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Chapter 3 - Morteza Drexel Sprague

from Part I - Geographical, Institutional, and Interpersonal Contexts

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 January 2022

Paul Devlin
United States Merchant Marine Academy, New York


Ralph Ellison was still determined to become a composer of symphonies when he met Morteza Sprague, a professor of English at Tuskegee Institute. Sprague, who helped modernize Tuskegee’s literature curriculum, was a major influence on Ellison’s reading and future trajectory. Little has been published about the nature, depth, and longevity of their relationship. This chapter will narrate their relationship with the goal of providing context for why Ellison would dedicate Shadow and Act (1964) to Sprague, whom he called “A Dedicated Dreamer in a Land Most Strange.”

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021
As a professor of English and later the chief librarian at Tuskegee, Morteza Sprague gave much of his life to the school and its surrounding community. “The success of former students,” he wrote in a 1954 letter, “constitutes the greatest reward that teaching has to offer.”1 And in the case of his most famous pupils, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, Sprague was amply rewarded. In 1964, two years before Sprague’s death, Ellison honored him with the dedication to Shadow and Act:


Morteza Sprague



Ellison’s dedication, which does not appear in the 1995 or 2003 edition of The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, places Sprague in the realm of myth and metaphor. To Murray, who included an extended elegy for Sprague in 1971’s South to a Very Old Place, the professor was an as-yet-unheralded hero. And it’s perhaps only from Murray, who became Sprague’s colleague at Tuskegee for much longer than he had been his student, that we could have this richly textured vision:

young Mister Sprague of English 101 … striding into class, his bearing, in memory at any rate, not unsuggestive of an ellington trumpet player named Arthur Whetsol, wearing a well-cut gray suit with an Ivy League white shirt and a maroon tie and black scotch grain wingtip shoes … a package of Camels showing from the left bottom vest pocket.3

Together, the evocative remembrances raise essential questions: Who was Morteza Sprague? In what strange land did he dare to dream? And what did he mean to Ralph Ellison?

In their own ways, the memories from Ellison and Murray also serve as guides for approaching answers to the very same questions. Through them, an image of Sprague emerges – one that conveys more than the bare facts of his life could. Indeed, as Ellison and Murray demonstrated in their many works, the story of a person’s life contains more meaning than the assembly of facts. Thus the story of Sprague – assembled by his correspondence, inter-office papers, and other archived documents for the purpose of revealing his interests, ambitions, and shortcomings – is one that illuminates the lineage of American arts and letters a level deeper. That is, it gives us more images and metaphors – that our lives may be further enriched.


Undoubtedly, the strange land to which Ellison referred lies in the seat of Macon County, Alabama. One can of course glean much about Ellison’s appraisal of Tuskegee from chapters 2 through 6 of Invisible Man; “strange” would be a mild description of that novel’s college and surrounding area. Moreover, Ellison’s disappointments with the school are documented by his two biographers. In a chapter titled “In a Land Most Strange,” Arnold Rampersad refers to “Ralph’s experience of the Tuskegee dream as a metastasizing cancer” (Rampersad, 79). In Emergence of Genius, Lawrence Jackson writes, “Ellison had … difficult, if not traumatic, social experiences at Tuskegee” (Jackson, 135).

In a 1965 interview, Ellison said, “Yes, I consider Sprague a friend and dedicated my essays to him because he was an honest teacher” (CwRE, 88). His emphasis on that trait might, in some measure, suggest Ellison’s estimation that part of what made Tuskegee such a strange place was the presence, or abundance, of dishonest teachers. Emergence of Genius describes a cast of folks who may have fit that description: William Dawson, the head of the music school who denied Ellison’s entreaties for mentorship – although Ellison’s complicated relationship with Dawson lasted for decades; Alvin Neely, the Dean of Men who is alleged to have used his authority to trade coveted campus jobs for sexual favors; William O’Shields, the gym teacher who wouldn’t allow male students to wear trunks during swim class (though this may have been common enough at the time; Jackson, 135). However, it wasn’t just these abuses of power that contributed to Ellison’s antipathy toward Tuskegee. Even as a poor but striving student, Ellison could hardly understand, let alone abide, what he perceived to be the campus-wide anti-intellectualism and provincialism – an attitude that gives insight into his affinity for Sprague, whose career is marked by efforts to bring a different set of values to Tuskegee.

