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About 175 years have passed since a fugitive slave named James Pennington became the first African American to study at Yale. The university did not permit Pennington, a blacksmith by trade who had settled in New Haven, to matriculate or earn a degree. But he was allowed to audit classes at the Divinity School from 1834 to 1839, and his studies enabled him to be ordained. Pennington became a distinguished minister—in 1849 the University of Heidelberg awarded him an honorary doctorate of divinity—as well as a teacher, abolitionist, and author. In 1841, he wrote The Origin and History of the Colored People, which scholars have described as the first history of African Americans; in 1850, he published one of the most important slave narratives. In the latter book, The Fugitive Blacksmith, he wrote: “There is one sin that slavery committed against me, which I can never forgive. It robbed me of my education; the injury is irreparable.”


Yale would not officially enroll an African American until the 1850s.

Yale would not officially enroll an African American until the 1850s, when Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed entered the medical school. Creed was born in New Haven in 1835; his father was a college janitor, steward of the Calliopean Society (a literary and debating society mainly for Southern students), and, from about 1822 to 1865, caterer for the commencement dinner attended by Yale alumni. After graduating from medical school in 1857, Cortlandt Creed developed a large practice in New Haven and served as assistant surgeon of the Thirteenth Connecticut Volunteers in the Civil War.

Because race and ethnicity were not noted on Yale records in the past, it is difficult for historians to identify early African American students. But it is clear that African American matriculation grew more common after the Civil War.

In 1870, Edward Alexander Bouchet became the first black person to enroll in Yale College. Bouchet, also the son of a Yale employee, was the valedictorian of the Hopkins School in New Haven. He was the first African American in the country elected to Phi Beta Kappa and ranked sixth in the Class of 1874. Bouchet went on to the Yale Graduate School to study experimental physics, calculus, chemistry, and mineralogy. When he received his doctorate in physics in 1876, he became the first African American to earn a PhD from an American university.


Opportunities for Bouchet to teach at the college level were virtually nonexistent.

Even though Bouchet was only the sixth man to hold an American doctorate in physics, opportunities for him to teach at the college level were virtually nonexistent. He spent most of his career teaching physics and chemistry at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. A portrait of Bouchet now hangs in the transept of Sterling Memorial Library. Curtis Patton, one of Yale’s first African American professors, encouraged Yale president Kingman Brewster '41 to commission the portrait. (“Everyone needs a personal hero,” says Patton, a professor of epidemiology and public health. “For me it’s Bouchet.”)

While Bouchet was in college, Mary Goodman, an African American New Haven tradeswoman, provided the first gift to the university by a person of color. In 1871 Goodman bequeathed all of her property—$5,000—to establish a scholarship fund for African American students of divinity. To honor her generosity, the Corporation voted that Mrs. Goodman be given a place in the Yale Lot in the Grove Street Cemetery.

Her scholarship was soon put to use. In 1874, James William Morris became the first African American student to graduate from the Divinity School. An 1871 graduate of Lincoln University, Morris attended Yale for one year to earn his graduate degree. Solomon Melvin Coles, who had entered Yale in 1872, graduated the year after Morris.

During the next decade, the Law School graduated its first African American: Edwin Archer Randolph, Class of 1880. That July, he became the first black person admitted to the Connecticut bar. Randolph practiced law in his native state of Virginia, served as councilman and alderman in Richmond, and edited and published the Virginia Planet, an African American newspaper.


“We have ground the manhood out of them,” wrote Twain.

Because of an association with Mark Twain, Warner Thornton McGuinn, Class of 1887, became the Law School’s best-known early African American graduate. After McGuinn finished his undergraduate work at Lincoln University, he attended Howard University Law School for one year before entering Yale. His major extracurricular activity (besides trying to support himself) was serving as president of the Kent Club. This student organization hosted debates about prominent social and political questions, and during the fall term, one of its speakers was Mark Twain. In the course of shepherding the writer around campus and introducing him to the audience, McGuinn made a positive impression.

On Christmas Eve 1885, Twain wrote to Law School dean Francis Wayland to inquire about McGuinn’s financial circumstances and whether it would be prudent to offer to help out the young man. “We have ground the manhood out of them, and the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it,” wrote Twain. (The letter, comments Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin '71, '77PhD, in her book Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture, contains the “most direct, non-ironic condemnation of racism that we had from Twain himself.”)

With Twain’s support McGuinn became free to concentrate on his studies. He won the Townsend Prize for distinguished oration and went on to a prominent law career in Baltimore, where he held many public service positions and argued successfully in landmark cases against segregation. “He was one of the greatest lawyers who ever lived,” said Thurgood Marshall, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, when McGuin died in 1937. Justice Marshall, who as a young lawyer in Baltimore shared adjoining offices with McGuinn, also said: “If he had been white, he'd have been a judge.”

In 1926, Otelia Cromwell became the first African American woman to receive a Yale PhD. (She was the first African American to graduate from Smith College, in 1900, and every year since 1989, Smith has celebrated Otelia Cromwell Day in her honor.) Cromwell took her doctorate in English, and her thesis, “Thomas Heywood: A Study of Elizabethan Drama of Everyday Life,” was published by Yale University Press in 1928. Among her many scholarly works was one of the first anthologies of African American authors.

In 1931, 51 years after Edwin Archer Randolph graduated from the Law School, the first African American woman graduated—Jane Bolin. A mere eight years later, Bolin, at the age of 31, became the first African American woman appointed to a judgeship; New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia named her to the Domestic Relations Court. In making the landmark appointment, La Guardia told an audience at the New York World’s Fair that Bolin, “a student of social and economic conditions [who was] able to discern misfortune and exploitation from crime and sin,” had “translated her knowledge and understanding into useful public service.”

The trend toward greater numbers of African Americans at Yale continued, but it was not until the fall of 1964 that Yale College admitted its first substantial group of African American men. The 14 black students in the Class of 1969, and others who entered in subsequent years, organized the Black Student Alliance at Yale and worked with Yale to establish the Afro-American Studies Department in 1968 and the Afro-American Cultural Center in 1969. Today, African Americans represent about nine percent of the undergraduate student body.  the end


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