Three African Americans Win Rhodes Scholarships

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(L to R) Jessica Wamala, Joshua Aiken, and Donald Mayfield Brown

The Rhodes Scholarships, considered by many to be the most prestigious awards given to U.S. college students, were created in 1902 by the will of Cecil Rhodes, an industrialist who made a vast fortune in colonial Africa. According to the will of Rhodes, applicants must have “high academic achievement, integrity of character, a spirit of unselfishness, respect for others, potential for leadership, and physical vigor.”

In 1907 Alain LeRoy Locke, later a major philosopher and literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance, was selected as a Rhodes Scholar to study at Oxford University. It is generally believed that at the time of the award the Rhodes committee did not know that Locke was Black until after he had been chosen. It would be more than 50 years later, in 1962, until another African American would be named a Rhodes Scholar. That year, John Edgar Wideman, now a famed author as well as a professor at Brown University, was selected. Other African Americans who have won Rhodes Scholarships include Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School, Kurt Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore and now dean of the law school at Howard University, and Franklin D. Raines, former director of the Office of Management and Budget and former CEO of Fannie Mae. In 1978 Karen Stevenson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was the first African-American woman selected as a Rhodes Scholar.

Each year, 32 Americans are named Rhodes Scholars. The scholarships provide funds for two or three years of graduate study at Oxford University in Britain. Rhodes Scholars from the United States join students from 14 other jurisdictions including Australia, southern Africa, Kenya, India, and Canada. All told, about 80 Rhodes Scholars worldwide are selected each year for study at Oxford.

This year, 1,750 American students sought Rhodes Scholarships. Of those, 857 were endorsed for selection by 327 different colleges and universities. Of the 32 American winners this year, six are affiliated with Harvard University and three have been students at Yale University.

The Rhodes Trust does not release data on the racial or ethnic identity of scholarship winners. But it appears that this year, three of the 32 Rhodes winners are African Americans.

Jessica Wamala is a graduate of Villanova University, where she majored in political science, Arab and Islamic studies, and global interdisciplinary studies. She is currently studying for a master’s degree in political science at Villanova and is captain of the university’s basketball team. At the age of 14, she was ranked fourth in the United States in chess for women under the age of 21. At Oxford, she will study for a master’s degree in modern Middle Eastern studies.

Joshua Aiken, from Eugene, Oregon, is a senior at Washington University in St. Louis. He is majoring in American culture studies and political science. He has served as a the undergraduate student representative on the university’s board of trustees. Aiken has studied abroad in Belfast, Northern Ireland and in Berlin, Germany. He is also a published poet. Aiken will enter the master’s degree program in sociology at Oxford.

Donald Mayfield Brown is a senior at Mississippi State University, where he is majoring in English and philosophy. His senior thesis is on Ralph Ellison. He has also studied English literature at Christ Church College at Oxford. At Mississippi State, Brown is the founder of the university’s creative arts journal and is vice president of the philosophy and religion club. Brown is only the second Rhodes Scholar from Mississippi State and the first since 1911. At Oxford, Brown will study for a master’s degree in modern English literature.

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