By 1925, the year that Sprague graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., the school had earned itself a national reputation. Founded in 1870 under a different name, Dunbar was the first public high school for black Americans in the country.4 Its principal from 1902 until 1906, Anna Julia Cooper, shifted the curriculum away from vocational training and toward classical academic studies. If, in the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, there were only two philosophies of social uplift for the black Americans, then Cooper would have been on the side of W.E.B. Du Bois. “Education … is the safest and richest investment possible to man,” Cooper wrote in her essay “What Are We Worth?” “It pays the largest dividends and gives the largest possible product to the world – a man.”5

Indeed, Du Bois’s guiding spirit hovered over Dunbar in the early twentieth century. According to Alison Stewart, the author of First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School, when Du Bois spoke to the students in 1902, he “explained that a movement in the country sought to limit the education of the Negro.”6 In 1917, The Crisis magazine heralded Dunbar as “The greatest Negro high school in the world” – one to counteract the movement Du Bois had identified.7 As Stewart wrote, “First and foremost, Dunbar was about academic rigor. The all-classical pedagogy focused on English, mathematics, the sciences, ancient history, Negro history, military drill, physical education, music, drawing, domestic science, Latin, Spanish, French, and German.”8 (An ironic connection: Booker T. Washington commissioned the high school’s namesake to write the lyrics to Tuskegee’s school song – “The ring of the anvil and hoe / Have a music as thrilling and sweet as a harp.”9)

When Sprague was in high school, in the early twenties, there were other public high schools for black students in Washington, which allowed Dunbar to become even more specialized. Each Dunbar student’s performance was carefully tracked; those who couldn’t or opted not to keep up with the academic rigor were encouraged to transfer to one of the other schools, which emphasized vocational and business training.10 So by the time that Sprague graduated and went off to study English literature at Hamilton College, a prominent liberal arts school, he would have already been familiar with the culture, sensibilities, and aspirations of urbane, educated, and modern life.

On July 31, 1929, William T. Sprague, Morteza’s father, wrote a letter to Du Bois, then the editor of The Crisis, in response to an open call for notices of that year’s college graduates. Sprague, his father wrote, had graduated from Hamilton “with honors having won the ‘Hawley Greek Prize,’ June 17, 1929.”11 After earning his master’s from Howard University, Sprague began teaching English at Tuskegee in 1930.


Tuskegee Institute had, by the 1930s, grown a long way from the school’s original site that Booker T. Washington describes in Up from Slavery: “Before going to Tuskegee I had expected to find there a building and all the necessary apparatus ready for me to begin teaching. To my disappointment, I found nothing of the kind.”12 From its establishment in 1881 through Washington’s death in 1915, the Institute’s success was inseparable from the founder’s charisma and tenacity, especially when it came to fundraising. Furthermore, throughout much of the twentieth century, Tuskegee was the center of gravity for the surrounding black community; it was a major employer, the main site of education (the campus operated programs for children and a high school), and a venue for socializing shielded from the segregated indignities elsewhere in town. After Washington’s death, Robert Russa Moton became the school’s second president, and during his tenure the academic curriculum was expanded to confer bachelor’s degrees in agriculture, home economics, mechanical industries, and education, which included coursework in the humanities. The Hollis Burke Frissell Library – essential to Ellison’s and Murray’s educations and where Sprague spent most of his career at Tuskegee – was also built under Moton’s leadership.13

Groomed in a Du Boisian environment in a cosmopolitan city, Sprague became a part of Booker T. Washington’s campus and community, to which he brought a different vision for education. An article by Sprague in the February 1934 Tuskegee Messenger, discussing the literary preferences among undergraduates, contains a glimpse of his approach: “Teachers of English must get away from so much emphasis on plot retaining; they must stress interpretation, criticism, and analysis” (quoted in Rampersad, 75). Thanks to Moton’s expansions of the curriculum, Sprague had the opportunity to teach literature in a manner more consistent with his own views of education and modern life than with Washington’s professed vocation-first vision.

When Ellison arrived at Tuskegee, in 1933, Sprague had been a professor and head of the English department for three years. The reading assignments for Sprague’s section of English 409, which Ellison took in the spring of 1936, included Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure, The Egoist, and Portrait of a Lady. (On Ellison’s copy of the reading list there are check marks next to The Egoist, Wuthering Heights, and Jude the Obscure.14) In various ways, these novels were all important to Ellison, who excelled in the classes he took from Sprague.15 Of his college years, Ellison writes, in the essay “Hidden Name and Complex Fate,” “I was much more under the spell of literature than I realized at the time. Wuthering Heights had caused me an agony of unexpressible emotion, and the same was true of Jude the Obscure, but The Waste Land seized my mind” (CE, 203). Though Sprague didn’t teach Eliot, Ellison said, he “told me what to do about it: the places to find discussions and criticism” (CwRE, 88).

