by Alexandra Green
This February, the Higher Education User Group is commemorating and celebrating Black History Month by highlighting the groundbreaking accomplishments and accolades of influential Black Americans in education. In this two-part series, we will begin by featuring the firsts and vanguards of change and development for Black education in America.
There are many esteemed Black pioneers in academia, but in this article, we will focus on Alexander Twilight, Charlotte Forten Grimke, Kelly Miller, Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser, and Jeanne L. Noble, who have made significant contributions to education and civil rights.
Alexander Twilight (September 23, 1795 – June 19, 1857) starts off our list with a monumental first – he was the first known Black person to graduate from a college in the United States. Furthermore, in 1823 he earned a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College in Vermont. He even went on to be the first African American to be elected as a state legislator in Vermont, and was the only state legislature to be elected before the Civil War. Alexander passed away on June 19th, which coincides with Juneteenth, a holiday that honors the end of slavery in the United States – and as of June 15th, 2021, the United States Senate, by unanimous consent, made Juneteenth a federal holiday.
Charlotte Forten Grimke (August 17, 1837 – July 23, 1914) graduated from Salem State University, formally known as Salem Normal School, and was the first Black teacher to work at the Penn School in South Carolina, which was established to educate newly freed Black slaves after the Civil War. Later in her career, she worked with the US Treasury Department to assist in the recruitment of Black educators.
Kelly Miller (July 18, 1863 – December 29, 1939) was another strong advocate in the fostering of strong Black leaders in education. He was the first Black graduate student in Mathematics, earning his degree from Johns Hopkins University. He then went on to become a dean at Howard University and a prominent civil rights activist, advocating for access to higher education for all Black Americans.
Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser (December 30, 1895 – September 5, 1934) also achieved an impressive first by being the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in Psychology, which she acquired at the University of Cincinnati. Driven by a passion for advancing and educating young Black students, she was a trailblazer in her field. Dr. Prosser’s groundbreaking research and advocacy were instrumental in the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, which declared that U.S. state laws allowing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. Her work continues to inspire and inform efforts to promote equity and equality in education today.
Jeanne L. Noble (July 18, 1926 – October 17, 2002) played a crucial role in increasing our understanding of the educational experiences of Black women. As a pioneer in the field, she conducted the first comprehensive research on Black women in college, which culminated in her book, “The Negro Woman’s College Education.” After graduating from Howard University in 1946, Noble went on to earn her master’s and doctorate degrees from Columbia University. She was later appointed by three U.S. Presidents (Johnson, Nixon, and Ford) to serve on educational commissions, which gave her a platform to influence educational policy in the United States. Noble’s legacy continues to inspire scholars and educators to prioritize the voices and experiences of historically marginalized groups in their research and advocacy.
Black History Month provides a platform to recognize the pioneering contributions of individuals like Alexander Twilight and Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser, whose trailblazing efforts paved the way for Black education in America. Their remarkable accomplishments have had an immeasurable impact on the opportunities and access that Black Americans have to the education system, and their legacies will always be remembered and celebrated. By highlighting their achievements, we acknowledge the progress that has been made while also recognizing the work that still needs to be done to ensure that all individuals, regardless of their race or ethnicity, have access to quality education.
Let’s celebrate and honor their legacy during Black History Month and beyond.
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