Tennessee.

As he stood beside Trimble’s bed, Hope learned the full extent of his roommate’s suffering. For three years, Trimble had survived with even less money than Hope had for food and clothing, in order to pay his tuition. Trimble told Hope that his dream of attending Harvard would be impossible if he did not somehow save additional money. He denied himself food so that by the end of his junior year he could put $429 in a bank account; it was just enough to pay for four years of Harvard tuition.

Before Hope left Trimble’s side, he took his roommate’s hand. "He looked at me rather wild eyed and said, if I ever get better, I shall eat more..." The recollection of these words seared into Hope’s memory; the pain of his roommate’s sacrifice and the extent of his suffering bit deeply into his consciousness. As he turned to leave, Hope looked back at Trimble’s frail, shivering body under the covers–it was the last time he ever saw his roommate.

Hope looked down as his notes as he sat in the front pew of Manning Chapel on graduation day. In his hand he held his class oration speech; it was simply entitled "Brown University." As he looked out into the crowd of students, faculty and professors, Hope thought of Trimble.

During his last year at Brown, Hope had continued his dedication to becoming a teacher, fulfilling both his and Trimble’s dream. Despite the advice of his friends and professors, Hope had decided to accept a modest teaching position at Roger Williams, a small African American university in Tennessee, after graduation. It would be a struggle–the job would pay very little–but Hope felt steadfast in his dedication to improve access to education among African Americans.

Hope’s white friends could not understand his voluntary return to the south, a return to "such an oppressive existence," they said. One professor told Hope his idea of teaching in the south and working among his own people was imprudent. "If you go, you will be measured merely by a Negro yardstick," he said, shaking his head.

But Hope remained undaunted; he would go to the south. He simply told his friends that he felt a deep obligation to assume some responsibility for the improvement of his race–and to become a leader for those who could not.

As the orchestra finished its rendition of "Old Brown," a Commencement Day tradition, Hope rose and walked to the podium. He took a deep breath and began his speech. Those who remembered Hope’s words were struck by the calmness in his voice and the ease with which he spoke. "The university should be a place with the erasure of all lines be they of race, or sect, or class," he began. "A place that recognizes no other claim than that which highest manhood makes." Hope paused for a moment and looked up–the image of Frank Trimble resonated deep within his consciousness.