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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Lemuel Haynes, Public Domain; Richard Greener, Wikimedia Commons; and Mary Jane Patterson, heragenda.com by Nesha

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 80: Who were the first notable African Americans who stepped into America’s institutions of higher learning?

As many gather to celebrate graduations on college and university campuses across the country, it is an ideal time to remember the generations of black women and men who fought for the right to obtain a higher education when it was most out of reach for our people, when, as historian and political scientist Ira Katznelson has so aptly put it, “affirmative action was white.”  

This column pays tribute to the earliest and most notable of those first black collegians during the long decades when slavery was still legal in the United States and laws were in place not to remove the barriers to advancement by African Americans, but to deliberately thwart their progress. It’s what I like to call affirmative history.  

These early pioneers of the group that W.E.B. Du Bois would call “the Talented Tenth” are a testament to a people’s resiliency against forces hell-bent on reinforcing the idea that black people somehow were subhuman, that they were not like Europeans, that they were a different order of being. To me, the list of men and women who earned their degrees before and after the Civil War represents the ultimate African-American honor roll.   

John Chavis

The first black college student hailed not from the North, but from the South. He was John Chavis, the child of free black North Carolinians and a Revolutionary War veteran, who first studied privately with John Witherspoon, the sixth president of Princeton University (then called the College of New Jersey, James Madison’s alma mater) and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. When Witherspoon died in 1794, Chavis continued his studies at Liberty Hall Academy in Lexington, Va., the future home, ironically, of Washington and Lee University, named for two slaveholders: President George Washington and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.  

There is no official record of Chavis’ graduation from Liberty Hall Academy in 1799, but it is inferred from the fact that he was granted a license to minister in the Presbyterian Church. The minutes of the Lexington Presbytery on Oct. 19, 1799, attest that “John Chavis, a black man personally known to most members of the Presbytery and of unquestionably good favor, & a communicant in the Presbyterian Church was introduced and conversed with relative to his practical acquaintance with living religion & his call to preach the Everlasting Gospel.”

Chavis went on to become a teacher and preacher until Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831 robbed him of that right. It didn’t matter that Chavis had willingly taught white students by day (including two future governors) and blacks by night. To the North Carolina legislature, African-American ministers, as a class, were a perceived threat. However the Rev. Chavis tried to distinguish himself from Turner, his finances took a severe hit. For years, little was said of Chavis at Washington and Lee. Now, not only is he featured on the university’s website, but there is also a house on campus named after him on Lee Avenue, a counterweight to the chapel nearby where the popular Confederate general (later president of the college) is buried. The school claims Chavis as “the first African-American to receive a college education in the United States.”

Lemuel Haynes