Higher Education for African Americans

Higher Education for African Americans

David A. Thomsen, Library Technician for Special Projects at the J. Cloyd Miller Library of Western New Mexico University, shared his work on African American Higher Education.

We hope you find this as informative as we do!

J. Cloyd Miller Library, Western New Mexico University

1799: John Chavis, a Presbyterian minister and teacher, is the first black person on record to attend an American college or university.  He attends what is now Washington and Lee University.  Records differ on whether he obtained a degree, but he goes on to teach black and white students until the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831.

1804: Middlebury College in Vermont awards an honorary master’s degree to Lemuel Haynes, an African American who fought in the Revolutionary War.

1823: Alexander Lucius Twilight earns a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College.  He is the first confirmed African American graduate from a college in the United States. Twilight later becomes the first African American to be elected to a state legislature, in Vermont in 1837.

1833: Oberlin College in Ohio is founded. From its founding the college is open to blacks and women, establishing a long history of dedication equality in higher education.  The first black to graduate, in 1844, is George B. Vashon who later became one of the founding professors at Howard University.

1847:  David J. Peck is the first African American to receive an M.D. degree from a U.S. medical school.  (In 1837 African American James McCune Smith received a medical degree from the University of Glasgow in Scotland; in 1839 Samuel Ford McGill, from what is now part of Liberia, graduated from Dartmouth medical school.)

1849: Charles L. Reason named professor of belles-lettres, Greek, Latin and French at New York Central College. He appears to be the first African American to teach at a predominantly white institution of higher education in the U.S.

1850: Harvard Medical School accepts its first three black students, one of whom is Martin Delany who will go on to advocate black nationalism.  Shortly after these students arrive, Harvard rescinds the invitations due to pressure from some white students and despite support from others.

1868:  Former slave Patrick Francis Healy is hired to the faculty at Georgetown University.  Due to racial prejudice, Healy did not disclose his mixed-race background at the time, i.e. he “passed as white,” but is considered the first African American educator at a top-ranked university.  In 1874 Healy becomes president at Georgetown.

1869: George Lewis Ruffin is the first black to earn a degree from Harvard Law School. In 1883 Ruffin becomes Massachusetts’ first African-American judge.

1872:  James Henry Conyers is the first black student to enter the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. A year later he resigns after having academic troubles and some serious hazing. 

1877: Inman Page, a former slave, is elected student body president at Brown University. He is believed to be the first black to be elected student body president at any of the nation’s highest-ranked and predominantly white universities. 

1883: First known African-American woman to graduate from one of the Seven Sisters colleges: Hortense Parker (Mount Holyoke College, still a seminary at the time).

1895: W.E.B. Du Bois earns his Ph.D. in history from Harvard, the first black to do so at Harvard. 

1897: Vassar College graduates its first known African-American student, Anita Hemmings.  This is 40 years before Vassar formally opened its doors to blacks.  Hemmings did not disclose her mixed-race background but was outed a few weeks before graduation. The university expresses outrage at the deception but still grants her a degree.

1904: The Kentucky legislature passes the Day Law, prohibiting interracial education. As a result, Berea College shuts its doors to blacks for nearly half a century. The college later establishes Lincoln Institute for black students, which operates from 1912 to 1966. 

1921: Eva B. Dykes from Radcliffe College, Sadie T. Mossell Alexander from the University of Pennsylvania, and Georgiana R. Simpson from the University of Chicago are the first African-American women to earn doctorates.

1941: A Harvard University black lacrosse player, Lucien V. Alexis Jr., is forced to sit on the sidelines in a game against the U.S. Naval Academy, which refused to allow blacks on its field. Protests erupted at Harvard, resulting in the university stating it would ban any games with similar requirements.  1947: John Leroy Howard, Arthur Jewell Wilson Jr., and James Everett Ward are the first black students to graduate from Princeton University. Princeton is the last Ivy League institution to admit black students.