EVA B. DYKES: THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM
by DeWitt Williams
"Eva Beatrice Dykes!"
Hearing her name, she lifted her head and walked briskly to the center of the stage. Polite applause could not hide the spontaneous murmur that spread throughout the all-White audience.
"Isn't that a colored girl?" Those in the back rows stretched their necks to see, while those in the front stared in unbelief. But all whispered the same question. "Isn't that a colored girl?"
Undaunted, she took the diploma and pumped the outstretched hand. "Thank you. Thank you very much," she managed to say.
Flickering her tassel to the other side of her mortarboard, she continued to the designated spot where the seven female doctoral graduates stood. Commencement day, June 22, 1921, was different from any that had gone before. Since it opened its doors in 1879, Radcliffe, an exclusive ivy-league college for women, had not conferred this highest honor on a Black person. Her presence silently proclaimed that her skin, though black, covered a brain that could think as clearly and reason as profoundly as that of any other. She also testified that those of the so-called weaker sex were mentally as strong and alert as their male counterparts at any university.
That piece of paper showing she had earned a doctorate in English could be her magic key to fame and fortune. But long before her graduation she had decided that she would dedicate herself to service in the Black community. To be great, to be first was not her goal. Rather, to be her best so that she could render the best service and uplift humanity and her God had been her goals.
Even earlier as Eva was working on her B.A. degree at Howard University people noticed her unusual commitment. The words printed in the Howard University Record that commented on her student life and career goals read:
"But Miss Dykes was a different type of student. From the beginning, she approached her work with a totally different emphasis, and with all that she has acquired, she has lost none of those admirable traits of character that are necessary for the successful man or woman. "In disposition and training she is peculiarly well-qualified for a brilliant career of usefulness."
Usefulness. That word and that phrase would stick with her.
Word of Dr. Dyke's amazing teaching abilities circulated in all of the Washington educational circles and reached Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, Howard University's first Black president. He dreamed of having the most qualified staff available to teach at his university.
Dr. Johnson arranged an interview with Dr. Dykes. When she arrived he talked about the university and his dream of a strong academic institution. After about 20 minutes he stood up.
"We have your records from Howard, of course. But we need your records from Radcliffe and a letter from Dunbar (Dunbar High School). Send these to the dean."
"I'll see that they get to him along with a letter explaining my convictions."
"Your convictions?" His eyebrow raised.
"Yes. The letter will explain."
Some years later in an address from the students and faculty of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, then located in Takoma Park, Washington, D. C., Dr. Mordecai Johnson explained the complications that her arrival caused and the surprise of that letter:
"I feel especially near to you in this church, too, because one of the finest teachers I have ever known came from your church. Her name is Dr. Eva B. Dykes. When I first came to Howard University, her name was brought to my attention in a peculiar way. She had received her Doctor's degree some time earlier from Radcliffe, and we were about to engage her as a teacher.
"Prior to taking the job, she had a conference with the dean, saying, 'Before you conclude this contract there is one thing you should know about me. I do not know if after you hear this you will wish to employ me or not, but I feel I must tell you I am a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and beginning at sundown on Friday until sundown Saturday I will be unable to do any work for the university, for in that period my church is foremost in my allegiance, and I shall feel under obligation to do whatever they wish me to do and will be able to give no service to the university.'
"The dean brought her letter to me and said, 'Mr. President, this is a very sad matter. I suppose this finishes it. We cannot employ this young woman. What a tragedy!'
"'But,' I said to the dean, 'This does settle it. This makes certain we are going to employ this young woman.'
"'What do you mean, Mr. President? We cannot hire someone who has reservations about service.'
"I replied, 'This is not a reservation but an affirmation. And I would further suggest that any woman who has the center of her life so dedicated is worth keeping, and we should not run the risk of losing a young person of that type. She will be just as loyal to the university the other six days as she is to her church on the Sabbath.'"
Dr. Dykes went on to reward the faith he had placed in her. She saw to it that she remained at the top of the profession. Beyond teaching she advised and sponsored various campus organizations and authored numerous books and articles in religious and educational journals.
In 1944 she received a plea to become the first professor with a doctorate at Oakwood College. Her salary would be $41 a week and that the board insisted that the president make at least $1 dollar more than the teach staff. It was an agonizing decision, a call to more useful service.
When she had finally made the decision that she could be of greater service at Oakwood than at Howard, she slowly picked up her pen and wrote a letter of resignation to Dr. Mordecai Johnson.
The dean, J. Price, responded to the Howard board, "How can Dr. Dykes, and honored alumna, a genuine constituent of the faculty of the college, and an indigenous member of the university and neighboring community, passably resign!"
Initially Oakwood, a Black Seventh-day Adventist educational institution, was founded to be a self-supporting work-learning institution. With a few wooden buildings, four teachers, eight male students and eight female students, Oakwood Industrial School opened its doors on November 1, 1896. The first students worked on the farm in the daytime and studied their lessons at night. In April 1917 its status was elevated to Oakwood Junior College. In 1918 two students were the first to complete the two-year college course.
Dr. Dyke's down-to-earth spirit, combined with her gracious manner, her intellectual attainment, and her Christian character, made her a great teacher. Though she was small, she was tough, and even though she was not pretentious in dress, she was perfectly capable in the classroom. Many wondered how she could leave the convenience, bustle and beauty of the capital city for an undeveloped, unaccredited school and a small unattractive city. In 1944 Huntsville, Alabama, had a population of 14,000.
Many administrators from renowned schools across the country tried to lure her away from Oakwood with offers of larger pay, greater benefits, or better working and living conditions. She would reply, "I am on permanent tenure at Oakwood."
Eva B. Dukes died October 29, 1986 in Huntsville, Alabama, at the age of 93, and she will long be remembered. In an article about her, author Louis B. Reynolds says: "When God has put an impossible dream into our hearts . . . he means to help us fulfill it. Eva Dykes believed this to be true when, as a young woman, she heeded the call to prepare herself to help others and to attain the highest competence in order to do it. Through the years God has given her many other dreams of specific tasks He wanted her to do.
"'It is when we resist God,' she says, 'that we remain nothing. When we submit to Him, whatever the sacrifice or hardship, we can become with His help far more than we dare dream.'"
Eva B. Dyke's complete story may be read in the book She Fulfilled the Impossible Dream, by DeWitt S. Williams, Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 1985.