When Affirmative Action Was White

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

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

Even though that by the following decade Middlebury College had “adopted a policy of racial exclusion,” Levy writes, it granted an exception in 1849 to Martin Freeman, his class salutatorian who a year later became “the first college-educated black professor in America” when he joined the faculty at the Allegheny Institute and Mission Church (the future black Avery College) in Pittsburgh. (Note: According to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Educationit was Charles L. Reason, with his appointment to teach at New York Central College in 1849, who was “the first African American to teach at a mixed race institution of higher education in the U.S.”)  


Middlebury was apparently so proud of Professor Freeman that, in 1852, it invited him back to receive an honorary master’s degree. In 1856, Freeman was elected to serve as president of Avery College, eventually resigning during the Civil War to take up a professorship in math and natural philosophy at Liberia College in Africa, where he encountered the likes of Alexander Crummell, who founded the American Negro Academy in Washington, D.C., in 1897 and was one of Du Bois’ heroes.

Dr. James McCune Smith

Other distinguished African-American leaders of the antebellum period looked abroad for educational opportunities, most famously Dr. James McCune Smith, who, in 1837, broke ground as the first black American to receive a medical degree. His alma mater: the University of Glasgow in Scotland. After returning to his native New York, Smith became the first African American to practice medicine and open his own pharmacy. He was even more influential as an antislavery activist. “I have striven to obtain education, at every sacrifice and every hazard, and to apply such education to the good of our common country,” Smith told his fellow black New Yorkers. During the Civil War, he applied that education further by accepting a professorship in anthropology at Wilberforce University in Ohio.


Oberlin College: George B. Vashon, Lucy Stanton Day Sessions and Mary Jane Patterson

Ohio also was home to the abolitionist haven Oberlin College, which opened its doors in 1833 and soon became a magnet for black men and women. Oberlin’s first black graduate was George B. Vashon, class of 1844, who became one of the founding professors at Howard University after the Civil War. Most of Howard’s original faculty was white and would remain so for decades; Vashon was one of first black professors to teach at “The Capstone of Negro Education.” It took abolitionist schools such as Oberlin, willing to buck the proslavery trend in the United States, to train black scholars who would, in turn, train rising generations at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities.


Oberlin honored other barrier-breakers before the Civil War. In 1850, Lucy Stanton Day Sessions became the first black woman to earn a certificate in literature from Oberlin. At her graduation, she gave a speech titled “A Plea for the Oppressed,” which was then published in the Oberlin Evangelist“Ye that advocate the great principles of Temperance, Peace, and Moral Reform will you not raise your voice in behalf of these stricken ones!—will you not plead the cause of the Slave?” she declared, according to Allison Kellar’s entry in the African American National Biography. After the Civil War, Sessions answered the call of history by moving to Georgia to teach under the sponsorship of the Cleveland Freedmen’s Aid Society. After another stint in Mississippi, she and her family became one of the first to live in the City of Angels: Los Angeles.

In 1862, Mary Jane Patterson became the first African-American woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in the United States, from Oberlin College. She became a teacher and, after the Civil War, moved to Washington to serve “as the first black principal at the newly established Preparatory School for Negroes, later known as the M Street School and still later as Paul Laurence Dunbar High School,” writes Roland Baumann in his entry on Patterson in the African American National Biography.


What about the Ivy League? This where it gets interesting. Craig Steven Wilder’s remarkable new book, Ebony and Ivy, traces the early Ivy League schools’ dependency on the wealth generated by slavery, and it wasn’t uncommon to see the presidents of these institutions owning slaves on campus. Progress came slowly.

Dartmouth’s Edward Mitchell 

In 1828, Dartmouth College graduated its first black student, Edward Mitchell, a native of Martinique in the West Indies who had moved to New Hampshire with the family of the college president and who later became a Baptist minister.  


What About Yale?

