Updated: Jun 28, 2022
Daniel T. Skinner was a Black student/scholar who benefited from a white and integrated American education system even as he struggled to reconcile that with his own Black identity. It would be a lifetime struggle to integrate these two aspects of himself into an American system that, even while promoting racial equality and justice, exerted a subtle control over its Black citizens.
He was born in Boston on May 1, 1916, to Thomas Henson Skinner (1884-1964) and Esther (Jennings) Skinner (1884-1966). His paternal grandmother had been born into slavery, and his father was her illegitimate mulatto son, born when she was serving as a Black chambermaid to White professionals. Daniel had strong memories of this grandmother, Caroline Skinner (Janey), who was, he remarked, “completely African in appearance” and used to smoke a corncob pipe.
Daniel’s mother, Esther (Jennings) Skinner, was the daughter of two free Blacks living in Baltimore. His mother’s father was a Civil War veteran. Our Daniel was named for his great uncle Daniel Jennings, who had been a cabin boy in the US Navy during the Civil War. Daniel, his parents, and his siblings spent the first years of Daniel’s life living in the home of this great uncle in the South End District of Boston. At this time there were 20,000 Blacks living in Boston, out of a population of 780,000.
When Daniel was six, the family moved to the Roxbury section of Boston. He started school
at the Albert Palmer School on Eustis Street; the school was “mixed by race and by sex; only in the grammar and high schools would the Boston educators continue the old tradition of separate institutions for boys and girls.” He was there for two years, then the family moved back to Boston’s South End, where he spent grades 4 through 8 at the Dwight School, an English Grammar School on Springfield Street. Most of the teachers here were Irish, but there was one Black woman teacher. The students were a mixture of races and ethnicities.
Daniel Skinner as a Child
Daniel then enrolled in the college preparatory course at Boston English High School. This, he said, was the oldest public school in the United States. There were 3,000 boys enrolled there, “including Blacks, Jews, Italians, Chinese, Arabs, Greeks, Wasps, and Irish, at a time when the theory of America as a melting pot was strongly believed.” Still, despite the “fairly liberal environment of Boston and New England,” there were no Black faculty or staff, except for the Head Janitor, who had whites working under him. There were, however, Black secretaries and a Black female head librarian.
But Daniel thrived at this school, especially under the tutelage of his Latin teacher, Albert Reed, who pushed him in his language study “and even let me teach the class when he was called away to other duties.” Reed was a Harvard graduate, and was instrumental in getting Daniel sent on to Harvard. Still, when Daniel graduated from Boston English in 1934, with the top academic record in his class of 680 students, the valedictory address was given “by an Irish youth […] who had won the annual Oratorical Contest.”
Daniel now had five sibling sisters, and one younger brother who died at age seven. The depression years were hard on the family. Because Daniel’s father, a hotel waiter, had to shift jobs several times, the family moved frequently, finally ending up in an all-Black section of the city. Fortunately, after losing his job as hotel waiter, his father found work with the the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. This was a New Deal agency created by President Roosevelt in 1935; it was designed to employ mostly men with little to no formal education in carrying out various public works programs. As for the rest of the family:
My oldest sister Evelyn left school at age fourteen to help support our family while mother did baby-sitting and ironing. Another sister Lauretta finished high school and then became a waitress at a tearoom on Charles Street. As for me, I worked Saturday nights at a fruit stand on Washington Street run by an Italian immigrant. On Sundays I delivered papers to White families living across the railroad tracks which separated them from the Black section of Columbus Avenue.
Although both his parents were Protestants, Daniel followed the lead of his oldest sister during a period when his mother was hospitalized for a longer period, and he and his siblings all joined the Roman Catholic Church. Daniel was 11 when he was baptized a Catholic.
Black League team Homestead Grays
Although his family’s neighborhood would later be characterized as a Black ghetto, Daniel’s family life was a happy one, since “we did not realize that we were deprived.” Daniel became a big baseball fan:
Those were the pioneer days of big-league baseball when hotel teams of Black players got a chance to compete against the American and National leagues in off-season games. I used to wear Papa’s old uniform with Ocean House emblazoned across the chest, referring to one of the hotels where he worked (in Florida or at Watch Hill, Rhode Island, I think.) It was a real joy to watch the great visiting teams perform: the Homestead Grays with Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige; the New York Cubans; the House of David with first baseman Tucker who had a long beard and an educated glove […]. We boys had our own club, the Ranger Cubs […].
