Overlooked No More 5 Must-Know African American Pioneers in Higher Education

Feb 1, 2022

You probably don’t know their names. Their accomplishments and stories were overlooked or deliberately erased from history for a long time. But African Americans played pivotal roles in shaping America’s higher education system.

From the first African American to get a college degree to leading an Ivy League school, they shattered barriers at colleges and universities across the U.S. They made history, worked to overturn racist policies, and even risked their lives believing the opportunities higher education affords should be available for everyone.

We salute these individuals who worked to make the industry better, more equitable, and inclusive. While we, unfortunately, can’t fit all these heroes into this blog post, here are just five of many important names and their legacies for us to reflect on.

Alexander Twilight

Alexander Twilight, a native of Vermont, spent much of his early years as a farm laborer. In 1821, he started studying at Middlebury College. He graduated in 1823, making him the nation’s first African American to get a college degree. Twilight spent much of his career teaching throughout the Northeast and eventually became a grammar school principal in Vermont. He also became a minister during this time, serving in New York and later Vermont.

However, Twilight made a drastic career change, choosing to go into politics. In 1836, he made history as the first African American elected to the Vermont state legislature.

In 2020, Middlebury College established the Twilight Project in honor of Alexander Twilight with the goal of sparking necessary conversation around race, oppression, and the implications for Vermont today.”

Mary Jane Patterson

As a young girl, Mary Jane Patterson moved with her family to the abolitionist town of Oberlin, Ohio, around the 1850s to escape the horrors of slavery in North Carolina.

Oberlin afforded a lot more opportunities than other towns across America at the time. The local college, Oberlin College allowed African Americans and women to pursue studies there. Despite attempts to persuade her otherwise, Patterson insisted on completing the men’s course of studies, a four-year degree. And in 1862, Mary Jane Patterson made history as the first African American woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in the United States, even graduating with academic honors.

Even after college, Patterson would continue to break barriers. In 1869, she became the first African American principal at the first high school for African Americans. At that time, she was only 31 years old!

Patterson also wanted to help pave the way for the next generation. She was a devoted teacher, and she’d spend her entire career as a passionate advocate for Black women’s education.

Patterson’s legacy in the education field lives on in 2022. In 2019, California State University Long Beach established the Mary Jane Patterson Scholarship. The award is available to college students interested in teaching at schools in California’s cities and helping Black students overcome institutional racism that is still present in school systems today.

Dr. Edward Alexander Bouchet

Edward Alexander Bouchet was born in 1852 in Connecticut to a freed slave father and mother who worked washing laundry. Both his parents firmly believed in the value of education. In 1870, he began studying at Yale. He would become not only the first African American student to graduate from the prestigious school, but he also graduated at the top of his class.

Bouchet didn’t stop there. He’d eventually earn a Ph.D. in Physics in 1876, making him the first African American in the country to earn a doctoral degree. While you’d think a talented physicist would go on to teach at a prestigious university, this wasn’t the case for Dr. Bouchet. At the time, very few university teaching positions were open to African Americans. Dr. Bouchet spent most of his career teaching at the Institute for Colored Youth and as a passionate advocate for science education in schools and the larger community.

Among several other prestigious universities, Yale has a chapter of the Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society. The group advocates for great diversity in academia and champions doctoral students from historically excluded groups.

Autherine Lucy Foster

Autherine Lucy Foster set her sights on studying at the University of Alabama. However, in 1952, Alabama schools didn’t allow African Americans to attend. Nevertheless, Lucy sent in her application anyway and was accepted.

However, when they realized she was African American, officials tried to do everything they could to bar her from attending, including rescinding her acceptance. But Lucy was undeterred. With the help of Thurgood Marshall, she prepared to take the school to court.

Lucy was eventually allowed to attend, but her battles were far from over. Due to segregation, she wasn’t allowed to eat in the cafeteria or live on campus. Shortly after her arrival, she began receiving death threats. At one point, Lucy was also chased by an angry mob, forcing her to barricade herself in a classroom. However, the university suspended Lucy rather than take action against the mob.

Her work, however, was not in vain. Lucy was one of many brave African Americans who put their lives on the line to pursue a college education. Eventually, the university rescinded her suspension. And in 2019, Lucy was invited back by the university to receive an honorary doctorate.

Today, the University of Alabama holds a scholarship with her name and has the Autherine Lucy clock tower in her honor. She’s famously said, “My response to fear is: do it anyway. Let nothing stop you. You have to push forward.”

Dr. Ruth Simmons

In the over 300 years of Ivy League institutions, there had never been a Black president of any of them. That all changed in 2001 when Dr. Ruth Simmons, the daughter of sharecroppers from the Jim Crow south, became the first woman and first Black president of Brown University.

With the south so profoundly segregated in the 1950s, her parents moved to Chicago to pursue better opportunities for themselves and their children. SoSo, it may come as no surprise that Ruth cherished education. She’d graduate with a Ph.D. from Harvard University and eventually become the first Black President of Smith College before moving onto Brown University.

Dr. Ruth Simmons would be instrumental in steering the new initiatives of Brown University, especially regarding a more diverse campus and creating better financial support for students who choose to enroll in their prestigious programs.

Since stepping down from Brown, Dr. Simmons continues to champion education. She has continued advocating for greater diversity and inclusion in academia and emphasizing the importance of HBCUs.

Dr. Simmons has received many honors, including the 2002 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, several honorary degrees, and even is a French Legion of Honor Chevalier. She serves on multiple nonprofit boards, including the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Holdsworth Center.

They Paved the Way

These brave individuals are just a few of many who’ve worked tirelessly to make higher education more fair, inclusive, and equitable for everyone. We at Liaison believe it’s important to reflect on the milestones of these great names, not just during Black History Month but every month. We are grateful for their contributions, and realize all of us must continue to make higher education welcoming, equitable, and accessible to everyone.

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