Born in Petersburg, Va., five years after the end of the Civil War, Samuel Howard Archer’s early schooling was in a state that once legislated against the education of African Americans. From his success first as a student and later as a teacher in Virginia schools, Archer moved on to study and teach at Wayland Academy. There, two African American Colgate alumni on the faculty — Rev. Joseph Edom Jones 1846, MA 1897, and David Nathaniel Vassar 1877 — urged Archer to enroll at Colgate.
He was 27 years old when he entered the university in 1898, graduating with the Class of 1902 when he was 32. Handwritten notes among Archer’s papers indicate that his studies included logic, ethics, the classics, mathematics, the teachings of Jesus, the life of Paul, the New Testament, and church history. Salmagundis report that Archer was president of the junior class, lettered in football (a guard, he may have been the first African American football player at Colgate), and won four major oratorical prizes. In addition to his bachelor’s degree, New York State awarded him a professional teaching certificate.
The title of one of Archer’s prize-winning undergraduate oratories — “The Disenfranchisement of the Negro” — foretold his career. The essay concluded: “Grant to him an equal opportunity with others to weave about his soul a character noble, exalted, divine.”
In a 1904 letter to his Colgate classmates, from his first higher education position at Roger Williams University in Nashville, Archer advocated for “an education which will take an undeveloped soul and make, not a carpenter or a blacksmith, but a MAN.”
Those early philosophical stands put Archer squarely at odds with the “industrial education” approach advanced by Booker T. Washington, instead launching him into the orbit of intellectual-equal-rights champion W.E.B. Du Bois.
Archer advocated for “an education which will take an undeveloped soul and make, not a carpenter or a blacksmith, but a MAN.”
In 1905, Archer joined Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he would spend the next 36 years as a faculty member, football coach, dean, vice president, and, ultimately, president of the historically black men’s college. (He is credited with giving Morehouse College its school colors — maroon and white — like his alma mater.)
“The Archer philosophy and influence represent, perhaps, the single most creative force in the lives of Morehouse men,” Morehouse alumnus Marc Moreland wrote in a biography of Archer for Phylon, the journal founded by Du Bois. In addition, former Howard University president and Morehouse alumnus Mordecai Johnson said Archer “was drawn on by all who felt the need to live the examined life.”
Colgate awarded Archer the honorary Doctor of Divinity in 1932. Ill health forced him to retire from the Morehouse presidency in 1937, and he died in January 1941. Among his personal papers is a handwritten letter from Dr. and Mrs. Du Bois to Archer’s widow, Anna, expressing “their own sense of personal loss at the death of an old friend.”