Then there’s my alma mater, Yale. For years, the assumed milestone-maker in New Haven was Edward Alexander Bouchet, class of 1874, but now it seems that distinction belongs to New Haven native Richard Henry Green, a member of the class of 1857, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its Dred Scott decision, denying blacks basic federal citizenship. “After Yale,” the Yale Alumni Magazine reports, “Green went to medical school at Dartmouth and served as an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Navy” before settling down to practice in Upstate New York.


To my surprise, there is even an earlier claim floating around that Yale’s first black alumnus was New York lawyer Moses Simons, class of 1809! Simons was Yale’s first Jewish alumnus, but in later court records, he was noted for his “African tinge.” To add to the speculation, Simons was a native of Charleston, S.C., where, writes Ariel Kaminer of the New York Times, “a number of men in the Jewish, slave-owning Simons family … were known to have fathered children of mixed race.”  

Even more intriguing, Kaminer notes, is the case made for Randall Lee Gibson, a member of the class of 1853. Apparently, Gibson’s “great-grandfather was a ‘free man of color.’ ” But what did his great-grandson do with his Yale degree? Randall Lee Gibson, Kaminer writes, “helped lead the Confederate Army, became a United States senator from Louisiana and declared black people to be ‘degraded.’ ”


History unfolds in perplexing, often painful ways. Today, the same schools that erected strict racial barriers against black admissions are racing to embrace the legacy of the first African American on their campuses! And in the process, we see how complex questions of racial identity really can be.

‘Fair Harvard’: Richard T. Greener and Those Who Should Have Preceded Him

Then there is the university where I now teach. To be sure, there were no black graduates of Harvard College for its first 229 years, which would be the same as having none from now until the year 2243! Actually, the first black Harvard man should have been Beverly Garnett Williams, who was admitted to the college in 1847 but died of tuberculosis just before matriculation. As a result, the dream was deferred until after the Civil War, when Richard T. Greener, class of 1870, crossed the stage. Greener was notable for many things, among them helping to raise the funds to establish Grant’s Tomb. Greener would later tell a Harvard alumni group in New York, “Ability, character, and merit—these are the sole passports to her [Harvard’s] favor.” 


Then there is a most embarrassing chapter in the history of Harvard Medical School. We might call it regressive action, because the first three black men admitted to Harvard Med in 1850—Isaac Snowden, Daniel Laing Jr. and Martin R. Delany (the future “Father of Black Nationalism”)—were forced to withdraw after one semester because of a vocal and powerful minority who deemed their presence “distasteful … and injurious,” according to Dean Oliver Wendell Holmes’ letter quoted in Blacks at Harvard: A Documentary History

That same year, 1850, Louis Agassiz, Harvard’s distinguished professor of zoology and geology, called black people a separate race when “viewed zoologically” and warned that Americans should “beware of how we give to the blacks rights by virtue of which they may endanger the progress of whites,” according to Louis Menand in The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. As a point of fact, Snowden, Laing and Delany weren’t even interested in “endangering the progress of whites,” as Agassiz put it. They were there to be trained for medical service in Africa as part of the antebellum colonization movement. Turns out, “Fair Harvard” wasn’t always so fair.


‘The Way to Stop Discrimination’

Stories about heroes such as these pioneers are all too easy to forget. But remembering them gives an altogether different spin to the sentiments of current U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts—incidentally a Harvard man—who, leading the charge against affirmative action in education today, has said, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” I’m sure Snowden, Laing and Delany would have found such pronouncements helpful in 1850. Conveniently, the Supreme Court is latching onto them only now, when affirmative action for black people, rather than the white men who used to benefit from it, is still less than 50 years old.  


Indeed, when my graduating class entered Yale University in 1969, there were 96 black students, compared with just six who had graduated in 1966. Did Yale somehow discover 90 more smart black people by miracle? Of course not! Yale made a policy change, and my classmates and I were swept up into the Ivy League as part of a conscious decision to respond to decades of regressive action by educating a new leadership class across the entire spectrum of ethnicities in the United States—not just white men. That same year, 1969, women also entered Yale as undergraduates for the first time.

