William Thomas Fontaine (1909-1968)

William Thomas Valeria Fontaine, ca. 1960
Courtesy Artstor Library, University of Pennsylvania (UARC20070904016)

William Thomas Fontaine taught philosophy at Lincoln University, Southern University, Morgan State College, and for twenty years at the University of Pennsylvania. He was born in Chester Pennsylvania on December 2, 1909, the son of steelworker William Charles Fontaine and Mary Elizabeth Boyer. At age sixteen he matriculated at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and received his B. A. in 1930.

For the next six years Fontaine taught part-time at Lincoln, instructing in a wide variety of courses, mainly in his field of Latin authors, although in 1935-36 he taught a pioneering course in what was then termed Negro history. During this period Fontaine also did graduate work in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a Ph.D. in 1936, concentrating in the history of Roman thought. His dissertation was entitled Fortune, matter and providence, a study of Ancius Severinus Boethius and Giordano Bruno.

In 1936 Fontaine accepted a position at Southern University in Scotlandville, Louisiana. During his time there he married Willa Belle Hawkins, a divorcee with two children, Jean and Vivian.

In 1943 the American army drafted Fontaine. He served at Holybird Signal Depot in Baltimore teaching literacy to black draftees. After the war Fontaine joined the faculty at Morgan State College in Baltimore as head of Psychology and Philosophy, but in 1947 and 1948 took a temporary lectureship at Pennsylvania. In 1949 he received a tenure-track appointment to begin that fall semester.

Fontaine combined a pragmatic orientation toward different worldviews with a Marxist account of the social locus of knowing. Sensitized to relativism, he struggled throughout the rest of his life to find a firm basis to criticize the racism and segregation of American life. These concerns appeared in two notable publications. “The Mind and Thought of the Negro of the United States as Revealed in Imaginative Literature, 1876-1940,” Southern University Bulletin 28 (March 1942):5-50, surveyed African American literature using a framework derived from the pragmatist George Herbert Mead; “Social Determination in the Writings of American Negro Scholars” American Journal of Sociology 49 (1944): 302-13, criticized black thinking on race using the work of sociologist of knowledge Karl Mannheim.

Shortly before he was to begin teaching at the University of Pennsylvania as an assistant professor in 1949, Fontaine was diagnosed with active tuberculosis. Over the next six years, he spent three and one-half on medical leave. After 1955 Fontaine made a recovery for a decade when his disease was in remission. He was tenured in 1958, and promoted to an associate professorship in 1963. For a long time he was one of the very rare African Americans teaching in the segregated white academy, and the only black philosopher in the Ivy League. Fontaine was also an outstanding lecturer, winning Pennsylvania’s sole teaching award in 1958.

By the mid-late 1950s, his recovery and the burgeoning Civil Rights movement propelled Fontaine again to take up questions of race in the United States. But he also studied the movements of nationalism and anti-colonialism in Africa. His participation in the 1956 Conference on Negro Writers in Paris signaled this new line of thinking.

At the end of 1966 Fontaine went on medical leave. During this period of illness he completed Reflections on Segregation, Desegregation, Power, and Morals (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publishing Co., 1967). William Thomas Fontaine died in Philadelphia on December 29, 1968.