From the Archives: Mercersburg Celebrates 100th Anniversary of First Native American Graduate

Friday, November 19, 2021

Editor's note: As we mark Native American Heritage Month this November, we share this story from the archives about Mercersburg's first Native American graduate. This story appeared in the summer 2017 issue of Mercersburg Academy magazine. 

Charles Watson McGilberry (Class of 1917)

In April, Mercersburg marked the 100th anniversary of its first Native American graduate with a daylong celebration of Charles Watson McGilberry of the school’s Class of 1917. The celebration included a presentation at a school meeting which featured McGilberry’s granddaughter, Carolee Maxwell, and her husband, Wayne, who wrote the 2009 book Touched by Greatness about McGilberry’s life and his experiences at Mercersburg.

Ian Thompson, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and Joseph Wolf, tribal community liaison for the Choctaw Nation, joined the Maxwells for the presentation and also took part in a number of events on campus, and the Maxwells’ son (McGilberry’s great-grandson) and daughter-in-law, Brandon and Lizi Maxwell, were also in attendance.

McGilberry, a member of the Choctaw Nation from the then-newly created state of Oklahoma, was one of three Native American students chosen to enroll at Mercersburg in fall 1914 as part of a scholarship program created by wealthy businessman and philanthropist Rodman Wanamaker, who was a friend and classmate of Mercersburg’s founding headmaster Dr. William Mann Irvine at Princeton University. The three students were given full tuition, room, and board, with the ultimate hope of their eventual matriculation to Princeton.

“On behalf of my late grandfather and his entire family, we are so grateful to all who have made this day possible,” Carolee Maxwell said during her presentation. “And let me say to you, the students: I encourage you to find a copy of Touched by Greatness and read it. Within its pages, you will discover that nothing is impossible with a hearty helping of grit and determination. If a Choctaw Indian boy from the Kiamichi Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma in 1917 could have done this [graduated from Mercersburg], then so can you.”

Head of School Katie Titus presented the Maxwells with a hand-turned wooden bowl crafted by former Mercersburg staff member Joe Wertner from lumber salvaged from the Mercersburg campus. (Thompson, Wolf, and Brandon and Lizi Maxwell also received similar pieces.)

In 1914, the other Native American students to enroll alongside McGilberry were John Earl Gibson (of Arizona and the Pima Nation) and Louis Tyner (of Kansas and the Shawnee Nation). The Maxwells’ book calls the scholarship program “an experiment to determine if young Indians [Native Americans] could be successfully educated in the studies and mannerisms of an Ivy League environment.”

At Mercersburg, McGilberry, Gibson, and Tyner lived together in ’Eighty-eight Dormitory (which stood between Keil Hall and the site of present-day Ford Hall). McGilberry played football and baseball, wrote for the Lit (the school literary magazine and precursor to Blue Review), and was a member of The Fifteen and the Irving Society. He graduated in 1917 and was accepted at Princeton, but following service in the U.S. Army during World War I, where he was the first Native American commissioned as an Army officer, McGilberry (who had married and was about to become a father for the first time) decided against making the trip back east from Oklahoma to Princeton.

McGilberry attended East Central Teachers College in Ada, Oklahoma, earned a master’s from the University of Oklahoma, and did end up in the Ivy League when he undertook postgraduate study at Columbia University. He and his wife, Vivian, taught at Native American schools in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and South Dakota, and McGilberry served as a school superintendent in Johnston County, Oklahoma. He died in 1960 at age 67.