Oberlin Graduate of 1875 Returns Home
“If education meant classics, which it did, and if people of African descent had been part of this system, which they had been, then there must, in fact, be black classicists, but I had never seen a word about them anywhere,” said Professor Michele Valerie Ronnick at her lecture “William Sanders Scarborough, Oberlin College 1875, and the Origins of Black Classicism” on April 5. Such an assumption led Ronnick, an associate professor of classics at Wayne State University, to begin her research into early black classicists 14 years ago.
In her research, Ronnick has uncovered countless instances of blacks who have used their knowledge of classics in their work, much of which has been carelessly overlooked by academics.
“This is a new subfield of the classical tradition and it concerns an area we just have all managed not to see,” Ronnick said. “It examines the undeniable impact, both positive and negative, that the Greco-Roman heritage has had on people of African descent in their initial efforts to become literate and later in their creative and professional endeavors as the generations move on.”
Ronnick mentioned dozens of people of African descent — Juan Latino, Francis Williams, Alexander Cromwell, Sarah Jane Woodson (OC 1856) and Romer Bearden to name a few — whose classics education was evident, if not pervasive, in their work.
“What is clear is that the classical tradition and a careful history of pedagogy of classics must be taken into account if we wish to assess the work of these men and women accurately,” said Ronnick.
Among these figures, Ronnick highlighted the work of one black classicist: William Sanders Scarborough.
“Outstanding among these figures is my favorite, William Sanders Scarborough, who was the first truly professional scholar in the field of classical studies of African American heritage.”
Ronnick, who edited and annotated a bibliography of Scarborough’s writings and also compiled his collected works for publication, elaborated on his astoundingly eventful life.
Born a slave, Scarborough educated himself secretly during adolescence and eventually gained admission to Oberlin, graduating in 1875.
Introducing the lecture, Chair and Professor of Classics Kirk Ormand quoted Scarborough on his experience in college: “It has been more important than I can express in words. It has allowed me to live a successful life as a man, a Christian and as a public servant.”
After Oberlin, Scarborough went on to have a highly successful career. Among his many professional pursuits, he authored a Greek textbook, became the third black member of the American Philological Association and served as president of Wilberforce University.
He also believed strongly in the importance of giving black students an education in classics and other liberal arts, as opposed to an education in mere career training. “He was always opposed to unilateral programs of industrial education,” said Ronnick.
When considering the significance of black higher education, Ronnick quoted Scarborough as saying, “Higher education is not wasted on the race no matter what facts are found about its condition. It is no more wasted on the race than it would be upon white boys and girls, some of whom follow pursuits more or less menial in character. It is not wasted because there is hope of a future for other boys and girls, a future with better conditions.”
In conjunction with this lecture, an exhibit called “13 Black Classicists” is currently on display in Mudd library. Three of the exhibit’s featured classicists attended Oberlin. A collection of Scarborough-related documents from the Oberlin archives, curated by Ormand, accompanies the display.