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William Fontaine

February 5, 2012

William Thomas Valeria Fontaine (1909-1968) received his Ph. D. in philosophy in 1936.  A native of Chester, Pennsylvania, he was the second of thirteen children of a steelworker and his wife.  His grandmother, a slave until the end of the Civil War, helped to raise him.  He was an alum of Lincoln University and a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.  His contemporaries were such luminaries as Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes.

For Fontaine, philosophy was not only an academic discipline; it was also the foundation of human society.  Upon receiving his Ph.D., Fontaine accepted a position at Southern University near Baton Rouge where he taught philosophy and history, becoming head of the Department of Social Sciences before he left in 1942. During these years, Fontaine was able to do postdoctoral work at Penn and at the University of Chicago during the summers. In 1943, Fontaine worked briefly with his friend Kwame Nkrumah in the Chester shipyards, as part of an effort to challenge segregation in the work force. That same year he enlisted in the Army, serving until 1946 as a sergeant doing vocational counseling. Immediately following service in World War II, Fontaine was called to chair the Department of Philosophy and Psychology at Morgan State College in Baltimore.

Fontaine took a leave of absence from Morgan State for the 1947-1948 academic year to become a visiting lecturer in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Two years later his appointment as Assistant Professor in Philosophy earned Fontaine the distinction of becoming the University’s first fully-affiliated African-American faculty member. In 1963 he became Associate Professor, the first black faculty member to receive tenure at Penn. In addition, Fontaine served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1944 to 1952.

Fontaine was known not just as a scholar of philosophy, but also as an authority on black culture and the improvement of race relations. His 1967 book, Reflections on Segregation, Desegregation, Power and Morals, published as part of the American Lecture Series, explored the arbitrary use of language such as “White” and “Negro” to control human perceptions and interaction. He was an ardent supporter of civil rights and of racial integration, but was much against the segregation he saw as the outcome of the black power movement of the 1960s. His international travels reflect these interests in black culture and race relations. His time abroad included a 1957 trip to Paris for a Conference on Negro Writers and 1959 trip to Rome for Pope John XVIII’s address to and blessing of black intellectuals promoting black culture. The following year he helped his classmate Nnamdi Azikiwe’s inauguration as the head of the government of Nigeria. In 1962 he represented the American Society of African Culture at a conference in Dakar convened by the President of Senegal.

Fontaine passed in December of 1968 at age 59 after a long battle with tuberculosis.  He was survived by his wife Willabelle Hatton Fontaine and their two daughters, Jeanne and Vivienne.

In 1970, the Fontaine Fellowships were established in honor of Dr. Fontaine. These fellowships, awarded on the basis of academic merit, provide the additional funds necessary to students from underrepresented minority groups to pursue full-time doctoral study.  The Fontaine funding is used by the graduate schools, in combination with other resources, to recruit a diverse class of PhD students. Regardless of the source of a student’s funding, schools are encouraged to nominate their “underrepresented students” for membership in the Fontaine Society, which provides a supportive scholarly community.  Today the Fontaine Society is comprised of more than 200 PhD students in programs across Penn.

Daina Troy
WH ’98

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