In September 1934, Daniel entered Harvard University, where there were only three other Black students in his freshman class. The faculty was white and male, but Daniel never felt that he was discriminated against: “I was always treated fairly there both as a student and as a person,” he said. “It might be said that honor and decency prevailed daily in contacts on campus.”
For his social life, though, Daniel sought out the Black communities in Boston and Cambridge. He also took on various part time jobs, as a janitorial worker at the Convent of the Blessed Sacrament, and as a discussion leader for the National Youth Administration (another New Deal program). During the summer, he did full-time hotel work, performing every task from doorman, to dishwasher, to assistant electrician. Fortunately, he had scholarship aid from Harvard, including complete tuition remission during his last two years. He completed an honor’s thesis on Emile Zola, and graduated Magna cum Laude, with Phi Beta Kappa in Romance Languages. This achievement, he recalled, was not as exceptional as one might think: “during the early twentieth century, the small Black community in Boston was very progressive,” he said, “with some individual Blacks achieving distinguished careers.”
While still a Harvard student, Daniel had an epiphany of sorts, when the French ship D’Entrecasteaux anchored in Boston Harbor, and he accompanied a friend to visit it. When Daniel tried to communicate with the French crewmen: “I discovered that I could recognize some of the spoken French words which were familiar to me. However, I could express myself only haltingly. This experience, although embarrassing, I had studied French for six years fired my ambition to master the spoken language.”
Thousands visited the French ship when it docked in Boston
Furthermore: [This visit] had opened my eyes to a new field of language study: namely, contacts outside of the classroom. I began to cultivate Frenchmen, Canadians, West Indians, Africans, South Americans, any and all who spoke French or Spanish. […] Some Sundays I used to visit a French church Notre Dame des Victoires in order to hear sermons in French. Thus, it occurred that by conversing with people and not with scholars, I had picked up many colloquial expressions […].
That summer, Daniel earned a hundred dollars at a summer hotel and received another hundred dollars in scholarship funds, “thanks to Monsignor [Richard] Cushing (the future Cardinal).” This enabled him to continue his study of Romance languages in 1938-1939 at Boston College, which he described as “a Jesuit University located in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.” Here he earned an M.A. by writing a thesis on a French Renaissance poet.
At Boston College Daniel expanded his interest in languages. He took free courses in German and Italian at the Opportunity School in Boston. “Needless to add, I made myself speak simple German and Italian from the outset. Any expression which I could read I also learned to pronounce and understand.” These studies would lead to his assignment to Camp Ritchie.
Daniel didn’t study just languages, though; by the time he had earned his degree, Daniel had already begun a second education in Black history. On a visit to Quebec in 1937, a chance acquaintance had introduced him to Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois. When Daniel returned to Boston he read three more Du Bois works, then moved on to works by other influential Black authors. “Since that time,” he said, “I have tried to educate myself in Blackness through wide and persistent reading”: of poetry, novels, and, especially, history. “Thus I have tried to compensate for an exclusively White education in integrated schools and colleges all the while seeking a truth somewhat different from the traditional Caucasian Veritas,” he said. He even wrote briefly for the Black newspaper, The Boston Guardian, until he was recruited to accept a one-year position as a sabbatical replacement for a professor of Romance Languages at Virginia State College for Negroes in Ettrick, Virginia, just across the Appomattox River from the city of Petersburg.
On Daniel’s trip from Washington to Richmond he experienced for the first time the indignity of being forced to sit at the rear of a public bus. But at Virginia State College he “was received into the gracious world of the Black Middle Class.” Here everyone — administrators, teachers, staff, and students — was Black. Daniel noticed at once that there was a great emphasis on social life among these “Black Anglo-Saxons,” with different “individual hostesses and various social clubs [competing] in [… the] game of conspicuous consumption.” Still, Daniel found this form of Southern hospitality “warm and genuine,” and thoroughly enjoyed his time there.