Our Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The bursts of the Civil War and the civil rights movement, one hundred years apart, each in their own way profoundly changed the equation for black students pursuing a higher education. But there were many peaks and valleys in between. Although the Freedmen’s Bureau took seriously its charge to educate the former slaves after emancipation, by the close of the 19th century the former Confederate states had found every way to manipulate the promise of equal protection by establishing separate colleges and universities for black and white students.  


The first of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, was founded way back in 1837, but most black colleges broke ground in the half-century after the Civil War as training grounds for teachers and other black professionals. For this reason, I always like to remind people that W.E.B. Du Bois may have graduated from Harvard with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1890 and 1891, and with his Ph.D. in 1895, but he was first trained at Fisk University in Nashville as a member of the class of 1888. And although my colleague Martin L. Kilson may have been the first black professor to take up tenure in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard in 1969, he was trained at Lincoln University near Ambler, Pa., as a member of the class of 1953. 

Until the dawn of affirmative action in 1960s, such luminaries as Du Bois and Kilson were the exceptions to the rule at our historically white colleges and universities. These aspirants broke barriers despite the decision of so many of the nation’s educational leaders in the early 1890s that it was best to track black students for industrial education rather than in the liberal arts and sciences, as staunchly advocated by Booker T. Washington. 


Seeing the Unseen

It is clear even to the casual observer that despite repeated attempts to bar these doors, education has always been part of the equation for the African-American people. This was even true under slavery when, as Frederick Douglass put it, every slave attempted to “steal a little knowledge” from the white man, since learning to read and write were forbidden by law. And we should never lose sight of this legacy: We are a people of the book, too. Remember that the Rev. Chavis was a student at Liberty Hall Academy in Virginia when George Washington was still the nation’s first president. So, you see, the spirit of Maya Angelou’s great poem “Still I Rise,” though published in 1978, had long been the call of preceding generations as well, which is why I have always been deeply moved by these passages from the chapter “On the Training of Black Men” in Du Bois’ classic 1903 exploration of the color line in America, The Souls of Black Folk:

The function of the Negro college, then, is clear: it must maintain the standards of popular education, it must seek the social regeneration of the Negro, and it must help in the solution of problems of race contact and cooperation. And finally, beyond all this, it must develop men. … Herein the longing of black men must have respect: the rich and bitter depth of their experience, the unknown treasures of their inner life, the strange rendings of nature they have seen, may give the world new points of view and make their loving, living, and doing precious to all human hearts. And to themselves in these the days that try their souls, the chance to soar in the dim blue air above the smoke is to their finer spirits boon and guerdon for what they lose on earth by being black.


Reaching back only to the period after the Civil War, Du Bois kept track of the number of black college graduates in the United States as best as he could:

[T]here were, in the years from 1875 to 1880, 22 Negro graduates from Northern colleges; from 1885 to 1890 there were 43, and from 1895 to 1900, nearly 100 graduates. From Southern Negro colleges there were, in the same three periods, 143, 413, and over 500 graduates. Here, then, is the plain thirst for training; by refusing to give this Talented Tenth the key to knowledge, can any sane man imagine that they will lightly lay aside their yearning and contentedly become hewers of wood and drawers of water?


To Du Bois’ list we must add the 40 or so black college graduates who received their degrees before the end of the Civil War. (You can read a fuller chronology on The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education website.) For anyone celebrating a graduation this year, I ask you to pause to honor the sacrifices these men and women made for our people. Remember, you are the fulfillment of centuries of resiliency against regressive action and the proud descendants of men and women who—against the greatest of odds—“made a way out of no way,” so that generations of black people to come could achieve their dreams of a higher education.

Congratulations, Class of 2014!

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.