Frederick Douglass Patterson was born on October 10, 1901 to parents William and Mamie Brooks Patterson, in the Buena Vista Heights area of Anacostia in Washington, D.C. The youngest of six children, Patterson's parents died of tuberculosis before he reached the age of two years, his mother when he was eleven months old and his father a year later. Following his parents' death, the Patterson children were split up and sent to live in the homes of family and friends as stipulated in his father's last will and testament until he was seven years old, Patterson lived in the Anacostia area with a family friend he called "Aunt Julia."
When he was seven years old, Patterson's older sister Bess (a recent graduate of the Washington Conservatory of Music) decided to seek employment in Texas and took him with her. Many of their parents' family still lived in the state, which allowed Patterson the opportunity to spend months with various aunts and uncles, while his sister taught music throughout the South. After completing eighth grade, Patterson joined his sister at the Prairie View Normal School, where she taught music and directed the choir. Patterson attended the school for four years, during which time he developed an interest in veterinary medicine.
In 1920, Patterson enrolled at Iowa State College as a veterinary student. He graduated in 1923 and moved to Columbus, Ohio, to join his brother John. While there, he took the Ohio State Board exam for Veterinary Medicine. Although he became certified, a lack of money prevented him from practicing. Four years later he received a teaching offer from Virginia State College (VSC) in Petersburg, Virginia, which afforded him the opportunity to work within his profession. While at VSC Patterson took a leave of absence and returned to Iowa, in 1926, to pursue a Master's degree in veterinary medicine.
After five years at VSC, the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute offered Patterson a position running the veterinarian hospital and teaching veterinary science. He moved to Tuskegee, Alabama in 1928. While at Tuskegee, Patterson decided to pursue a Ph.D. in bacteriology at Cornell University. During his year and a half leave from Tuskegee, Patterson completed his coursework and wrote his dissertation. After he returned to Tuskegee, a serial killer murdered three people, including the head of the Department of Agriculture. Confronted with this tragedy, school officials quickly offered Patterson the vacant position, which he accepted in 1934.
Robert R. Moton, second president of Tuskegee, retired in 1935 and a search was soon commenced to find the next president for the school. Patterson, in the meantime, pursued more personal matters when he met and married Catherine Moton (with whom he would have a son) in June 1935. By then he was already hired to take his now, father-in-law's, position as President of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute.
As president of Tuskegee, Patterson made several changes and many additions to the institution. He increased faculty housing for professors; integrated the Board of Trustees' meeting meals and eventually arranged for both balck and white members to eat at one table; shortened the name to Tuskegee Institute; and established the Department of Commercial Dietetics in 1935, the veterinary medicine program in 1942, and the engineering program in 1948. While many considered Patterson's changes important achievements, it was his development of the Commercial/Military Aviation Program that would bring the school distinction and fame.
Patterson first attempted to develop the aviation program in 1939. The government fostered the development of such programs by subsiding the expenses. All a university had to do was present able-bodied instructors and willing pupils. Tuskegee had both. By 1940 the United States Air Force was interested in integrating its forces. In order to do this they needed trained black pilots. Tuskegee was the perfect place to provide the needed pilots since the school was situated in an all-black environment where students could concentrate on learning to fly without having to worry about racist reactions from their fellow classmates. To accommodate this program, the Tuskegee Army Air Base was created. Tuskegee pilots flew missions throughout World War II and would later be recognized for their bravery.
An important part of Patterson's duties as president was fund-raising. By 1943 he found it increasingly difficult to find ample sources of funds to run the Institute. He came to realize Tuskegee and similar black colleges would benefit if they pooled their funding resources and asked for larger amounts of money from philanthropic individuals and organizations as a collective. Working together would cut fund-raising expenses; this in turn would leave more money for the colleges to use as they wished. Patterson named his new creation the United Negro College Fund (UNCF); it would go on to raise millions of dollars for the nation's historically black colleges. He served as the first president of the organization.
During the fifteen years Patterson served as president of Tuskegee, he hosted many famous personalities, including W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Pearl Buck, and Andre Segovia. He developed a lasting relationship with George Washington Carver, who had been a professor with Tuskegee since the days of Booker T. Washington.
Patterson served on many organizational boards in addition to his educational work. His involvement with the Phelps-Stokes Fund would ultimately lead Patterson to leave his beloved Tuskegee Institute to apply his educational philosophies on a broader scale. In 1953 the Fund approached Patterson and offered him the presidency of the organization. Patterson, feeling he needed a change, accepted the offer. He resigned from Tuskegee that same year and moved to New York to begin a new life.
