American educator Juliette Aline Derricotte (1897-1931) was the first female trustee at Talladega College and a member of the general committee of the World Student Christian Federation. Feeling a special call to participate in black education in the South, Derricotte accepted a position at Fisk University as its dean of women in 1929. Her promising career was cut short by a fatal automobile accident at the age of 34.
Juliette Aline Derricotte was born on April 1, 1897, in Athens, Georgia. She was the fifth of nine children of Isaac Derricotte, a cobbler, and Laura (Hardwick) Derricotte, a seamstress. Her parents managed to provide a home that was warm, affectionate, and secure. The lively and sensitive Derricotte, growing up in Athens, soon became aware of the racial mores of a small southern town in the early 1900s. For example, she learned that her family would always be the last to be waited on in a store. Her desire to attend the Lucy Cobb Institute, located in a section of Athens with spacious homes and tree-lined streets, was dashed when her mother told her that it would be impossible because of her color. The recognition of that limitation was traumatic for Derricotte but critical in forging her determination to do whatever she could to fight discrimination.
After completing the public schools of Atlanta, Derricotte hoped against all odds that she would be able to go to college. A recruiter was able to convince her parents to send her to Talladega College. They could just manage the fifteen dollars a month for tuition and room and board. That fall, Derricotte made the long, rumbling train ride across the red hills of Georgia and Alabama to the town of Talladega. It was love at first sight when she saw the campus, with its large trees and graceful buildings. However, she was shocked almost to the point of returning home when she discovered that all of the professors were white.
At Talladega Derricotte was a popular student and her warm personality made her many friends. One of her professors, recognizing her potential, suggested that she try for a public-speaking prize that included tuition. "Of course, I can't do it," she almost managed to convince herself. But with some coaching, she won the contest and self-confidence as well. Derricotte became the most important young woman on campus, always in charge of something. She joined the intercollegiate debating team, made speeches, became president of the YWCA, and helped to plan student activities. When disputes arose between students and faculty, as they often did, Derricotte would be the spokesperson for whichever side she felt to be correct, yet she maintained the goodwill of both. It was during her years at Talladega that she came to the realization that one should work for something bigger than oneself.
After graduation from Talladega in 1918, Derricotte enrolled in a summer course at the National YWCA Training School in New York. In the fall she was made a secretary of the National Student Council of the YWCA. In this position she visited colleges, planned conferences, and worked with student groups, bringing ideas and building leadership. She is credited with pioneering the methods of work and organizational structure that made the council an interracial fellowship. Through the warmth and forcefulness of her personality, Derricotte succeeded in making people understand each other in the most practical manner. She remained in this post for eleven years.
Derricotte had become a member of the general committee of the World Student Christian Federation and, in 1924, was sent to England—one of two black delegates—to represent American college students. Four years later she was sent to Mysore, India. In these international settings, among representatives from around the world, Derricotte was always a curiosity and the center of attention, which gave way to respect. In India she learned first-hand from her fellow delegates of the worldwide extent of repression and discrimination in all forms. She learned from a young Indian woman who had been told upon entering church that all the whites must be seated before she could be seated. From a young Korean tentmate who kept her awake until two A.M. she learned that to know the meaning of prejudice, segregation, and discrimination, she would have to be a Korean under Japanese government occupation. She remained in India for seven weeks, living in YWCAs, student hostels, mission schools, the furnished camp of a maharajah, a deserted military camp with five hundred students from India, Burma, and Ceylon, and in Indian homes. She gained valuable insights, for she came to realize that the general committee, with its 90 or so delegates from around the world, was prophetic in the sense that: "This is what can happen to all the world. With all the differences and difficulties, with all the .7]entanglements of international attitudes and policies, with all the bitterness and prejudice and hatred that are true between any two or more of these countries, you are here friends working, thinking, playing, living together in the finest sort of fellowship, fulfilling the dream of the World Student Christian Federation."
In 1927 .7]Derricotte received a master's degree in religious education from Columbia University. From 1929 to 1931 she was the only female trustee of Talladega College. Feeling a special call to participate in black education in the South, Derricotte resigned from the YWCA in 1929 and went to Fisk University as its dean of women. She entered a campus roiling with the problems of change and in revolt against long-outdated rules, particularly for young women. She eventually gained the confidence of the female students and gradually began to introduce the idea of freedom of action and responsibility for oneself. The students were beginning to feel comfortable. In November 1931, almost fully recovered from illness that had troubled her all summer, Derricotte decided to go to Athens to visit her mother. Making the trip with her were three Fisk students from Georgia. One of them, a young man, was to do the driving. They stopped for lunch with friends in Chattanooga and headed south towards Atlanta with Derricotte driving. About a mile outside Dalton, Georgia, their car collided with that of a white couple. The details of the accident have never been known. Derricotte and a student were seriously injured. They were given emergency treatment in the offices of several white doctors in Dalton, and two students were released. As the local tax-supported hospital did not admit blacks, Derricotte and the seriously injured student were then removed to the home of a black woman who had beds available for the care of black patients. The student died during the night, and Derricotte was driven by ambulance to Chattanooga's Walden Hospital, where she died the next day, November 7, 1931.
Perhaps .7]Derricotte is best remembered today for her death and the national outrage it caused. There was a series of investigations; the NAACP became involved; the Commission of Interracial Co-operation of Atlanta made an investigation at the request of Fisk University and other organizations. Memorial services were held all over the country, and her friend, noted theologian Howard Thurman, delivered the eulogy at the service held in her hometown.
Cuthbert, Marion V. Juliette Derricotte. Woman's Press, 1933.
Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Edited by Rayford Logan and Michael Winston. Norton, 1982.
Jeanness, Mary. Twelve Negro Americans. Friendship Press, 1925.
Richardson, Joe M. A History of Fisk University, 1865-1946. University of Alabama Press, 1980.
Crisis, March 1932.
New York Herald Tribune, December 31, 1931. □