After graduating with a bachelor of arts degree from Howard University in Washington, DC in 1917, William Sherman Savage came to Eugene in 1924 to continue graduate work in history. Two years later, he was the first African American to graduate with a master of arts from the University of Oregon. During his time in Oregon, Savage was forced to deal with the isolation of being the only black person in Eugene, which at the time was a center for Ku Klux Klan activity in the state.
Savage went to the University of Oregon to complete his MA after spending time at the University of Kansas during the summers of 1921 and 1923. He decided to attend the UO because “the tuition was only six dollars a quarter. All I had to do was find a place to stay.” Unable to live on campus because of school and state policies denying residence in university dormitories due to race, Sherman struggled to find off-campus housing in the city. With Klan members holding strong positions in Eugene and the state, Savage was forced to confront overt discrimination during his time at the UO.
Upon completion of his master’s thesis, “Abolitionist Literature in the Mails, 1835-36,” Savage graduated from the UO with a master of arts with a major in history and a minor in education. He later completed a PhD in history at Ohio State University in 1934, and he served as a professor in the history department at Lincoln University in Missouri for nearly four decades until his retirement in 1960. He settled in Hawkins, Texas, where he served as the chairman of the Department of History and Social Sciences at Jarvis Christian College. In 1970, Dr. Savage returned to the classroom as a visiting professor of history at California State College in Los Angeles before concluding his career at the prestigious Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
Throughout his career, Dr. Savage was one of the most respected African American historians in the country, focusing on the role of African Americans in the development of the western United States. In the words of his colleague at Huntington Library, Ray Allen Billington, Dr. Savage “labored alone and selflessly to bring recognition to the blacks who had played such a significant role in the western process.” Savage's seminal work, Blacks in the West, remains one of the key texts detailing black contributions to westward expansion.
By Jennifer O’Neal, University Historian and Archivist and Zach Bigalke, Student Research Assistant