Organized in 1911, the Phelps-Stokes Fund supported African, African American, and Native American education and worked on solving housing problems in New York City. Patterson's interest in African education began before he joined Phelps-Stokes. In 1950 the World Bank/International Bank Commission to Nigeria hired him to "evaluate the resources of Nigeria and…to study the educational programs and the organizational structure of advanced education." Through his work with the Fund he continued his efforts to improve the educational opportunities for Africans and help them move beyond colonialism. Patterson traveled extensively throughout the west coast of Africa in support of these goals.
In addition to forming the UNCF, Patterson created two other organizations (the Robert R. Moton Institute and the College Endowment Funding Plan), during the mid 1960s and 1970s. Each was designed to improve funding efforts for historically black colleges. The Robert R. Moton institute began as an off-shoot of the Phelps-Stokes as a site for conferences to address the Fund's primary concerns. Patterson's idea for the Institute came from a desire to put to use a piece of property inherited after Moton's death. Empathy with the frustrations of college presidents regarding the restricted funding for institutional expenses led Patterson to create the College Endowment Funding Plan. The Endowment was designed to alleviate this situation by providing matching funds to eligible colleges. The Endowment made its first payment in 1978. Unfortunately, by the 1980s, the Moton Institute lost most of its government funding due to federal cutbacks. This resulted in reductions to the Institute's programming.
It was not until Patterson was well into his eighties that he began to retire from his life of public service. On June 23, 1987, President Ronald Reagan presented Dr. Patterson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest possible honor that can be bestowed upon a civilian, for his service in higher education and his role in creating funding sources for the nation's historically black colleges. A year later Frederick Douglass Patterson died at the age of eighty-seven.
Franklin and Marshall College
Virginia Union University
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York
Association for the Study of Negro Life and History Carter
The Southern Education Foundation, Inc. Distinguished Service Citation
The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and Texas Association of Developing Colleges Annual Leadership Awards
Christian Education department, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Inc. Citation for Distinguished Service
Bethune-Cookman College, the Mary McLeod Bethune Medallion
John A. Andrew Clinical Society at Tuskegee Institute, Citation for Distinguished Service in the Cause of Humanity
Tuskegee Institute, Certificate of Appreciation for 25 Years of Service
Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. Beta Lamda Sigma Chapter, Bigger and Better Business Award
National Alumni Council of the UNCF, Inc. Award
National Business League, Booker T. Washington Award
Booker T. Washington Business Association, Certificate of Acknowledgement
Moton Conference Center Award
Tuskegee National Alumni Association, R.R. Moton Award
American College Public Relations Association, 1972 Award for Distinguished Service to Higher Education
UNCF F.D. Patterson 71st Birthday Award
National Business League, Booker T. Washington Symbol of Service Award
Phelps-Stokes Fund, Continuous Creative and Courageous Leadership in the Cause of Higher Education for Blacks
Yale Alumni Associates of Afro-America, Distinguished Service Award
Alpha Phi Alpha Education Foundation Inc., Distinguished Educator Award
Tuskegee Institute Alumni Association Philadelphia Charter Award
The Iowa State University Alumni Association, Distinguished Achievement Citation
Gary Branch NAACP Life Membership Fight for Freedom Dinner 1980, Roy Wilkins Award
State of Alabama Certificate of Appreciation
St. Luke's United Methodist Church Achievement Award
Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., Distinguished Service Award
Booker T. Washington Foundation, Booker T. Washington Distinguished Service Award
The Ohio State University Office of Minority Affairs, Distinguished Humanitarian and Service Award
Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc, Eta Zeta Lamda Chapter Civic Award
United States, Private Sector Initiative Commendation
Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc of New York State, Founders Day Award
Presidential Medal of Freedom
Brag Business Achievement Award
Phelps-Stokes Fund, Aggrey Medal
Southern Educational Foundation, Inc., Board Member
United Negro College Fund, Founder, President, and Member
Robert R. Moton Memorial Institute, Founder
The College Endowment Funding Plan, Founder
American National Red Cross, Board of Governors Member
Boys Scouts of America, National Council Member
Citizens Committee for the Hoover Report on Reorganization of Federal Government, Board Member
Institute of International Education, Advisory committee Member
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Life Member
National Business League, President and Board Member
National Urban League, National Committee Member
Phelps-Stokes Fund, Board of Trustees Member
President's Commission on Higher Education for Negroes
Southern Regional Education, Board of Control Member