Derricotte, Juliette (1897–1931)
Derricotte, Juliette (1897–1931)
African-American university official and student leader whose accidental death in 1931 triggered a national outrage in the black community because her death was seen as one of the inevitable consequences of the Southern regime of racial segregation and inequality. Born Juliette Aline Derricotte in Athens, Georgia, on April 1, 1897; died in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on November 7, 1931; daughter of Isaac and Laura (Hardwick) Derricotte; never married.
Born in a small Georgia university town a generation after the abolition of slavery, Juliette Aline Derricotte grew up in a large and loving African-American family. Her father Isaac, a cobbler, and her mother Laura , a seamstress, had managed to create an emotionally caring environment for their nine children despite their modest incomes and having to live in a racially segregated society. Intellectually curious as well as emotionally sensitive, as a child Juliette wished one day to attend Athens' well-known Lucy Cobb Institute, but her mother was forced to tell her that this exclusive girls' school had a rule excluding "young girls of color." Juliette's sense of having been excluded because of the color of her skin rather than because of any lack of merit only strengthened her resolve to forge ahead. After successfully completing her secondary school education in Atlanta, she was accepted at Talladega College in Alabama.
Derricotte was shocked to discover that all of her professors at Talladega were white, but she quickly grew to love the small school and emerged as a student leader. She won prizes for public speaking, became president of the campus YWCA, and was often called on to settle disputes between students and faculty. Personable, warm, and mature beyond her years, Juliette made many friends among both her fellow students and her teachers at Talladega College. After her 1918 graduation, she went to New York City to take a summer course at the YWCA National Training School. Impressed by the young black woman from the South, YWCA officials appointed Derricotte in the fall of 1918 to the post of secretary of the organization's National Student Council.
The excellence of her YWCA work among students in New York brought her to the attention of other organizations, including the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF). Having been appointed a member of the WSCF general committee, in 1924 Derricotte was sent to England as one of two black delegates to represent American college students at an international conference. In 1928, she made what was then an epic trip to Mysore, India, to meet with Asian student leaders. Although Derricotte had read about the humiliations of colonialism and knew from her own experience the evils of racism, the trip to India nevertheless was a profound experience for her. Here, she saw firsthand how cruel imperialism's racial ideology could be to individuals. From a young Indian woman, Derricotte learned that only when all the whites in her church had been seated could she, as a non-white, expect to receive a seat. A young woman from Japanese-occupied Korea told Juliette of racial prejudice, discrimination, segregation, and repression by Asians against other Asians that more than matched the racism of the American South. The seven weeks Derricotte spent in India in 1928 gave her deep insights into many of the most profound unsolved dilemmas of the 20th century.
Rather than being depressed or demoralized, Juliette Derricotte found herself inspired by what she had seen, heard, and experienced. Writing some time later about the Mysore conference in the influential black American journal The Crisis, she chose to view the 90 or so delegates of the general committee that had met in Mysore as pointing the way to "what can happen to all the world. With all the differences and difficulties, with all the entanglements of international attitudes and policies, with all the bitterness and prejudice and hatred that are true between any two or more of these countries, you are here friends working, thinking, playing, living together in the finest sort of fellowship, fulfilling the dream of the World's Student Christian Federation, 'That All May be One'."
A perceptive observer during her travels, Derricotte recalled her trip to India not only in terms of personal friendships but of deeper issues that still needed to be explored further and understood more deeply: "the wealth as well as the physical poverty of India haunts me; I ache with actual physical pain when I remember the struggles of all India today."
After having received a master's degree in religious education from Columbia University in 1927, Derricotte began to think about returning to her native South in order to participate in black educational programs. In 1929, the year that she was chosen to be the only woman trustee of Talladega College, she accepted an offer as dean of women at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. She walked into a troubled campus at Fisk, which was still attempting to enforce what had become in the 1920s increasingly anachronistic rules for regulating the personal lives of young women. In little over a year, however, Derricotte had succeeded in winning the confidence of the great majority of Fisk's female students and the overall situation on campus was becoming more tranquil. With this in mind, she decided to take a trip from Nashville to Athens, Georgia, in order to visit her mother.
On the way, the car driven by Derricotte, which had as passengers three Fisk students from Georgia, was involved in a serious accident about a mile outside Dalton, Georgia. Most grievously injured in the wreck were Derricotte and one of her passengers. After emergency treatment, it was decided that since the local tax-supported hospital did not admit black patients, it would be best if Derricotte and the student spent the night at the home of a black woman who provided beds for black patients. The seriousness of the situation was made clear when the student died during the night and Derricotte's condition did not improve. Driven by ambulance to Chat-tanooga's Walden Hospital, Juliette Derricotte died there on November 7, 1931. Besides mourning the premature and tragic death of a highly talented young woman who likely would have gone on to positions of national and international leadership, the special circumstances of Juliette Derricotte's death thrust a glaring spotlight on the evils of racial segregation in the American South. The full details of her death were never completely clarified, but it was clear that had she gained admittance to the hospital in Dalton, both she and the other injured passenger might have lived. Writing in The Crisis several months after her death, W.E.B. Du Bois noted that Derricotte and her three passengers were going to Georgia by automobile because of the Jim Crow railroad cars of the South, which were demeaning and humiliating to black travelers. A national debate was unleashed by her death, and one of her white friends, Ethel Gilbert , was prompted to note that Derricotte's death once again served to dramatize how "rotten and wicked and unspeakably cruel" the system of racial segregation really was, and how in this case it had resulted in two deaths.
Cuthbert, Marion V. Juliette Derricotte. NY: The Womans Press, 1933.
Derricotte, Juliette. "The Student Conference in Mysore, India," in The Crisis. Vol. 36, no. 8. August 1929, pp. 267, 280–283.
Du Bois, W.E.B. "Dalton, Georgia," in The Crisis. Vol. 39, no. 3. March 1932, pp. 85–87.
Jeanness, Mary. Twelve Negro Americans. NY: Friendship Press, 1925.
"Juliette Derricotte: Her Character and Her Martyrdom," in The Crisis. Vol. 39, no. 3. March 1932, pp. 84–85.
Richardson, Joe M. A History of Fisk University, 1865–1946. University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1980.
Smith, Jessie Carney. Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink Press, 1993.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia