Thursday, Sept. 23, will be the 226th birthday of Alexander Lucius Twilight — the first Black person to graduate from an American college or university. This historic event took place in 1823 at Middlebury College, a private liberal arts school in Vermont.
But before I tell you Twilight’s inspiringly amazing story, I must make the following two key points right now: one is that Africa is the birthplace of intellectualism and two, that HBCUs are the springboard to culturally empowering academic and career success.
Intellectualism ain’t new to Black folks. It’s based in ancient Africa and continues in HBCUs.
Not only is Africa the birthplace of humanity in that Africans were the first humans on this planet beginning 200,000 years ago in the Nile Valley region of East Africa, Africa is also the birthplace of algebra (by Ahmes), calculus (by Tishome), and geometry (by Tacokoma) — all of which were conceived in Egypt/Kemet (which is North Africa) around 1500 BC.
By the way, the “Father of Medicine” wasn’t Hippocrates, a Greek, born in 450 BC. It was Imhotep, an Egyptian/Kemite who lived around 2,200 years earlier in 2680 B.C. And writing (i.e., hieroglyphs/medu neter) was developed in Egypt/Kemet around 4000 BC. Also, the world’s first astronomical site was built around 7500 B.C. at Nabta Playa in Egypt/Kemet. The list of African intellectual creations goes on and on and on.
And HBCUs — despite representing less than 3% of this country’s colleges and universities — have produced the following:
• 80% of Black judges
• 70% of Black dentists and physicians
• 60% of Black engineering degree holders
• 50% of Black lawyers
• 50% of Black teachers
• 40% of Black engineers, health professionals, STEM degree holders, and Black members of Congress
Therefore, I have to give a big shout-out to each of the 101 thoroughly remarkable HBCUs in 19 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And I have to give an extra special shout-out to the four “first” HBCUs:
• Cheyney University,1837 — the first Black institution of higher learning in the United States (i.e., a Black institution whose founding trustees required rigorous academic courses followed by grueling oral and written exams in the fields of calculus, geometry, algebra, chemistry, science, mechanical engineering, agricultural engineering, Latin, English literature, etc. before awarding an official Pennsylvania certification that was required to become a licensed teacher).
• Lincoln University, 1854 — the first Black degree-granting institution in the U.S.
• Wilberforce University, 1856 — the first completely Black-owned and operated degree-granting institution in the U.S.
• Shaw University, 1865 — the first Black degree-granting institution in America’s blatantly and brutally racist Deep South.
Having said all of that, allow me to discuss Twilight.
Born in Bradford, Vt., on Sept. 23, 1795, Twilight, the third of six children, became an educator, school principal, minister, and Vermont state representative. In fact, when he was elected to that position, he made history as the only Black person ever elected to any state legislature prior to the Civil War.
Twilight’s mother and father were known as mulattoes and are described in the Corinth, Vermont census as “the first negroes to settle in Corinth.” His paternal grandfather was Black and paternal grandmother was white.
Twilight began learning to read, write, and do math while employed (not enslaved) on a neighboring farm beginning at the young age of 8. He eventually became proficient in those areas. He saved enough money from that job to enroll — at age 20 — at Randolph’s Orange County Grammar School in 1815.
In August of 1821, after completing four years of secondary school courses and two years of a college-level curriculum at the Randolph School, he enrolled in Middlebury College. And he was able to enroll despite Middlebury being a “white men only” school. I’ll explain that later in this article.
Two years later in 1823, Twilight graduated with a bachelor of arts degree — thereby making history by becoming the first Black person to graduate from an American college or university.
After that, he began his teaching career in New York while successfully studying to become a licensed minister. He later returned to Vermont to teach and preach and ultimately was hired there as principal of the Orleans County Grammar School.
In 1836, he campaigned for and was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives — again making history.
On June 19, 1857 at the age of 61, following complications from a stroke and partial paralysis two years earlier, Twilight, a married man with no children, passed away and became a revered ancestor.
As previously mentioned in this article, Middlebury College was a “white men only” school. So how was Twilight allowed in? The answer is simple. As a very light-skinned Black man, he shrewdly and strategically “passed” for white.
Although some historians had initially raised questions about the ethnicity of the very light-skinned Twilight, those questions were ultimately accurately answered, thanks to the meticulous research of Gregor Hileman, an editor of the Middlebury College News Letter who, in 1974, authored an article entitled, “Was Alexander Twilight, in Fact, Black?”
Moreover, as disclosed in a July 2, 1919, letter written by Middlebury College President John Thomas, “Twilight, class of 1823... was a negro... who did notable work in connection with early Vermont’s education.”
On Sept. 23, say “Happy 226th Birthday, ancestor Alexander Lucius Twilight.”
Thank him for setting an excellent example about the importance of higher education. Tell him that his cultural descendants, meaning Black students everywhere, will follow his intellectual lead by pursuing culturally empowering higher education — preferably at HBCUs.