DEARBORN – Claude Harvard faced many roadblocks in his life and career due to the ignorance of people who judged him for the color of his skin. But that didn’t stop him from catching Henry Ford’s eye, George Washington Carver’s friendship – and innovation’s spirit.
Harvard’s granddaughter, Mursalata Muhammad, is a professor at Grand Rapids Community College, and shared memories of her grandfather and his achievements with @FordOnline.
Harvard was born to tenant farmers in 1911 in Dublin, Georgia, about 120 miles southeast of Atlanta. At an early age, he took an interest in radio, having sold mail-order jars of salve door-to-door to raise enough coupons for a crystal radio set.
“He got the kit and built the radio just to find out it didn’t work because he was 45 miles outside of the nearest radio signal from Atlanta,” said Muhammad. “He said he just got static, but he held on to that radio set when he moved to Detroit.”
Harvard relocated to Detroit with his mother when he was about 10 years old and became a celebrity in his tenement when he discovered that his DIY crystal radio actually worked.
“That made him the star of the tenement building,” said Muhammad. “It was the only radio in the building, so he was the center of all the adults’ attention. If there was a fight or something on the radio, people would knock on his door. His radio became a community.”
With this interest in radio technology and an aptitude for science and mathematics, Harvard talked his way into Henry Ford Trade School – normally reserved for orphaned teenaged boys – by mentioning that his father had left when he was young.
Muhammad said her grandfather initially played catch-up with the other students, supplementing his education with night classes at Cass Tech before eventually surpassing them. Eventually, his persistence and hard work paid off, as he was voted president of Henry Ford Trade School’s radio club and became the first student to pass a test to receive radio call letters for the school from the Federal Radio Commission.
“He was very proud of this,” she said. “One of the administrators at the school insisted he get call letters for the school, and my grandfather wanted his own. So he asked for a second set, and they let him have two sets.”
He wanted his call letters to mean something, leading him to choose AP, short for “African Pounder” – an act of defiance in the face of rampant racial prejudice endured by people of color, coming from the teenage son of tenant farmers who fled the Jim Crow south.
Despite relocating to Detroit, Harvard faced challenges as the only black student in an all-white school. Muhammad said an administrator warned her grandfather that fighting led to expulsion, and that every time the trade school enrolled a black student, there would usually be some racially motivated altercation.
Despite the taunts – such as another student unscrewing the lid of Harvard’s salt shaker at breakfast – he resisted the urge to give in to any provocations that might result in his removal from school.
Harvard graduated at the top of his class in 1932, but was the only one who didn’t receive a journeyman tool-and-diemaker’s card to signify his status as a skilled tradesman. The reason why was clear. Despite this, Harvard had earned the respect of his classmates through his achievements – and caught the attention of Henry Ford, who hired him full-time at the trade school as head of the radio department.
One of Harvard’s first inventions at the request of Ford was an automated piston pin measuring machine, which used radio waves to check the shape and sort piston pins by size. He demonstrated the machine at the 1934 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago after the men originally assigned to maintain and operate his invention caused it to malfunction.
“That’s the only reason my grandfather got to represent his own machine,” said Muhammad. “They gave him a microphone and he rose to the occasion. He did such a good job that they kept him for the duration of the event.”
That next year, Henry Ford sent a 23-year-old Harvard to deliver an address to students at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Because of the danger of sending Harvard on a solo road trip through the Jim Crow south, Ford arranged for several dealerships on the route to accommodate him to ensure his safety.
N.O. Calloway, head of the Tuskegee Institute’s department of chemistry, wrote to Henry Ford in 1935 lauding Harvard’s talent following the visit. “Needless to say that Mr. Harvard attracted wide attention not only at Tuskegee Institute but in this entire territory,” wrote Calloway. “[He] was an excellent example of what proper training can do in bringing out the best that is in an individual. He is distinctly a credit to the Ford Trade School and served as a stimulus to our students here.”
Shortly after his arrival at Tuskegee, Harvard met and befriended George Washington Carver – and was instrumental in introducing him to Henry Ford following his visit. That friendship led to Carver requesting Harvard’s attendance at a dinner hosted by Ford in Detroit upon learning that his friend was not invited. Organizers then sent men to collect Harvard, where they found him bowling with friends.
“Big white men in suits were looking for him at this bowling alley, and his friends on his bowling team were asking him, ‘What did you do?’” said Muhammad. “They told him they needed him to come to this dinner, and they took him directly there from the bowling alley.”
Harvard didn’t have time to change out of his bowling gear – making him the only one at this black-tie dinner wearing a “Brown Bombers” bowling shirt while sitting next to George Washington Carver.
Muhammad said that scenario shifted the dynamic of power in a time when race was very overtly used to manipulate people’s access to the American dream.
“You can see how quickly the power shifted that night,” she said. “All these supposedly powerful people counted Carver as one of them, who then tells them, ‘Where’s my friend?’ and made them accommodate for that. It shows how fragile these shifts of equity and inclusion are.”
Harvard ended up filing 29 patents for the company. After he left Ford in 1938, he worked for U.S. Tank-Automotive Command in Warren, Michigan, before retiring in 1977.
Muhammad didn’t meet her paternal grandfather until she was around 9 years old, and she and her brother eventually would spend the occasional Saturday with him in the years that followed.
“He was a very pragmatic person,” she said. “Very precise, routine and concrete – very opposite of me, since I was more creative and didn’t inherit any of his mathematical abilities. We had lots of fun, but being around my grandfather wasn’t all chitchat, dominoes and card games.”
Muhammad said her grandfather was always working on a project, and she was amazed by his ability to do things with technology and mathematics that she couldn’t fathom.
“We had a common affinity for astronomy at one point,” she said. “He had all of these astronomy books and magazines, and he built his own telescopes, which was just beyond belief to a 12-year-old. He built it from scratch, and we would take it into the backyard to look at the stars sometimes. His brain was just magical to me, and he was able to do things with technology and math that I didn’t understand.”
Muhammad moved in with her grandfather during graduate school. Harvard was a huge proponent of education, she said, and he would assist just about anyone who needed help achieving it. “Having grown up in Detroit, I’m the only one of 13 children in my family that went to college,” she said. “Access to college took grit and determination, but it also meant having money. My grandfather was financially able to support me and was instrumental in me getting through college; despite having financial aid, it was never enough to pay for everything.”
Harvard also helped some of Muhammad’s friends with their education.
“If you were going to school, he would help you,” she said. “He was also a big proponent of having practical job skills, and he worked at Focus: Hope, where he taught people skills like blueprint reading.”
Harvard passed away in 1999 at Harper Hospital in Detroit, but Muhammad is making sure her grandfather’s memory lives on through the Bragg Harvard Muhammad Smith Why We Can’t Wait scholarship fund, which over the past four years has given around $13,000 to Grand Rapids Community College students enrolled in public service programs. Those interested in donating to the fund can do so here by selecting “Other” under designation and typing “BHMS.”