“Hidden Name and Complex Fate” tells a capsule version of Ellison’s journey as an artist – from Oklahoma City through Tuskegee to New York City, from building radios through studying music composition to literature. When Ellison left Tuskegee in the summer of 1936, as he embarked on the flourishing phase of this journey, he spent the Fourth of July with Sprague’s parents at their Washington home, suggesting a certain level of mutual trust and regard between the student and professor and forecasting their long relationship (SL, 812). The essay also articulates Ellison’s view of the writer’s obligations to craft and the writer’s moral obligations. The US writer, Ellison writes,

learns that the American novel, from its first consciousness of itself as a literary form, has grappled with the meaning of the American experience, that it has been aware and has sought to define the nature of that experience by addressing itself to the specific details, the moods, the landscapes, the cityscapes, the tempo of American change. And that it has borne, at its best, the full weight of that burden of conscience and consciousness which Americans inherit as one of the results of the revolutionary circumstances of our national beginnings. …

I need not describe the problems which have arisen from these beginnings. I need only remind you that the contradiction between these noble ideals and the actualities of our conduct generated a guilt, an unease of spirit, from the very beginning, and that the American novel at its best has always been concerned with this basic moral predicament.

(CE, 206–07)

Eliot, Hardy, and Brontë opened up the realm of literary form and craft to Ellison; their works also establish the foundation of Ellison’s confrontation with the relationship between literature and the American “moral predicament.” As Lawrence Jackson notes, “The metaphor of invisibility, central to Ellison’s vision of race and consciousness in the twentieth century, found elementary voice in Hardy’s classic description of the hero Jude Fawley” (Jackson, 150).


Invisible Man was the masterful result of this confrontation. Just two months before it was published, in 1952, Ellison wrote a long letter to Murray in which he shares some memories and a more mature estimation of his years at Tuskegee. “I only wish that I had known consciously that I was preparing myself to become something called a writer, rather than the aborted composer that I am,” he wrote. “Nimble is the word, they taught me to be many things in order to be myself” (SL, 300).

At this time, roughly congruent with the escalation of the Civil Rights Movement, Tuskegee – the campus and wider community – had already long been committed to addressing the “moral predicament” that Ellison identified. Of course, such commitment began with Washington himself. But as Murray, who graduated from Tuskegee in 1939, wrote in South to a Very Old Place, moral responsibility wasn’t incompatible with the type of education that Sprague offered his students:

let it be said for the benefit of all overnight paperback experts on the psychology of brainwashing and black identity that Morteza Drexel Sprague expected you to proceed in terms of the highest standards of formal scholarship among other things not because he wanted you to become a carbon copy of any white man who ever lived, not excepting Shakespeare or even Leonardo da Vinci. But because to him you were the very special vehicle through which contemporary man, and not just contemporary black man either, would inherit the experience and insights of all recorded or decipherable time. Because to him (as to everybody else on that all-black faculty) your own political commitment to specific social causes of your own people went without saying.16

Tuskegee’s mission as an institution of education was indivisible from the potential for meaningful social progress. In more precise terms, Sprague’s efforts on campus (among them exposing students and faculty to literature and art, improving the library, creating auxiliary libraries in dormitories,17 and instituting an academic honors’ program18) constituted what Murray describes as “expanding your people’s horizons of aspirations.”19 Sprague’s work as a teacher and librarian can be said to concern the same moral and societal problems that Ellison dramatized in fiction and analyzed in nonfiction. Moreover, it seems likely that Ellison and Sprague would have largely agreed on how to resolve the fight over segregation, then burning throughout the country; that each would have relied on his sense of the basic requirements for human fulfillment in the modern world – an extension of the liberal-arts perspective, based in history yet geared toward the future, which believes that integration is the political expression of understanding the human condition as universal.

In February 1954, soon before Ellison would return to Tuskegee to deliver lectures, he wrote a letter to Murray that expresses thoughts that can be seen as a precursor to “Hidden Name and Complex Fate” – that literature for a nation, particularly for one in crisis like the United States, was not idle entertainment, and education was therefore not an inconsequential matter. “Mort’s either going to have to make his values felt or quit,” Ellison wrote. “He was fine for us, but that was damn near twenty years ago and it’s now that his qualities should be most effective … Not to mention those kids to whom he owes a responsibility by birth, by sensibility, by intelligence and by position” (SL, 346–47). In reply, Murray wrote, “Mort of course rates high with [Tuskegee’s president Luther Foster], but you know Mort; he doesn’t want to get in there and politic, and when things take a turn toward the stupid his first reaction is to back the hell out” (TT, 72). Whatever incident of campus politics that was involved seems like a trivial, but perhaps inevitable, hurdle on the way toward the loftier goals to which Ellison alluded.

