100-year-old published poem reveals spirit, skill of pioneering IU student Carrie Parker

Last summer, Indiana University Archives director Dina Kellams happened upon the name of IU’s first female African American student in a brief newspaper story.

carrieparkerpoemportrait_edited-1

Carrie Parker was IU’s first female African American student. This family photograph dates from 1937.

At first, IU knew little more than her name: Carrie Parker.

Kellams continued her research, often on her own time, and piece by piece an extraordinary story fell into place.

News articles, documents and tips led to Carrie Parker’s family, including a surviving son, Parker Taylor. This remarkable 99-year-old gentleman and many other family members have since visited the Bloomington campus on two occasions as IU’s honored guests. They have walked in the footsteps of their matriarch, traded information with Kellams and generously shared memories.

And at last, IU has honored an exceptional woman: Carrie Parker Taylor.

Carrie’s story

Like Kellams, I have become fascinated with Carrie’s story.

Just before Christmas, I made a discovery of my own. On a whim, I searched her name on Newspapers.com. Something new popped up: A poem by Carrie Parker Taylor appeared on the front page of a newspaper in 1915.

Her poem was not a delicate verse about flowers or trees. Instead, it was a powerful statement demanding racial justice.

And that sums up our Carrie. Or, as a family member has phrased it,”That Carrie Parker attitude!”

The Tulsa Star

A poem written by Carrie Parker Taylor was printed on the first page of The Tulsa Star on Oct. 8, 1915.

Carrie was born Dec. 9, 1878, in Enfield, N.C., to parents who had endured slavery.

A brilliant student, Carrie was the first black female to earn a high school diploma in Vermillion County, Ind. To do so, she persevered through three years in the eighth grade. The local tradition had been to stop black students from reaching high school by failing them and waiting for them to drop out. Carrie would not bend, so the school finally did. At the time of that triumph, many white townspeople showered her with flowers.

Carrie Parker became the top student in her graduating class.

In 1898, she enrolled at IU. Carrie took classes for a year and said she”was not made to feel my color much.” In exchange for a place to live, however, she had to cook and clean in a professor’s home and “almost killed myself trying to work my way through.”

Even for Carrie, who had overcome so many obstacles, it was too much. She married John G. Taylor, and while she planned to return to IU, it was not to be.

Carrie Parker Taylor lived in Chicago and later in Michigan. She instilled in her six children the importance of education. She owned a house and helped found two churches. She loved to sing. She sold eggs and pies to neighbors. She fed her family from a bountiful garden and taught them how to forage wild greens.

And, throughout her life, she continued to write.”God gave me the gift of speech,” she once said.

Carrie’s poem

It seems fitting to share Carrie’s poem in the month of IU Bloomington’s celebration “Black History: It’s Not Just Our History, It’s American History.”

The poem was published on the front page of The Tulsa Star, an outspoken but short-lived African-American newspaper in Oklahoma. In this transcription, several missing vowels have been restored:

                 The Negro’s Challenge
                  By Carrie Parker Taylor

You complain, my brother, my lily white brother,
Of our poor race now and then,
Yet you never have said what we should do
To prove to you that we’re men.

We’ve done everything so far that you’ve done,
Except sit in the president’s chair,
And the only reason we haven’t done that
Is because you won’t let us sit there.

In every walk of life that you’ve been,
There’s at least one of us there,
And you cannot deny but that we do
Our work just as good and as fair.

Among the more common crafts of men,
Such as carpenters, masons and painters,
We have quite a number, and plasterers, too,
And many stock raisers and planters.

We have lawyers and doctors, and bankers a few,
And teachers we have by the score,
Undertakers and merchants and manufacturers
And preachers, we have them galore.

We have sculptors, architects, artists and inventors,
And poets and statesmen of fame,
Actors, orators and authors, and goodness knows what,
For everything we do I can’t name.

We print our own papers, publish our books,
We sing and we play same as you,
And in some cases we have been known
To compose some good music, too.

In fact, I don’t know anything that you’ve done,
When you’ve given us a chance and we’ve tried,
That we haven’t done as well as you could,
And sometimes better besides.

We’ve even gone farther in some things than you,
And now we need not despair,
For, if we don’t like our heads like sheep’s wool,
Why, we can straighten our hair.

You say that at least we can’t change our skins?
Well, we’ve knocked that in a hat,
For, by the aid of your sensual men,
Many of us have even done that.

You say we have vices? We got them from you,
You’re all the pattern we’ve had,
So don’t charge the race up with the misfits you see,
Since our patterns so often were bad.

So, what more, my brother, my lily white brother,
Must we do to prove that we’re men?
If ’tis aught you can do and you’ll give us a chance
We’ll do it as good as you can.

Thank you, Carrie, for your words and your courage.

When Adrian Matejka, The Ruth Lilly Professor and poet-in-residence at IU Bloomington, was sent a copy of The Negros Challengehe said, “The fact her poem it still wonderfully observant and outspoken in 2016 speaks to how visionary it (and she) was then.” 

One hundred years have passed. Tragically, our nation still wrestles with deep racial division and injustice. And in this moment, too many are fanning flames of misunderstanding and hatred.

Yet I can’t help but think that if she were alive to see it, Carrie Parker Taylor would appreciate seeing who is sitting in the president’s chair.

And I think she would appreciate that the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center added a public reading of her poem to their BlackLit event Friday, Feb. 26. In addition to students and community members who gathered at the center’s library to share their own writings and favorite passages of literature, Chuck Rogers spoke Carrie’s words.

IU has established a scholarship to honor Carrie Parker Taylor, seeded through the generosity of James Wimbush, vice president for the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs. Contributions can be made through the website Give Now at My IU by designating the Carrie Parker Taylor Scholarship fund.

Dina Kellams

Dina Kellams, IU’s director of University Archives and Records Management, shared information with several descendants of Carrie Parker during their first visit in 2015.

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