A recent post on rogueclassicism about black female classicists reminded me of a project I was a part of in my sophomore year at Oberlin. When I was interning at the library, I helped Special Collections with an exhibit on twelve black classicists—one of whom was this fellow in the photo, William Sanders Scarborough, widely regarded as the first African American classical scholar. The exhibit was held in conjunction with a lecture by Michele Ronnick, professor at Wayne State University, called “William Sanders Scarborough, Oberlin College 1875, and the Origins of Black Classicism.”
(Here’s a photo of the library showcasing the 12 Black Classicists exhibit.)
Scarborough was born a slave, but secretly educated himself when he was young. He graduated from Oberlin (represent!) in 1875. In 1877, at 25 years old, he became a professor of Latin and Greek at Wilberforce University. He published two textbooks, one a widely-used Greek grammar primer, and the other a translation of Aristophanes’ Birds. He was big on the liberal arts. According to blackpast.org,
William Scarborough also became, in 1896, the first prominent scholar to challenge Booker T. Washington’s vision for industrial education. He argued, through his influential articles, that blacks, like whites, were capable of succeeding with a liberal arts education.
But obviously being a black classicist in the 19th century wasn’t easy. Here’s something from Wikipedia:
Despite his prominence as a scholar, Scarborough suffered the effects of discrimination throughout his career. In 1909 when he had just become the president of Wilberforce, he was barred from attending an American Philological Association meeting in Baltimore, Maryland because the hotel refused to serve dinner if he was present and was threatening to sue for breach of contract if the Association cancelled the Conference. The paper that he was due to read at the conference was read by someone else. However, in 1892, Scarborough gave a lecture on Plato at the University of Virginia with pictures of Jefferson Davis and other confederate leaders on the walls and no other African Americans allowed into the room except as servants.
In 1908 he became president of Wilberforce University, and he maintained a correspondence with Oberlin’s president, Henry Churchill King. (Some of the letters, and his published textbooks, are in Oberlin’s special collections.)
I loved working on that exhibit. As an Asian person who studied classics, I can’t tell you how important it was to me to learn about minority classicists at that point in my academic career. Classics is probably the whitest field there is—people like me need all the role models we can get. And I recently learned that Mindy Kaling knows Latin, so hooray!