Mercersburg Academy Celebrates 100th Anniversary of First Native American Graduate

Former Head of School Douglas Hale (center) with Carolee and Wayne Maxwell on their visit to Mercersburg in 2010

Former Head of School Douglas Hale (center) with Carolee and Wayne Maxwell on their visit to Mercersburg in 2010

On Friday, April 7, 2017, Mercersburg Academy will mark the 100th anniversary of its first Native American graduate with a daylong celebration of Charles Watson McGilberry of the school’s Class of 1917. The celebration includes a presentation at an 11 a.m. school meeting which will feature McGilberry’s granddaughter, Carolee Maxwell, and her husband, Wayne, who wrote the 2009 book Touched by Greatness about McGilberry’s life and his experiences at Mercersburg.

Ian Thompson, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and Joseph Wolf, tribal community liaison for the Choctaw Nation, will join the Maxwells for the presentation and a number of events April 7, and the Maxwells’ son (McGilberry’s great-grandson) and daughter-in-law, Brandon and Lizi Maxwell, will also be in attendance. The school meeting will take place in the Burgin Center for the Arts’ Simon Theatre.

McGilberry, a member of the Choctaw Nation from the then-newly created state of Oklahoma, was one of three Native American students chosen to enroll at Mercersburg in fall 1914 as part of a scholarship program created by wealthy businessman and philanthropist Rodman Wanamaker, who was a friend and classmate of Mercersburg’s founding headmaster Dr. William Mann Irvine at Princeton University. The three students were given full tuition, room, and board, with the ultimate hope of their eventual matriculation to Princeton.

Thompson will be part of Ceramics I classes taught by Wells Gray in the Burgin Center and will discuss and demonstrate the art of Native Choctaw pottery; Wolf will give a demonstration of Native American storytelling to students enrolled in Laurie Mufson’s Speech class; and the Maxwells will attend the Parallel Histories Springboard class taught by John David Bennett and meet with students, who are producing independent projects on specific and varied topics in Mercersburg history.

The lunch menu served in the dining hall April 7 will feature five Choctaw dishes; Thompson recently completed work on a not-yet-published book about Choctaw foods, and shared recipes with SAGE Dining Services, Mercersburg’s food-service provider. The meal includes bonahana (breaded meat), ampi hobi (boiled ears of corn), tanchi apushli (roasted corn), holhponi (turkey stew), and pakti ashila (mushroom porridge).

On Friday evening (8:30 p.m.), Wolf will hold a storytelling session in the Burgin Center’s Hale Studio Theatre.

In 1914, the other Native American students to enroll alongside McGilberry were John Earl Gibson (of Arizona and the Pima Nation) and Louis Tyner (of Kansas and the Shawnee Nation). The Maxwells’ book calls the scholarship program “an experiment to determine if young Indians [Native Americans] could be successfully educated in the studies and mannerisms of an Ivy League environment.”

At Mercersburg, McGilberry, Gibson, and Tyner lived together in ’Eighty-eight Dormitory (which stood between Keil Hall and the site of present-day Ford Hall). McGilberry played football and baseball, wrote for the Lit (the school literary magazine and precursor to Blue Review), and was a member of The Fifteen and the Irving Society. He graduated in 1917 and was accepted at Princeton, but following service in the U.S. Army during World War I, where he was the first Native American commissioned as an Army officer, McGilberry (who had married and was about to become a father for the first time) decided against making the trip back east from Oklahoma to Princeton.

McGilberry attended East Central Teachers College in Ada, Okla., earned a master’s from the University of Oklahoma, and did end up in the Ivy League when he undertook postgraduate study at Columbia University. He and his wife, Vivian, taught at Native American schools in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and South Dakota, and McGilberry served as a school superintendent in Johnston County, Okla. He died in 1960 at age 67.

Lee Owen