Ambrose Caliver, A Leader in 20th Century Black Education

Today’s blog was written by Kate Palm, summer intern at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland and graduate student at the Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science

Dr. Ambrose Caliver (1894-1962) was a national leader in the twentieth-century field of black education who spent over thirty years in the U. S. Office of Education.

In contrast to the recently profiled civil and gay rights activist, Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), Caliver influenced American policy from the inside.  He was the first African American to receive a permanent appointment to the Federal service on a professional level. Caliver entered the U. S. Office of Education in 1930 as the first Senior Specialist in the Education of Negroes Division, thus becoming the Specialist for Higher Education of African Americans and the Adviser on Related Problems in 1946.  He continued to climb the ladder, as he was promoted to Assistant to the Commissioner (Program Development & Coordination Branch) in 1950 and later Chief of the Adult Education Section in 1955.

Born a southerner in Saltsville, Virginia, Caliver’s pursuit of education took him around the country.  After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Knoxville College in 1915, a diploma in industrial arts (cabinet making) from the Tuskegee Institute in 1916, and a degree in personnel management from Harvard University in 1918, he went on to earn a master’s degree in education from the University of Wisconsin in 1920, and a Ph.D. in Education from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College in 1930.  He began his career as an assistant principal in Rockwood, Tennessee and later taught at Fisk University, where he rose to become the university’s first African American dean in 1927.  Throughout his lengthy career in education, Caliver continued to teach and traveled widely for conferences and was also called upon frequently for advice and guidance from private organizations.

The RG 12 Office Files of Ambrose Caliver, ca. 1946 – 1962 series (National Archives Identifier 731142) contains correspondence, memoranda, minutes of meetings, proceedings of conferences, speeches, articles, and reports related to his work on various literacy initiatives, adult education issues, and improving education for black Americans.

In the years following WWII, the U. S. government considered universal military training as one way to ensure that an adequately educated and prepared force could be mobilized in the event of a conflict.  As the Office of Education’s Specialist for Higher Education of Negroes and Adviser on Related Problems, Caliver advised on problems affecting minority groups.  One topic of interest was the effect that universal military training would have on black Americans, as can be seen in a memorandum to him dated March 21, 1947 in connection with a telephone conversation.

Memo to Caliver from T. E. Davis, dated March 21, 1947 relating to the
Memo to Caliver from T. E. Davis, dated March 21, 1947 relating to the “Committee on Universal Military Training, 1947-48” (NAID 731142)

This series also contains records touching upon a variety of other topics and themes, such as the wide-reaching effects of the world’s entry into the nuclear age following World War II.  Caliver was serving on the Interdivisional Committee on Adult Education in 1947, when it submitted a project statement proposing a project intended to “utilize the resources of public education to help people throughout the United States understand what the release of atomic energy may mean in their own lives, and what their individual responsibilities are with respect to the use of this tremendous new power.”

In the early 1950s, Caliver also served on committees concerning military-related issues, such as student deferment from service for educational reasons, as can be seen in a report dated October 31, 1950 titled “Postponement of Induction of Students.”

The series also contains correspondence, which in some cases show the wide variety of persons seeking the benefit of Caliver’s knowledge and expertise during his long tenure at the Office of Education.  One such item is an April 4, 1949 letter from Dean Erwin N. Griswold of Harvard Law School in which Griswold seeks Caliver’s views on how to make it possible for top black students to attend schools similar to Harvard Law School and to encourage such students to turn such training to the benefit of their communities.

Some of what could be considered Caliver’s most significant work occurred early in his career at the Office of Education.  Caliver’s efforts were instrumental in a number of projects that served to provide data that make plain some of the inequalities that existed in twentieth-century American education and opportunities for black Americans.

For additional records related to Caliver’s work, see the following series:

  • Survey Materials Relating to the National Survey of the Education of Teachers, 1930-1932 (National Archives Identifier 731180)
  • Manuscripts of Survey Reports from the National Survey of the Education of Teachers, 1932-1933 (National Archives Identifier 731185)
  • Records Relating to Personnel Matters for the National Survey of the Education of Teachers, 1930-1933 (National Archives Identifier 731188)

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