During this same period, Sprague wrote at least two separate letters expressing how he thought Tuskegee was changing. “The emphasis of the new administration is on more work for everyone, but the climate of the institution seems vastly improved,” he wrote to a former colleague in April 1954.20 Later that year, Sprague wrote to friends, saying, “Our new president is quite conscious of the importance of art in the life of the individual. I have very real hopes.”21

As Ellison knew, the stakes were high. On May 19, 1954, he wrote a letter to Sprague in which he gave his reaction to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, saying, in part, “What a wonderful world of possibilities are unfolded for the children! … here’s to integration, the only integration that counts: that of the personality.” Both Sprague and Ellison were surely aware of the significant opportunities that the Brown decision made possible, and also of the “problems that lie ahead,” as Ellison wrote (SL, 360). In fact, Tuskegee was such a place where lasting progress could either be nurtured or stymied – and Sprague, by his intelligence and vision on one hand and his acquiescence on the other, was poised to contribute to either possibility. Four years later, Sprague wrote a letter to a professor of tailoring, who admired the humanities, that shows the frustrations Sprague still held with the school’s environment: “I have never understood why there is at Tuskegee generally (and I include my own division) the tendency to regard vocational preparation and the development of cultural interests (both essential) as mutually exclusive.”22


“When Bill Dawson called me at noon today and said, ‘Congratulations,’” Sprague wrote to Ellison on October 5, 1964, “I had not the slightest idea what he meant. Immediately after that I received my copy of Shadow and Act and am able to say at this point only that your dedicating your book to me is one of the most truly gratifying rewards that I have experienced. My reactions are those of astonishment and infinite pleasure.”23 In something of a departure from the laconic dedication of Invisible Man – “For Ida” – Ellison proclaimed Sprague’s importance to him before a national audience.

Two months later, Sprague embarked on an effort to recruit Ellison to teach at Tuskegee in a position that would have been more permanent than any academic post that Ellison had held before. “One of the things that I’d like to discuss with you is the new Avalon Chair in the Humanities,” Sprague wrote in a letter. “Tuskegee Institute would like very much for you to fill it, on terms and for a period that would be convenient and reasonably advantageous to you.”24 Over the next six months, and spanning a serious hospitalization, Sprague sent at least two more letters and two telegrams about this matter to Ellison.25 In July 1965, Sprague wrote a letter to president Foster notifying him that Ellison had decided “to devote this year to finishing his second novel, largely because he feels that the next ten years (he is now 50) will determine his rank and stature among American writers.”26

After Ellison declined the offer, the episode continued to trouble Sprague. On September 3, 1965, he reported to Ellison that, during his recruitment efforts, another faculty member had told Foster that Sprague endorsed the appointment of another person to the Chair. Sprague, who denied that such a statement were even possible as he was hospitalized at the time, was angered by the dishonesty: “This was an outrageous lie and when we had a three-way conference Foster reminded him of my alleged endorsement. [He] chose to look off and say nothing … if he repeated the lie, I don’t know what I would have done.”27 What appears in the archived record a month later suggests that the incident may have marked a deflation of Sprague’s devotion to Tuskegee.

“Dear Ralph,” Sprague wrote on October 5, 1965, “I am going job hunting in a few days and hope to get to New York, if only for a few hours.”28 The specific, and comprehensive, reason for his wanting to leave Tuskegee is not clear. Sprague eventually did receive one job offer, from Morgan State University. Though, in a letter to Murray, he didn’t sound inclined to accept it: “In addition to the salary thing, I was greatly disturbed by the yes-manship of his high-ranking officials, who seemed greatly perturbed when I disagreed with [the president], which was often.”29 So, as the 1966 academic year began, Sprague was still the librarian at Tuskegee.

On the morning of November 3, 1966, his fifty-seventh birthday, Sprague didn’t show up for work or answer the phone. His family was in Cleveland,30 and when a group of colleagues went to his house, they found him dead, sitting in a chair. There is no record of Ellison’s reaction to Sprague’s death. On January 11, 1967, Fanny Ellison wrote a letter to Sprague’s widow, Ellen, in which she said, “Ralph and I hope very much that life is not now too hard for you and that soon all things shall mend.”31 In the end, he did not transform Tuskegee in his vision, and he did not have enough time to try out his efforts in a land less strange. So who was Morteza Sprague, the dedicated dreamer? The heroic professor to Ellison and Murray may be a cautionary figure for us. He represents the imagination and urgency of synthesis – of Du Bois and Washington, of art and vocation, of loyalty and ambition, of literature and moral commitment. Nimble is the word.

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