The Granger Brothers
At times he told his children that he wore only a bleached coffee sack as a child in Barbados. Other times he told of being forced to wear stiff, starched sailor suits. While the truth was likely somewhere in between, two things were certain — William Randolph Granger had a great sense of humor and an even greater sense of himself.
In 1878, ‘Ran’ was a 16-year-old ship’s cabin boy, when he deserted from his merchant ship and wound up in Philadelphia. Possessing a sharp mind and little else, Granger was about to set out on a journey which would prove that all dreams are possible and leave a legacy that no one could have imagined.
Eventually, ‘Ran’ would earn a medical degree, begin a practice and produce six children — each of whom would attain remarkable success. And all six would become athletes at Ivy League schools before going on to greater things.
As that well-mannered immigrant, Granger was befriended by a Quaker group in Philadelphia. He was aided in his educational pursuits and showed great promise. He decided to become a minister and enrolled at Bucknell College in Lewisburg, Pa., where he would earn two degrees.
While in college, ‘Ran’ took a summer vacation to Richmond, Va., and met Mary Louise Turpin, who was both a Turpin and a Crump, two of the leading black families in the state. As it would turn out, all of his subsequent vacations would lead to Richmond. Her sons would later joke with her about falling in love with a cabin boy and deserter, but that is exactly what happened.
In combination with meeting Mary Lue and questioning his own abilities to serve as a minister, Granger talked his life options over with his bride-to-be. Together they concluded that he should enter medical school at the University of Vermont and that she should stay in Richmond to teach and wait for him to return.
The plan worked as Granger earned his medical degree with honors, returned to Richmond and married Mary Lue in February of 1890.
Dr. Granger’s pioneering spirit led he and his wife westward to Little Rock, Ark., where he would first begin his medical practice. Three days before Christmas in 1890, the couple welcomed their first child — William Richard Randolph.
Before baby William’s first birthday — unsatisfied with the racial climate in Arkansas — the family moved to Guthrie, Okla., where Dr. Granger joined the Gold Rush. He sent Mary Lue and William (who became known as Randolph) ahead on a train and drove a horse and a two-wheeled ‘jumper’ over the Ozark Mountains to start over.
On April 22, 1889, Guthrie became one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi — quickly becoming the capital of the new state of Oklahoma — as thousands descended in ‘Harrison’s Hoss Race,’ which made land available on a first-come basis. A number of African-Americans — including Buffalo Soldiers — migrated to Guthrie in search of a new start.
Mrs. Granger again became a teacher while Dr. Granger served as a school principal on the side. In 1892, Augustus Turpin was born and two years later a third brother — Leo Yearwood — joined the family. But by 1895, the Grangers were on the move again, as Oklahoma passed Jim Crow legislation. It was clear that Dr. Granger would not reside where prejudice was condoned by law. This time the growing Grangers were off to Newport News, Va.
In 1895, Newport News was a small town and nearly everyone there was a shipbuilder. Dr. Granger would become one of the city’s leading black physicians, treating patients of all races and backgrounds. The Grangers had three more sons in Newport News — Lester Blackwell in 1896, Lloyd Maceo in 1898 and Carl Victor in 1902. With six children at home, Mrs. Granger gave up teaching in the school in favor of teaching her sons at home, but this proved too much and soon the children went to private schools.
The Grangers built quite a life in Newport News, which included a beautiful home that was completed in 1899. Today that home is on the National Register of Historic Places as the Newsome House Museum and Cultural Center. J. Thomas Newsome, an African-American attorney and journalist had purchased the home in 1906.
The Grangers were on the move again, but this time it was tougher than before. But again, Dr. Granger was unsatisfield… with both the education available to the children and the increasingly intolerance shown to African-Americans.
“I was always willing to go,” said Mary Lue in a 1946 interview. “After all, he was the breadwinner. Maybe it wasn’t always wise. To be sure we didn’t accumulate as much as if we stayed anywhere. But the boys always appreciated their home — they always thought they had a very nice home.”
Now in his late forties — like he had done so many times before — Dr. Ran Granger was starting over. This time the family landed in Newark, N.J., where discrimination was less apparent. The oldest boys enrolled in Barringer High School.
Boston Latin School is the only public high school in the nation older than Barringer High, which was founded in 1838 (Central High in Philadelphia was founded in 1838 as well). The beautiful school set atop a hill on Parker Street. All six Granger brothers would perform well academically and athletically, each running track for the school.
Within an eight-year span — from 1915 to 1923 — each of the Granger boys would graduate from college and begin a career that would land each in the Who’s Who In Colored America in the coming years. But their father Ran passed away in his sleep in 1926. “He really died with his boots on,” said his eldest son and namesake. “He saw some patients at night and then died in his sleep.”
Mary Lue (as all of her sons would call her) died of pneumonia in the winter of 1947 — just months before Jackie Robinson would integrate major league baseball.
Clearly, she and her beloved husband had more than done their job.
The best runner of the Granger family was the eldest, Randolph. He was a record-setter at both Barringer and Dartmouth College, from where he’d earn a 1915 degree.
In 1913, he helped defeat Penn by winning the 880-yard run in 2:01 2/5 despite cold and windy conditions. The next year he would claim the New England Intercollegiate Championship in the event, clocking a 1:58. Granger also made some noise when he beat Olympic hero Mel Sheppard in the half-mile in Newark as a collegian.
After graduating from Dartmouth, Randolph earned his medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University and began serving his internship at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
“We had a dose of Southern schools when we were kids. Southern schools didn’t have the outside help they have now. In fact, I forget, but my father started med school himself at Howard for part of a year and then changed to Vermont. When I interned down at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, they always said, ‘Oh, you went to a white school.’ But I always answered, ‘by no stretch of the imagination could I pass for white.’ I went to a mixed school.”
He returned to New York and was a Brooklyn physician for 52 years before retiring in 1970. During the administration of Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, Granger was a member of the Mayor’s Committee on Unity and also worked for the Urban League of Greater New York. He passed on in 1973.
If his brother Randolph was the best known track star of the family, Lester was the most well-known. That’s because for 20 years he was the head of the National Urban League, where he met with presidents and civil rights leaders.
And the civil rights organization grew under his direction, from 1941 to 1961. One of his first missions was to help integrate African-Americans into the efforts during World War II, which he did. He once said that the goals of the black community in America were “the right to work, the right to vote, the right to physical safety and the right to dignity and self-respect.”
Lester, who was the only one of the six brothers who did not become a doctor, served in France during World War I following his Dartmouth days. Upon his return he began to work for the Urban League in New Jersey and taught school and coached before joining the National Urban League in New York in 1934.
Lester was appointed as Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Navy on Negro Personnel by President Roosevelt and would be awarded the President’s Medal for Merit from President Truman. After retiring from the Urban League, he taught at Dillard University in Louisiana before passing away in 1976.
He once said of his athletic exploits at Dartmouth, “Always a scrubman, never a star. My older brothers got the athletic fame.” But in 2002, it was in the name of Lester B. Granger that the William Jewett Tucker Foundation established an award at the college.
Brother Leo became a physician back in Newark, but passed away at the age of 36. Carl became a physician in Huntington Station, N.Y., after earning his medical degree from NYU in 1927. Lloyd originally went to Dartmouth, but wound up at Penn Dental School and spent 50 years as a dentist in Newark. Augustus was the lone son who didn’t enroll at Dartmouth, opting for the Penn Dental School as well before starting a practice in Harrisburg, Pa.
This story was written by Brett Hoover in 2005 in conjunction with the League’s black history celebration.