Thursday, September 23 will mark the 226th birthday of Alexander Lucius Twilight, the first black to graduate from an American college or university. This historic event took place in 1823 at Middlebury College, a private liberal arts school in Vermont.
But before I tell you the amazing and inspiring story of Twilight, I need to make the following two key points right now: one is that Africa is the cradle of intellectualism and two, that the HBCUs are the springboard for academic and professional success.
Intellectualism is not new to blacks. It is based in ancient Africa and continues in the HBCUs.
Not only is Africa the cradle of humanity as Africans were the first humans on this planet 200,000 years ago in the Nile Valley region of East Africa, Africa is also the birthplace of algebra (by Ahmes), calculus (by Tishome) and geometry (by Tacokoma) – all of which were conceived in Egypt / Kemet (which is North Africa) around 1500 BC.
Besides, the “father of medicine” was not Hippocrates, a Greek born in 450 BC. It was Imhotep, an Egyptian / Kemite who lived about 2,200 years earlier in 2680 BC. In addition, the world’s first astronomical site was built around 7500 BC at Nabta Playa in Egypt / Kemet. The list of African intellectual creations goes on and on.
And HBCUs – despite making up less than 3% of colleges and universities in this country – have produced the following:
• 70% of black dentists and doctors
• 60% of holders of a black engineering degree
• 50% of black teachers
• 40% black engineers, healthcare professionals, STEM graduates and congressmen
Therefore, I must congratulate each of the outstanding 101 HBCUs in 19 states, the District of Columbia and the United States Virgin Islands. And I must especially thank the four “first” HBCUs:
• Cheyney University, 1837 – the first black institution of higher education in the United States (i.e., a black institution whose founding administrators demanded rigorous university courses followed by grueling oral and written exams in the fields of calculation, geometry, algebra, chemistry, science, mechanical engineering, agricultural engineering, Latin literature, English, etc. before awarding an official Pennsylvania certification which was required to become a licensed teacher).
• Lincoln University, 1854 – the first black institution granting degrees in the United States
• Wilberforce University, 1856 – the first fully black owned and operated, degree-granting institution in the United States
• Shaw University, 1865 – the first black degree-granting institution in the far south of the United States, openly and brutally racist.
Having said that, let me discuss Twilight.
Born in Bradford, Vermont, on September 23, 1795, Twilight, the third of six children, went on to become an educator, school principal, minister and representative of the state of Vermont. In fact, when he was elected to this position, he made history as the only black person ever elected to a state legislature before the Civil War.
Twilight’s mother and father were known as Mulattoes and are described in the Corinth, Vt. Census as “the first negroes to settle in Corinth.” Her paternal grandfather was black and her paternal grandmother was white.
Twilight began learning to read, write, and do math while employed (not in slavery) on a nearby farm at the age of 8. He eventually became proficient in these areas. He saved enough money from this work to enroll – at age 20 – at Randolph’s Orange County Grammar School in 1815.
In August 1821, after completing four years of high school and two years of a college program at Randolph School, he enrolled at Middlebury College. And he was able to enroll despite Middlebury being a school for white men only. I’ll explain it later in this article.
Two years later, in 1823, Twilight obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree, making history by becoming the first black person to graduate from an American college or university.
After that, he began his teaching career in New York City while successfully studying to become a Chartered Minister. He then returned to Vermont to teach and preach and was eventually hired there as principal of the Orleans County Grammar School.
In 1836 he campaigned and was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives, making history again.
On June 19, 1857, at the age of 61, following complications from a stroke and partial paralysis two years earlier, Twilight, a childless married man, died and became a revered ancestor.
As mentioned earlier in this article, Middlebury College was a school for white men only. So how was Twilight allowed in? The answer is simple. As a very fair-skinned black man, he artfully and strategically “switched” to white.
Although some historians initially raised questions about the ethnicity of the very light-skinned Twilight, these questions were ultimately answered with precision, thanks to the meticulous research of Gregor Hileman, editor of the Middlebury College News Letter who, in 1974, wrote an article titled “Was Alexander Twilight, in fact, black?” “
Further, as noted in a July 2, 1919 letter from Middlebury College President John Thomas, “Twilight, Class of 1823 …
On September 23, say “Happy 226th Birthday, Ancestor Alexander Lucius Twilight”.
Thank him for setting a great example of the importance of higher education. Tell him that his cultural descendants, that is, black students around the world, will follow his intellectual example by pursuing culturally empowering graduate studies – preferably at HBCUs.
Michael Coard, Esq. can be tracked on Twitter, Instagram and its YouTube channel as well as on AvengingTheAncestors.com. His program “Radio Courtroom” can be heard on WURD 96.1 FM or 900 AM. And his show “TV Courtroom” can be seen on PhillyCAM / Verizon Fios / Comcast. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the Philadelphia Tribune.