Daniel Webster Abercrombie Story, Part 2

Arrival in Cambridge

“With their fortunes ruined and the father dead, the grieving family had little to retain it in the south and therefore set out for Massachusetts to find a new life.”[1]

“I got my start in life from necessity. Being born the son of a very wealthy man, at twelve I found myself with nothing in the world but a magnificent mother, and a strong purpose for an education and a determination to succeed. In being willing to work and take hold of life strongly, and to throw oneself body and soul into forlorn hope, I would find in my own case an example for others.” [2]

“I came to Massachusetts many years ago to fit for Harvard College. Southern blood easily absorbs New England iron, and the southern fiber takes on New England culture as to the manor born.” [3]

Early Photograph of Daniel Webster Abercrombie, seated center left

Early Photograph of Daniel Webster Abercrombie, seated center left

Abercrombie remembered exactly when his family arrived in New England, “It was in 1865, the 11th day of September, that my mother and her little children reached Cambridge.” At this point, the family was nearly penniless and he marveled his mother somehow got them through the ordeal. Sarah Greenleaf Abercrombie was described as a woman of unusual force of character with great devotion and unselfishness. Despite her focus on her children, she impressed all who knew her with her earnestness and kindness. Because of their circumstances, they moved in with her parents at 26 Brattle Street, opposite what today is the Harvard Coop annex. Cambridge was a small town, and their home was next to a large livery stable. Four months after their arrival Sarah’s father, John Greenleaf passed away in December, 1865, and they continued to live with her mother.

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Middlesex County Court documents pertaining to Sarah G. Abercrombie guadianship of her children

It appears that the family’s financial struggles continued while Abercrombie was in college as documents show that in 1873, Sarah applied to the Middlesex County Court in Cambridge for guardianship for her three children who had not yet reached the age of majority. This included twenty year-old Daniel, a student at Harvard College. In the documents, the children, “have stated to me that they are willing that their mother should be their guardian.” It was signed by Joel Parker and their dates of birth are indicated in the document. In a related document, it was recorded “Sarah G. Abercrombie as principal and Henry Locke of Boston, Suffolk County and Elizabeth H. Greenleaf of Cambridge, widow, as sureties for the sum of four thousand dollars. 2 Dec 1873. Sarah G. Abercrombie is appointed guardian of Daniel W., Wenonah, and Bolling G. Abercrombie.” Why this was needed is not known.

At first, Abercrombie found the near-ocean climate not as agreeable as living in the Alabama hill country and he had other problems adjusting as well, “The new one (life) was to be more harsh, less romantic, and more serious than the tranquil one of the past. The boy was to come into contact with other youths who would be unimpressed by his background, and even contemptuous of his shortcomings”. [4] Another source put it more bluntly, “He was viewed harshly by the unsympathetic town boys, who thought the Southern boy strange.” [5]

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Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1865. Courtesy of the Cambridge Historical Society

Rejected by the townies, he found friendship with those with whom he was familiar. Because of his close association with the house slaves of his youth, he felt comfortable befriending two brothers in an African American family. E. Molyneaux and Paul Hewlett were the sons of A. Molyneaux Hewlett, the professor of physical training at Harvard from 1852 until his death in 1872. Years later Abercrombie corresponded with E. M. Hewlett, and recalled, “very many recollections of days long since passed. I have never forgotten you, or Paul, or your father, or those first years of my boyhood in Cambridge… I remember him (Paul) with perfect distinctness of course, and the good times we used to have as boys together in Cambridge. We were boys back in the “sixties” in Cambridge and we know something of the meaning of life…..” E. M. Hewlett, went on to Boston University and later practiced law in Boston and Washington. He was one of the finest African American attorneys in the country appearing before the Supreme Court many times. At the end of Abercrombie’s letter, he compliments Hewlett’s recently departed sister, but misidentified her husband, “I remember your sister, Virginia, as a very beautiful woman, and it is with great regret that I hear of her death. She was the wife of Richard T. Greener.” Hewlett’s sister was, in fact, married to Frederick Douglass, Jr., the son of the Abolitionist. He was thinking of another notable African American. Greener was the first African American graduate of Harvard College and father of Belle da Costa Greene, the noted librarian to J. P. Morgan.