Daniel Skinner in 1939
The following fall Daniel was appointed instructor in French and in English at Dillard University, a small Black university in New Orleans. It was here that Daniel put into practice the linguistic insights he had gained at Harvard, and, in his teaching, de-emphasized grammar instruction in favor of conversation. “I used to take my students on visits to French and Spanish boats, and in turn to invite foreign seamen (French, Spanish, Portuguese) as visitors to the classroom,” he said. Daniel modeled his principles of language learning to his students by learning a little Portuguese himself through his acquaintance with crew members of a Brazilian coffee boat.
In spite of Louisiana’s segregation policies, Daniel was happy at Dillard. The small, 26-person faculty got along well, and “had a nice friendly spirit on campus with a minimum of professional jealousy.” Here Daniel continued his study of German by auditing advanced literature classes at Dillard. But in the summer of 1942 heat-induced illness forced him to return to his mother’s home in Roxbury. There he started teaching French and Spanish at Brighton High School in September, 1942; two months later he was drafted into the US Army.
Personally, he said, he was “glad to be accepted for military service and wanted no excuse to evade this duty.” He went through basic training, then was assigned to the all-Black 366th Infantry Regiment at Fort Deven, Massachusetts — a unit which was unusual for the fact that even its officers were Black. Eventually this unit would be sent overseas to fight in Italy, and a full third of its men would be killed in action. Before that could happen, though, the Army took note that Daniel was conversant in French, Spanish, German, and Italian, and he was called to Camp Ritchie to train with its 7th class in interrogation of German and Italian prisoners of war. He was one of only two Black trainees in the 7th class, but he also became acquainted with the Black Bass Baritone William Warfield, who had completed his Ritchie training and was now permanently stationed at Camp Ritchie to oversee its theater and recreational facilities. Warfield, Daniel recalled, delighted the German-American soldiers at the camp with his rendition of Schubert’s Lieder.
Although Skinner enjoyed his new environment, where his fellow soldiers “spoke most of the principal languages of the world: French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Turkish, Greek, Arabic, etc.,” he also experienced an unhappy episode at camp when he was made to work on the garbage truck “as punishment[,] along with a Franco-American soldier named André; we tried to overcome the stench of garbage pails by reciting lines from Villon, Hugo, and Baudelaire.” The situation, he said, reminded him of a taunting line that Victor Hugo directed to a former lady love: “You gave me your messy mud, but I turned it into gold!”
Skinner did not complete his coursework at Ritchie, but was transferred instead to Camp Polk, Louisiana. He drove a Jeep for the multi-day trip south, as party of a convoy of soldiers from Military Intelligence.
For several days when our convoy drove south from Maryland to Louisiana, the Black soldiers of our group were refused food and lodging in White hotels and restaurants and even in YMCA’s despite the prestige of our US Army uniforms. (Indeed German and Italian POW’s were given service[,] but not Black G.I.’s.) One of our White lieutenants exclaimed, “I am ashamed of my country.”
He was attached to the 93rd “Blue Derby” Division, which had all-Black troops and all-white field officers. This division was to fight in the Pacific, but he was suddenly called back to Camp Ritchie on short notice, and missed, once again, active service in the field.
Daniel suffered his greatest racial indignity when returning north by train:
[T]he agent refused to accept my first-class ticket issued by the United States Army, despite my citing President Roosevelt’s Executive Order #8802, which banned racial discrimination against members of the US Armed Forces. When Military Police were summoned, they supported the ticket agent, who insisted that I ride in the Jim Crow car. On my refusal to do so, I was arrested and forced to remain overnight in a military prison.
Daniel had never had to rely on public transport or on hotels and restaurants in his travels to the South before, because he had Black friends all along the route with whom he’d always stayed. But now he was forced to accept the “viciousness of Southern Segregation.” The next morning, he entered the Jim Crow car and rode it north into Virginia, until, at last, a pleasant conductor assured him that he had left “the area of segregated travel.” “Good Lord!” Daniel exclaimed, “What a War to spread Democracy abroad while practicing Racisim at home!”
