For nearly two centuries, Black people have participated in American institutions of higher education. In 1823, Alexander Lucius Twilight became the first Black American to earn a bachelor's degree from an American university. Son of an American Revolutionary War veteran, Twilight graduated from Middlebury College in 1823 and went on to become a principal of a grammar school and was elected to the State Legislature of Vermont in 1836 (Franklin, 1990). Later that century, Mary Jane Patterson became the first Black woman to graduate from an American college, when she earned a degree from Oberlin College in 1862. In 1876, Edward A. Bouchet became the first Black person in America to receive a Ph.D., when he successfully completed his dissertation at Yale University. He is only the 6th person in the United States to earn a doctorate in physics (Johnson & Watson, 2005).
In the 20th century, Black people continued to make significant strides in higher education. The stable heels of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) opened new educational opportunities for post-reconstruction era African Americans. Intellectual debates between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington sparked national discourse on the role of higher education for Black people. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s paved the way for the creative witticism and academic liberties of Alain Locke and Melvin Toison. The Civil Rights era expanded the role of Black student organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Today, Black people continue to make history at American colleges and universities; from President Barack Obama becoming the first Black person elected to head Harvard's Law Review in 1990, to Ruth Simmons, the first Black person to be president of an Ivy League university (Brown University) from 2001 to the present. We must harness the rich legacy of Black students in institutions of higher education to meet the current challenges and secure our future.
The Journal of Negro Education is pleased to feature distinguished authors who have donated their finest scholarship to this issue. To harness our legacy Richard Herdlein and his colleagues share the untold story of "Deans of Women" at historically black …