Grammar School

Due to the family’s extreme poverty, Abercrombie spent the hours out of school in hard work to help his mother in her determination to give an education to her fatherless children. He always gave credit to his mother for getting the family through this period, “I got my schooling under the most adverse circumstances as regards to finances, but my mother gave me unfailing inspiration and support.” It was then that he learned some life lessons, “I had to work my way through grammar school and college dependent on my own resources. An ambitious boy willing to work finds doors of opportunity.” A school profile of him mentioned this as well, “There are hours out of school spent in hard work to help the mother in her heroic determination to give a liberal education to her fatherless children.” [6]

Abercrombie commented that his early Cambridge education was very good because of the efforts of a strong teacher, “At the grammar school in Cambridge, a noble woman whose one year was an influence which continued three years with that school.” It was here that Abercrombie realized his strong intellect. Importantly, he loved reading, “Books have always been great helpers of mine. First as a boy along the lines of history, biography, travel.” In school, he found that he enjoyed beating his fellow students in competition and the recognition of winning academic awards was a thrill that never left him, “I shall never forget a book that was put into my hands just fifty years ago this month, a book that bears the pleasant endorsement of my teacher and congratulations on having led the scholarship of the class of that year, a little book that I take down many times a year off the shelf and read one of the two great poems that are in it among others, and recall the impression which these poems made upon me then and ever since, and the teachers whose interest in me was so great as to have been always an inspiration to me, though she has been dead for many, many years. Goldsmith’s “Travellers” and “Deserted Village” are the two poems to which I refer, and which have been so large a source of comfort and inspiration and happiness to me during all these years”.

High School

At the secondary level, where his preparation for college was completed at Cambridge High School, his memories of the faculty were mixed, “In high school my principal was a coarse man, lacking self-control and in true gentlemanliness of spirit, I learned to thoroughly dislike his ideals and example.” However, in a separate statement, he expressed gratitude for the teachers, but was circumspect when referencing the name of the principal. There was “a Mr. Adams who illustrated that a man can be a gentleman and a teacher at the same time… Lyman R. Williston was the refined and cultured principal and Miss Fessenden, who by her strong personality and sweet womanliness held many a boy true to a good purpose”. He was always in debt to the kindness of these teachers.

Abercrombie note that school could be boring, “I did all of my preparation for college while at school in a large school room where classes were constantly reciting and where I found my mind distracted from time to time.” [7] He gave further reasons, “Boys fail at what they dislike and then come to the feeling that they are incompetent in it because they failed in it. No boy could have disliked mathematics more than I and yet I did them.” [8]

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first and last pages of the 1872 Graduation program for Cambridge High School. Worcester Academy archives

Abercrombie graduated from Cambridge High School with honors on July 1, 1872. The graduation program lists him as reading an excerpt about the death of Hector from Homer’s Iliad. He was one of eight boys who graduated in the classical course, which set them for Harvard and other colleges. The English course at Cambridge listed 23 names, including his sister Tallulah.

Application to Harvard

The entire Harvard application process consisted of a verbal examination lasting less than an hour. Years later, Abercrombie wrote about the exam in the third person, “His preparation was gained in the Cambridge Latin School, confessedly as good a school as sent boys to Harvard at that time. [9] The requirements were as follows: the merest smattering of Physical Geography, gathered from verbatim recitation from a little manual, the time for which was stolen from the first or last ten minutes of a three-fourth hour recitation in Latin, Greek, or Mathematics. This was the full extent of a boy’s training in the sciences required for admission to Harvard twenty years ago. To complete the course there were four years’ study of Latin, three of Greek, a year’s work in the classical history of Greece and Rome, arithmetic through mensuration, algebra through quadratics, and plane geometry. No French, no German, no English, no science, for the requirement in physical geography already referred to cannot be mentioned seriously, except to emphasize with a keen sarcasm the complete absence of all scientific training. This preparation admitted a boy to a college where the elective system was already sufficiently in operation to dominate all of the work of Senior and Junior years, all but four hours a week of Sophomore year with the exception of three or four themes and forensics a year”. [10]

While in high school, Abercrombie attended the installation of Charles Eliot as President of Harvard. Since Harvard did not have a public hall at the time, it was at local parish that he first saw him, “I remember that as a boy of fifteen I wiggled my way into the throng that packed the First Unitarian church in Harvard Square the day of his inauguration, and getting just inside the door stood squeezed and almost stifled straining my ear to hear his address.” [11] A couple of years later, Abercrombie sat in a room to hear President Eliot announce his name for admission to Harvard. This was the culmination of his mother’s hopes for him since his infancy in Alabama. Eliot became a major influence in American education when he instituted the elective system at Harvard, which transformed it into a major institution. Eliot inspired Abercrombie to create a school that would have the very best academics and even send some of its graduates to Harvard.

Abercrombie did not mention the churches that his family attended in Alabama, but in Cambridge it is likely that they worshiped at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church, which is located just east of Harvard Yard. It was there that he met some people who were to become his key trustees and benefactors. The two most notable were the Reverend Dr. Robert Adams and Chester W. Kingsley, a bank president and businessman.

[1] (Kneeland, p. 6)

[2] (DWA letters May 1 01)

[3] DWA letters 5/9, Sep 25 02

[4] Kneeland, p. 6

[5] school biography

[6] WA bio

[7] DWA letters 14/886, Apr 16 09

[8] DWA letters 10/886, Jan 23 07

[9] The high school was divided into the Latin and English high schools in 1886.

[10] p. 456, The school review Oct. 1893 DWA

[11] DWA letters 14/445, Jan 14 09