The Double V campaign sign promoted by the Pittsburgh Courier, 1942-1945
Daniel was not the only Black American to find tremendous irony in the fact that Black Americans were being recruited to fight for freedom and democracy in Europe while experiencing racist suppression at home. Nor was this irony lost on the US government. The US Office of War Information issued a publication in magazine format entitled Negroes and the War, whose purpose was “to celebrate the achievements of Negro Americans in many fields and to recognize their important contributions, in all fields, to the fighting of the war.” Chandler Owen, a well-known Black Chicago publicist, wrote the text. He made the point that Blacks in America had made significant progress in the last fifty years, although, he confessed, progress had been slow. “There is still a long way to go before equality is attained, but the pace is faster, and never faster than now.” Examples were now given across the American spectrum, highlighting the successes of American Blacks in law, in education, in the arts, in medicine, in science, in business, in farming, and in sports. In contrast to the progress of Blacks in America, Owen pointed to what Hitler had written of Negroes in Mein Kampf: that “it is a criminal absurdity to train a born half-ape until one believes a lawyer has been made of him, […] [I]t is a sin against the will of the Eternal Creator to let hundreds of thousands of His most talented beings degenerate in the proletarian swamp of today, while Hottentots and Zulu Kafirs are trained for intellectual vocations.” Owen made no mention of segregation or of Jim Crow laws. Still, his basic argument — that the Blacks would have a lot more to lose under Hitler than under President Roosevelt — resonated among American Blacks, even while thousands of them protested American hypocrisy by ascribing to a “Double V” campaign: victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home. This campaign had been initiated by the Black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier, and quickly spread throughout the Black community. As the Black poet Langston Hughes so famously wrote in addressing America head on after race riots tore through the country in 1943:
You tell me that hitler
Is a mighty bad man
I guess he took lessons
From the ku klux klan
I ask you this question
Cause I want to know
How long I got to fight
BOTH HITLER — AND JIM CROW
In spite of Chandler Owen’s arguments, discrimination continued in the military. Black soldiers either fought in segregated Black units or they were assigned to support roles. Daniel was highly qualified to serve as an interrogator of prisoners of war, and yet, as a Black officer, he was assigned to serve in a quartermaster company, instead.
Daniel had returned to Camp Ritchie, but did not remain there long; instead, he was transferred to Camp Breckenridge, in Kentucky, where he was attached to a company of soldiers who did hospital work. But this, too, did not last long: “There a Black officer, Lieutenant Lloyd Davis, took me out of the ranks, made me a file clerk, and advanced me gradually to sergeant; then he sent me off to Officer Candidate School in April 1944.”
The school was located at Fort Lee, Virginia. “Here in the Sunny South we studied Supplies and Transportation[,] since this was a school for the Quartermaster Corps, as well as Map Reading, Chemical Warfare, Drill, and Command.” He successfully completed the program as a “90-Day wonder,” with an assignment to remain at Fort Lee. This proved a personal boon to Skinner, for, on a leave from the military, he had met and fallen in love with Vyna May Wingood, “a Boston girl from Bermuda who had a rare combination of beauty, brains, and charm.” They married in Washington D.C. in October, 1944, where Vyna, who had a master’s degree in art education, taught art to the city’s Blacks at Francis Junior High School. Daniel was able to visit her every weekend of his service at Fort Lee.
Finally, however, in April 1945, Daniel shipped out to Europe. He took advantage of the crossing to continue his interest in languages. “On the ship I taught two French classes and studied German in another class. My soldier-students had no grammar book, they learned French expressions by listening and by imitating my pronunciation.” The effectiveness of this teaching method was confirmed when he arrived on the Continent. “Everywhere I encountered American soldiers who had achieved fluent French, German or Italian without the study of grammar and without any formal teaching,” he said. “This stay abroad, at the taxpayers’ expense, helped to shape my thinking on modern language methods.”
Daniel’s quartermaster company was posted to Belgium, where the men were garrisoned in Verviers. Daniel’s duties were described as those of “driver and translator.” The company’s next assignment was to the city of Aachen, Germany’s westernmost city, sitting directly on the border to Belgium. Daniel was here when, on May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered. He would tell his family and friends that: “I was standing on the German border when Adolf Hitler surrendered. Perhaps, he had heard that I was coming!”
