William Fontaine, a philosophy scholar and an authority on black culture and improving race relations, was the University’s first African-American professor.
Growing up in Chester, Pa., in the 1920s, Fontaine saw violent race riots and watched the Ku Klux Klan march through the city. A widowed aunt helped finance his education at nearby Lincoln University (the nation’s first degree-granting historically black university). He was classmates with Thurgood Marshall, who later became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and Langston Hughes, the poet, playwright, and columnist.
Fontaine’s connection to Penn began when he enrolled in a master’s degree program in philosophy. He earned his degree in 1932 and then continued on at Penn to get a Ph.D. in philosophy.
After teaching philosophy and history at Southern University in Louisiana, Fontaine returned to Penn in 1947, becoming a visiting lecturer in philosophy. Two years later, he was appointed assistant professor in philosophy, the University’s first fully-affiliated African-American faculty member. In 1963, he became Penn’s first black tenured faculty member.
His 1967 book, “Reflections on Segregation, Desegregation, Power and Morals,” explored the use of terms such as “White” and “Negro” to control human perceptions and interaction.
Fontaine’s interest in race relations and black culture extended to many other parts of the world. In the late 1950s, he traveled to Paris for the Conference on Negro Writers, and was in Rome to attend Pope John XXIII’s blessing and address to black intellectuals promoting black culture.
Fontaine’s professional accomplishments were achieved despite health problems that were at times debilitating. When he was 40 years old, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. And, at one period in the 1950s, he was forced to take medical leave for three-and-a-half years. He died in 1968 at the age of 59.
The Fontaine Fellowships, established in 1970, allow Ph.D. students in under-represented groups to continue their studies at Penn.
For more information about this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on January 24, 2013