Because of the age in which they lived, the school system segregated them. They excelled in their academic studies due to their dedication and determination.
Their understanding sparked a paradigm change in fields such as health, education, religion, and art, among others. Some advocated for social justice and led slave revolts to break down racial and institutional barriers to the advancement of people of African descent.
Get to know the 10 African Americans who were graduates before the abolishment of slavery:
Octavius Catto, a notable professor and civil rights fighter, accomplished a similar achievement. In Philadelphia, a statue commemorates his accomplishments. According to the Philadelphia Citizen, he is the first African American to get such a distinction.
He was also a major in the Pennsylvania National Guard and an athlete. He was the driving force behind the recruitment of numerous African Americans into the military. He was an outspoken supporter of the integration of Philadelphia’s horse-drawn streetcars. On Election Day 1871, when Blacks were fighting for the right to vote, he was assassinated.
Robert Douglass Jr.
Robert Douglass Jr. was another activist who smashed the glass ceiling in the 1800s. In 1809, he was born in Philadelphia parents campaigners Robert Douglass Sr. and Grace Bustill Douglass. According to the New York Public Library, his father was the leading opponent of the American Colonization Society’s move to repatriate free African Americans to Africa in 1816.
Portrait painting was Robert’s major in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied under renowned artist Thomas Sully. Robert grew to prominence as a painter, printmaker, and photographer. His first project was an oil painting of the Pennsylvania State Seal. His work that propelled him to national prominence was his transparency of President George Washington crossing the Delaware.
Rev. Amos Freeman
Rev. Amos Freeman was another important African American who led the road. According to Colored Conventions, he graduated from the Oneida Institute in the 1830s. Prior to graduating, he was active in the abolitionist cause. He was a participant in New Jersey’s inaugural State Convention of Abolitionists, where he represented Essex County in the state of New Jersey Anti-Slavery Society.
William G. Allen
William G. Allen was one such person of African heritage who graduated before slavery was abolished. He was born in 1820 to a Welsh American father and a mixed-race mother in Urbana, Virginia. He was a well-known academic who rose through the ranks to become a lecturer and intellectual authority. According to the African American Registry, what made Allen’s story inspiring was that he was educated by federal French and German soldiers because Fort Monroe did not have a school for Black children.
He continued his study at the Oneida Institute when a teacher recommended him to Gerrit Smith, who helped Allen secure entrance to the prestigious school. He graduated from the institute in 1844 and relocated to Troy, New York, where he continued his crusade for Black empowerment. He began teaching Greek and Rhetoric at New York Central College in 1850.
John Chavis was another notable African American who graduated before slavery was abolished. According to Documenting South, he was noted for his role as a prominent educator, a celebrated Presbyterian clergyman, and a war hero. Chavis was a strong supporter of a program that provided private education to both white and black students in Wake, Chatham, and Granville counties.
He became the face of endurance in North Carolina’s struggle against racial abuse and social injustice. Chavis’ missionary activity came to an abrupt halt in 1832, when federal authorities prohibited African Americans from preaching in the aftermath of Nat Turner’s bloody slave revolt in Virginia in 1831.
This blemish did not deter him from pursuing his passion as an avid learner, prompting him to enroll in the Presbyterian Washington Academy, now known as Washington and Lee University, after relocating from North Carolina to Virginia between 1783 and 1802. From 1808 until his death in 1838 at his house in Oxford, North Carolina, he taught as an educator and mentored many.
Edward Jones was an African-American who served as the principal of Fourah Bay College from 1841 to 1859. He was Massachusetts College’s first African American graduate. He was a Sierra Leonean Afro-American missionary. According to the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, he was passionate about empowering Black people through education. He is known to have advocated against the false narrative promoted by European missionaries in Sierra Leone and pushed for the separation of missionary work.
Henry Highland Garnet
Henry Highland Garnet was another renowned abolitionist who made gains in academia. On December 23, 1815, he was born in Maryland to enslaved parents. According to the Zinn Education Project, he joined his parents in launching an escape from slavery via the Underground Railroad and traveled to New York City. He began his academic career at Noyes Academy in New Hampshire, which was vandalized by white rioters in 1835.
He was well-known for advocating for a forceful slave revolt against Southern slaveholders. In 1843, he used his position as a minister to speak out against social injustice and racial abuses at the National Negro Convention in Buffalo, New York.
Sarah Mapps Douglass
Sarah Mapps Douglass was another influential woman who prepared the way for her own academic accomplishment. She was raised in Philadelphia by an affluent African-American family named Grace Bustill Douglass and Robert Douglass Sr. She was Robert Douglass Jr.’s sister. She was also a teacher, an artist, an abolitionist, and an activist. According to the Colored Conventions, she was home-schooled and later attended an independent school for children of African descent founded by her mother and James Forten in 1819. She continued her education at the Pennsylvania Medical University, which was unusual for an African American at the time.
Christiana Freeman, an educator at the Abyssinian Meeting House between 1841 and 1852, trailed closely behind. According to the Historical Marker Database, she was one of the civil rights advocates and Underground Railroad conductors who ensured freed slaves were protected and kept safe. As the director of the Coloured Orphans in New York City, she was instrumental in ensuring the safety of many children during the 1863 Draft Riots.
Aside from Henry, Lemuel Haynes was another pioneer who earned the position of graduate before slavery was abolished. He was the first person of African heritage in American history to become a pastor. He was also the first African-American to get a bachelor’s degree and lead a congregation. That is not his only achievement to his name. During his lifetime, he was also the first African American to be internationally published. According to Nations Media, he was outspoken about the dehumanization of Africans and spoke truth to power about the hypocrisy of those elected to positions of power.