Since the war in Germany was now over, Daniel was rerouted south to Marseille, as one of roughly 80,000 American soldiers reassigned to service in the Pacific. But now the war with Japan was winding down, as well: “Several days after we sailed from Europe in a convoy of ships bound for the Okinawas, the Japanese surrendered because of the holocaust at Hiroshima and Naga[s]aki […]. Since my ship had not yet reached the Panama Canal, we were rerouted to Newport News, Virginia and home.”
Looking back on his military service he remarked: Three and one-half years of Army duty gave me contact with Americans from all different races, nationalities, and social classes: there were rich Wasps, Jewish refugees, Irish, Italians, Syrians, Chinese, poor Whites, Black college graduates, and simple sharecroppers. As soldiers, they were good material, ready to prove themselves as men, since Americans of that day were rather patriotic and idealistic.
Daniel was reunited with his wife, and they established residence in Washington, where Vyna continued her teaching. Daniel commuted every day to Baltimore, where he had obtained a teaching job at Morgan State College. Morgan State was, at the time, a small Black institution of 800 full-time students and about 50 faculty members. Daniel was hired to teach French, Spanish, and German. By the time he retired, in 1981, the college had become a university of 5,000 students and 250 faculty, and the language department had expanded from three members to ten. For most of that time, Daniel taught French and beginning Latin.
Morgan State College
But Daniel interrupted his teaching from 1947 to 1949 to start his doctoral program at Harvard. He was funded in part by the GI Bill and in part by the Julius Rosenwald Foundation. In addition to his concentration in French literature, he took a course in Spanish literature of the Golden Age and a literary survey course in Italian. During this time he and Vyna were living with Vyna’s parents, where their two sons David and John were born.
While Daniel was living in Boston, a new university was founded in nearby Waltham, Massachusetts, and named after Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Justice of the US Supreme Court. Although Brandeis University was Jewish sponsored, it was firmly nonsectarian, and pledged that its application forms would contain “no questions as to race or religion,” require no photographs of applicants, and “never […] adopt a ‘quota’ system limiting the enrollment of members of certain racial or religious groups.” As proof of its non-sectarian approach, its public relations office announced that: “Not only Negro students, but also Negro teachers will find opportunities at Brandeis, which already lists a Negro, Daniel T. Skinner, among its faculty members.” And, indeed, Daniel taught one course there as a visiting lecturer during his last year of graduate study at Harvard. Although he deplored the campus politics at Morgan State, he then returned there to resume his career and to finish his dissertation on Victor Hugo and Louis Fréchette.
Daniel received his doctorate in 1953. In 1956-57 he took another leave from Morgan State to represent the American State Department as a researcher and lecturer for the United States government on the US-French Fulbright program. He and his family sailed on a Dutch ship, where there was no racial segregation, and he enjoyed a week “of gourmet meals and fine fellowship on board.” During the year he spent in Paris, Daniel penned a booklet on The United States Teacher-Training Program for France; he also lectured on “Minorities in the United States.”
Daniel Skinner with two friends from Cameroon
The entire family relished this year abroad, and traveled widely around Europe, where Daniel “found a broader world than that of Professor at a Black College in a society just beginning to desegregate its hotels, restaurants, schools, clubs, and churches.” Daniel was not a Black activist, even though he was sympathetic to Black activist causes. However, “since I could not be an apologist for United States Foreign Policy or Race Relations at home, no permanent post was offered me in the Foreign Service.”
Upon his return to Morgan State Daniel now bought a small row house in northwest Baltimore. This would remain the family home throughout his lifetime. His wife Vyna taught for a few more years, then retired to enjoy cultivating their flower garden and preparing gourmet meals for special family occasions. Daniel spent three summers as a visiting professor at the Texas Southern University in Houston, preparing graduate students for their foreign language examinations in French, Spanish, and German.
