Gift Honors First African American Graduate
by Matt Getty
October 1, 2008
James Chambers ’78, who was elected to Dickinson’s Board of Trustees this year, spent 20 years in management positions at Conoco Inc. and Quest Diagnostics before taking his current position at Conundrum Capital Partners LLC. He is also a partner in the Vision Ace Hardware chain of Florida.
Little is known about John Robert Paul Brock, class of 1901, other than that he made the most of a rare opportunity. By the end of the 19th century, only a few hundred African Americans had attended college since this country’s founding. Brock was one who had.
Dickinson’s first known black graduate, Brock was an impressive student regardless of his role as a trail-blazer. College President James Henry Morgan, class of 1878, a professor of Greek during Brock’s time at Dickinson, described him as “an efficient and inspiring leader.” He was active in the Union Philosophical Society and graduated as one of the country’s first 10 African-American members of Phi Beta Kappa.
After graduating, Brock taught in the Carlisle school system for several years, then relocated to New Jersey. There he continued his career in education, rising to become the supervising principal of “colored” schools in Atlantic City, N.J., before dying of heart failure in 1922.
“It’s rare that you see a first as involved and as successful as he was,” says Rachel Jones Williams, a historian who has written on Brock’s family and applied to the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission to place a historical marker for Brock on campus. “A lot of times you find that the first African Americans were there in name only, but he was definitely there—he made a mark. That says a lot about him and a lot about Dickinson College.”
Now, more than a century after Brock made the most of his Dickinson experience, Trustee James Chambers ’78, a managing partner at the investment consulting firm Conundrum Capital Partners LLC, wants to use Brock’s name to help current students make the most of what still can be a rare opportunity. Although diversity at Dickinson—and all American colleges—has come a long way since 1901, higher education can still be out of reach for economically disadvantaged students from urban areas. To help rectify that at Dickinson, Chambers and his wife Niecy have pledged $125,000 to establish the John Robert Paul Brock Scholarship Fund, which will support inner-city students with great potential but limited financial resources.
“Having seen the cycle of poverty, we just feel like this is a way to help break kids out,” says Chambers, who began doing volunteer work with inner-city children in Newark, N.J. six years ago and now works with the Boys and Girls Club near his home in Annapolis, Md., to teach underprivileged children money-management skills. “If you can get a kid out of a tough environment where they’re already succeeding and get them to land in a place like Dickinson, that can open up a whole new world to them.”
Beginning in December, the fund will provide a $5,000 scholarship each year to a John Robert Paul Brock scholar, but as Chambers sees it, the scholar won’t be the only one who benefits from his gift. Just as Brock’s education enabled him to educate and inspire others, Chambers hopes that the impact Brock scholars have on the world will be even larger than the impact his gift has on them.
“To remain competitive, the country needs to make the most of all of its people,” he says, noting that he hopes other alumni might choose to support the fund as well. “As a society we’ve made some progress but not enough. We’re rich with talent everywhere in this country. We’ve got to continue to work to open up opportunities for as much of our population as we can.”