A Scholarly Mystery: Who Was Yale’s First African-American Graduate?

March 19, 2014  |  

This is a brewing mystery: Who was the first African American to graduate from the prestigious Ivy League school, Yale University?

Some thought it Richard Henry Green. But it turned out not to be so.

According to an Americana specialist at the Swann Auction Galleries, Green, the son of a New Haven bootmaker, attended Yale 17 years before Edward Bouchet, an 1874 graduate who, it was long thought, was the school’s first black grad. For 150 years Bouchet was believed to be first. He’s even honored by undergraduate fellowships and a portrait in Yale’s main library. Then last month, Green took the throne for breaking Yale’s color barrier. But new challengers have emerged.

“According to an article in the journal Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, a man named Moses Simons may in fact have been the first undergraduate to break Yale’s color barrier,” reports The New York Times. Simons graduated long before Green and Bouchet, having gotten his degree in 1809, Thomas Jefferson was in the White House at the time. Simons is already known as Yale College’s first Jewish graduate.

According to 1986 book Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale Simons was arrested years following graduation and charged with assault and battery after he was not allowed to enter a dance hall because of his dark complexion. And during his trial there were references to him as “coloured” and calls for ridding America of “the African tinge.”

There is also evidence that various men in the Jewish, slave-owning Simons family of Charleston, S.C., sired children of mixed race.

But Dale Rosengarten, founding director of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston, isn’t fully convinced and warns that “unless you can actually know who the parents were, you don’t actually know…If this man did have a dark complexion, darker than the average Caucasian, it’s possible that he had other admixtures.”

There is yet another contender, this one named by the Yale Alumni Magazine. Randall Lee Gibson, of the class of 1853. According to The Invisible Line, Vanderbilt University law professor claims Gibson’s great-grandfather was a “free man of color.” But by the time Gibson was born, the family was not only rich, slave owners but white. Gibson was even a Confederate Army leader who later became a United States senator from Louisiana at which time be declared black people to be “degraded.”

As the article points out — and this story illustrates — part of the issue is just determining who is African American. As time goes on, the classification based on race has shifted. Not to mention the new evidence that pops up with greater research.

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