Emmett W. Bassett, the first African American to obtain a doctoral degree in dairy technology, died at home on Sunday, September 29, 2013. He was 92.
He was a member of the medical school faculty of Columbia University and then the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry, from which he retired as an associate professor in the department of microbiology in 1987. He was one of the last living students trained by George Washington Carver. Like others of his generation, Dr. Bassett combined his professional life with enduring activism in civil rights, from his boyhood defense of the Scottsboro boys, to the March on Washington. His preference was for neighborhood activism, which he pursued in education, health and community affairs in the Washington Heights/Inwood section of New York City and Sullivan County, where he made his home in later years. He served on his local New York City Community Board, the Manhattan Advisory Council of the New York State Commission for Human Rights. He later helped found the Human Rights Commission of Sullivan County. In his book “Barack Obama,” David Maraniss recounted an encounter of Dr. Bassett with a youthful Barack Obama.
He was born in 1921 in Henry County, Virginia near the town of Martinsville. His primary education was in a one-room schoolhouse where classes frequently were suspended either because there was no teacher or because children were needed for farm labor. At 16, he enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. When he won a National Youth Administration scholarship, he was able to give up his job milking cows each morning. This sponsorship supported a research assistantship and he worked for George Washington Carver, who encouraged him to pursue a higher degree in the sciences.
But the Second World War interrupted any possibility of further education. His service in the U.S. Army quartermaster corps brought him in touch with blacks from the North, often considerably older than he. At one point, his roommate was Robert Ming, a black lawyer already credentialed to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. Such encounters with well-educated blacks showed the inadequacy of his southern segregated education. He resolved to continue his education after the war, thus joining the great migration out of the south. In 1950, he entered the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and in 1955 he was awarded a doctoral degree in dairy technology from Ohio State University.
In his later years, as Alzheimer’s disease overtook him, he focused on gardening at which he remained active into his 90s. He also told more stories about his Virginia childhood. His gardening prowess had been noted since childhood. When he was about eight years old, a neighbor remarked on his ability, noting that if it were still slave times he would have fetched $1,000. Young Emmett replied, “No I wouldn’t because they would have had to kill me before they could sell me!”
He leaves his wife, Priscilla Tietjen Bassett, three children, Mary Bassett, Jonathan Bassett and Lydia Tyner, all of New York City, as well as three grandchildren.