When Daniel had started his career at Morgan State, he had enjoyed the collegiality and community spirit of a small Black college of quality. That changed rather quickly when an ambitious president came in and quickly grew the college in size and program, while transforming it into a large university. Daniel was one of those faculty sidelined by the changes, and for years his salary was frozen. He mourned what he called the new, “Orwellian” atmosphere on campus, and a growth which brought more and more whites to the university. The faculty at this “Black” university was now 25% white, whereas nearby Towson State had a single Black member on its faculty rolls. Daniel took his pleasures where he could. Towson State, in fact, hired him in 1969 to teach one night course and two summer courses, despite the fact that he could not get a full-time faculty position there. He delighted in teaching the modern novel and drama in Spanish and contemporary theater in French to Towson’s seniors and graduate students.
But from 1975 up to his retirement in 1981 he turned away from his intensive year-round teaching to taking summer travel trips, some subsidized by private and governmental funds. Many of these trips were with Vyna. These included visits to Quebec, Haiti, Trinidad, Liberia, and Hawaii. This travel, his teaching, and his study of Arabic during his last six years at Morgan State helped him to “appreciate Black Studies and Négritude.” Looking back on his long career at Morgan, he had much to be proud of. This included the many students who had gone on from his tutelage to remarkable careers.
He had, during his lifetime, experienced nearly all varieties of accommodation to Blacks living in America: from integration into white schools, to traditional segregation, to wartime patriotism under the guise of Americanism, to limited integration at Black and white institutions. He had Morgan State firmly in mind when he wrote:
Here is the final anecdote about Afro-American Education. In a town faraway, in a region faraway, there is a Black college with a student body over 90% Black and a faculty over 75% White. The primary mission has shifted from giving Blacks an Afrocentric education to providing jobs for Whites who cannot find employment in predominantly White colleges. Most of the students will graduate as supporters of traditional Eurocentric learning.
Personally, Daniel opposed this trend. “Our people need Afrocentric thinking that is thoroughly independent of Eurocentric and Judeocentric thought,” he wrote. He objected to America’s wars in Panama and Iraq, and to Israel’s suppression of Arabs. He objected to attempts that were made to “dehumanize” or “demonize” Blacks who expressed legitimate concerns about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. He could not forget “the unholy alliance between Israel and South Africa that helped to keep Azania in bondage.”
Although he never became a leader in the Black movement, Daniel clearly expressed his viewpoint, at the end of his life, when he entitled his memoirs Ustaz Aswad instead of Black Professor. “My Arabic title Ustaz Aswad and my quotations from al Quran seek to ally Black Americans with Muslims of the Third World,” he said, “since many of our African forebears knew Arabic and al Quran.” His view was that the late W. E. B. Du Bois and Franklin Frazier were still waiting for “mature Afrocentric thought from our [American] Black leaders,” adding: “If we [Blacks] subsidize them better, perhaps they will be less dependent on White money.”
After retirement Daniel and Vyna continued to travel: to Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Bermuda, and Venezuela, while Daniel continued to offer occasional courses at neighboring colleges. Vyna died in 1995; Daniel was comforted by his children and grandchildren, and by regular get-togethers with friends and former colleagues. He died of respiratory failure on March 22, 2008.
Final Photo taken of Daniel Skinner
Beverley Driver Eddy,
1. All quotations, unless otherwise noted, come from Daniel T. Skinner’s Ustaz Aswad (Black Professor), his self-published memoir, printed in Baltimore, 1996.
2. Ustaz Aswad, 10.
3. Daniel T. Skinner, “The Learning of Languages,” The Modern Language Journal 30:8 (Dec. 1946), 594.
4. “The Learning of Languages,” 595.
5. “The Learning of Languages,” 595.
6. This term is the title of a work published by Nathan Hare in 1965.
7. “The Learning of Languages,” 595.
8. In French: “Tu m’as donné de ta boue et j’en ai fait de l’or!”
9. Chandler Owen, Negroes and the War. Washington DC: US Office of War Information.
10. Langston Hughes, “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943.”
11. “The Learning of Languages, 596.
12. Frederick N. Rasmussen, “Daniel T. Skinner,” The Baltimore Sun, 1. Apr. 2008. https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-2008-04-01-0804010190-story.html. Last accessed 10. Apr. 2022.
13.“Lauds Opportunity for Negro Students," ʼAlabama Tribune (Montgomery), 7 Jan. 1949, 6.