When Affirmative Action Was White

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Meet America’s first black collegians, who faced a system that explicitly favored the white elite.

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After Chavis, the geographic trend for black college students was north and westward, reflecting the increasing fracture in the country over slavery. To understand education’s symbolism and power, it is always wise to keep track of who is being let in and who is being kept out.

Interestingly, the next black college graduate in the United States was not a student who completed courses on campus but the recipient of an honorary degree. Like Chavis, the Rev. Lemuel Haynes was a veteran of the Revolutionary War—in fact, he was a former Minuteman—who, while a soldier, attacked the institution of slavery as antithetical to the War for Independence in his pamphlet “Liberty Further Extended.”  

Raised as an indentured servant on the farm of a Congregational minister (Haynes was abandoned as a baby by his African father and white mother), he passed up the chance to matriculate at Dartmouth College after the war in order to pursue his calling as a New Light Congregational minister. Along the way, Haynes learned the classical languages and perhaps became “the first black person to lead a white church,” according to Scott Miltenberger’s entry in the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass.  

There was no denying Haynes’ achievements, so in 1804, Middlebury College, which had been founded in Vermont just four years earlier, feted Haynes with an honorary master of arts degree. (I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Vermont also was the first state to abolish slavery.) I also consider Haynes an early Yale man (my alma mater) since, at the invitation of Yale president Timothy Dwight in 1814, Haynes became one of the first (if not the first) black clergymen to preach before a predominantly white flock at the Congregational Church of the United Society in New Haven, Conn. 

Alexander Lucius Twilight

Turns out, Middlebury College also was home to the first African-American college graduate to receive a bachelor’s degree. His name was Alexander Lucius Twilight, and the year was 1823, just one year after the founding of Liberia in Africa and three years after the Missouri Compromise drew the free-slave line across America’s western territories.

Twilight’s name came from his father, Ichabod Twilight, perhaps as a descriptor of his complexion. A farmer by trade, Ichabod Twilight, too, served in the Revolutionary War as a member of the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment, and his family was the first black family to settle in the town of Corinth, Vt. One of six children, Alexander studied languages and theology at Middlebury College and later was principal of the Orleans County Grammar School in Brownington, Vt. In 1836, he also had the distinction of becoming “the first African American to serve in a state legislature in the United States,” according to Sholomo Levy’s entry on Twilight in the African American National Biography. 

John Russwurm and Ernest Jones

In 1826, three classes after Twilight, Middlebury College graduated its second African-American student, John Brown Russwurm, who, as we learned in an earlier column, in 1827 co-founded the first black newspaper in the United States, Freedom’s Journal, a year after he graduated. Also in 1826, Amherst College in Massachusetts awarded a degree to its first black graduate, Ernest Jones.

Martin Freeman