Who was Dr. Merze Tate?
A young Merze Tate, left, stands with her mother, Myrtle, and brother, Keith.
Discovery driven from day one, Dr. Merze Tate knew that knowledge was the key that would open the door to countless possibilities – and she refused to let anything stand in stand in the way of achieving her dreams. Growing up on a farm in rural Michigan, Dr. Tate walked three miles to school each way every day. She was named valedictorian, but due to racial prejudice, had difficulty finding a university that would allow her to attend.
WMU President Waldo embodied "so that all may learn" when he not only accepted her without hesitation but also gave her a scholarship and helped her find employment. This action set a powerful precedent – that our community believes in each other and looks out for one another.
Dedicated and determined, Dr. Tate finished her bachelor's degree at Western State Teachers College in three years instead of four with the highest academic record in the College's history at that time, becoming the first Black woman to receive a bachelor's degree from the institution.
A daring adventurer with an insatiable love of learning, Dr. Tate went on to receive her master's degree at Columbia University, was the first African American to receive degrees (bachelor's, doctor's) at Oxford University, briefly studied at the University of Berlin, and was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard.
Dr. Tate with her bicycle at Oxford University
As a globally engaged scholar, Dr. Tate travelled the world multiple times and learned five languages. She was awarded multiple Fulbright scholarships, was nominated as a UNESCO representative, and became an expert advisor to world leaders on disarmament throughout the Cold War era. Throughout her travels in Europe, she was an international correspondent for a Black newspaper in the United States.
Dr. Tate was a prolific educator who used her powerful voice to speak out against injustice and fight racism through education. Knowing the value of knowledge, Dr. Tate took "so that all may learn" to heart and embodied a learner-centered life as teacher, journalist, author, inventor, and advisor to world leaders. She taught at multiple HBCUs before making her academic home at Howard University for 35 years. Dr. Tate shared her knowledge and used her connections to uplift others, help them discover their potential, and amplify their voices.
Dr. Tate was a dynamic trailblazer who bravely defied systemic injustices, challenged cultural expectations, and found ways to overcome barriers as she forged her own path toward success. She is a guide pointing the way forward for all members of our Western Michigan University community and demonstrates the type of spirit we as a community should aspire to emulate. The legendary accomplishments of Dr. Tate show our students the limitless opportunities available to them – and that building a foundation at WMU is where they get their start.
The Merze Tate Explorers
As a history teacher at Crispus Attucks High School from 1927-32, Merze Tate wanted her students to see the world they learned about. Her determination led to her founding the school travel club which went to such places as Washington D.C., Niagara Falls, and Pennsylvania. One news article criticized her efforts of taking these students into the world, as they were not expected to be more than domestics.
Tate proved them wrong. All of the members of the club were honor roll students and many went on to college.
Sonya Bernard-Hollins founded the Merze Tate Travel Club (now known as the Merze Tate Explorers) in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2008 with seven girls interested in traveling around their community and world to discover other women who have left an impact on the world. The girls also learn communications skills in journalism, and film and created a documentary of Tate's life as one of their projects.