Einstein at Lincoln University
During the last twenty years of his life, Einstein almost never spoke at universities. He considered the honorary-degree ceremonies to which he was frequently invited to be "ostentatious." Moreover, the abdominal aneurysm that would eventually take his life caused him increasing pain and made it difficult to travel. Given the constant stream of university invitations, he found it easiest to adopt a just-say-no rule. In May 1946, he broke that rule to speak at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Both the year and the choice of school are significant.
About 60 miles from Princeton, Lincoln University was chartered in 1854 as, in the words of its eighth president Horace Mann Bond, "the first institution found anywhere in the world to provide a higher education in the arts and sciences for male youth of African descent." In 1946, When Dr. Bond invited Einstein to Lincoln, the student body consisted of 265 men. "It was still a small school," Mrs. Julie Bond, Dr. Bond’s widow, recalls. "But of course, everyone came to hear Einstein. We didn’t have a hall big enough, so we held the ceremony outdoors in the grove."
"On Friday, May 3rd, a very simple man came to Lincoln University," one student wrote a few days later in the school newspaper:
His emaciated face and simplicity made him appear as a biblical character. Quietly he stood with an expression of questioning wonder upon his face as…President Horace Mann Bond conferred a degree. Then this man with the long hair and deep eyes spoke into a microphone of the disease [racism] that humanity had. In the deep accents of his native Germany he said he could not be silent. And then he finished and the room was still. Later he lectured on the theory of relativity to the Lincoln students.
That night, Albert Einstein went back to Princeton…
Dr. Bond’s son chuckles today when he looks at an old photo of Lincoln faculty members’ children with the famous scientist: "Family lore has Einstein telling me ‘Don’t remember anything that is already written down.’ And although I do not recall this exchange" — he was barely four years old at the time — "I have followed this advice ever since." (Whether Einstein’s advice helped or not, Julian Bond grew up to become a civil rights activist, State Assemblyman, TV talk-show host and Chairman of the NAACP.)
In accepting the invitation, Einstein clearly intended to send a message to a wider audience. But the media then — like the media since then — had different news priorities. While almost all of Einstein’s public speeches and interviews were widely covered by the major media, in this case, most of the press treated the address by the world’s most famous scientist at the world’s oldest black university as a non-event.