“A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” is the well-known campaign slogan for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). The fund was established in 1944 by Frederick Douglass Patterson, the third president of Tuskegee Institute, who was initially seeking financial support for the school (now Tuskegee University). Realizing other private black colleges encountered hardship in garnering funds, Patterson decided that a combined fundraising effort would benefit all universities and colleges involved, thus forming the UNCF. The founding of UNCF and his other contributions to the field of higher education earned Patterson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987.
Patterson was born on October 10, 1901, in the Buena Vista Heights area of southeast Washington, D.C., near Historic Anacostia and the home of his namesake, abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Patterson’s parents died of tuberculosis, leaving him an orphan before the age of two. Patterson lived in Anacostia with a family friend until the age of seven when his older sister moved to Texas and took him with her.
Frederick Douglass Patterson papers at the Anacostia Community Museum include correspondence, manuscripts, research material, published writing, photographs, and other materials documenting his personal life and professional career. Researchers will find of interest a scrapbook commemorating Patterson’s founding of and involvement with UNCF. The correspondence in the papers includes a note from George Washington Carver to Mrs. Patterson which accompanied a bottle of peanut oil with instructions to “use the same as “mothers [sic] friend, (as a massage).” Most of the photographs in the collection were taken during Patterson’s tenure as president of Tuskegee and include dignitary visits to the institute. There are also images by official Tuskegee photographer and renowned portrait photographer P. H. [Prentice Herman] Polk, as well as images by Arthur P. Bedou, who is celebrated for his photographs of Booker T. Washington and jazz musicians. You can learn more about this native Washingtonian in Chronicles of Faith: The Autobiography of Frederick D. Patterson.
This entry originally featured on the Smithsonian Collections Search Center blog, January 21, 2011.