The Quotable Black Scholar: John B. Russwurm (1799-1851)
It is in the irresistible course of events that all men who have been deprived of their liberty shall recover this precious portion of their indefeasible inheritance. It is in vain to stem the current; degraded man will rise in his native majesty and claim his rights. They may be withheld from him now, but the day will arrive when they must be surrendered.
–John Brown Russwurm, the first African American graduate of Bowdoin College, in his commencement speech, given September 6, 1826.
Biographical Notes: Named after his father, John Brown Russwurm was the son of a white merchant from a wealthy Virginia family and an enslaved Black woman living in Jamaica, where the young Russwurm was born. John was sent by his father to pursue primary and secondary education in Quebec. Eventually he joined his father and stepmother in Maine, where they helped him enroll in Bowdoin college. John Brown Russwurm graduated from Bowdoin in 1826, the first African American to earn a degree from that institution, and the second African American known to have received a bachelor’s degree from a U.S. college or university.*
He would go on to work as a teacher at Primus Hall, a school for free Black children located in Boston, and as a junior editor for Freedom’s Journal, the first paper in the nation to be owned, published, and edited by African Americans, before migrating to Liberia, where he edited The Liberia Journal, became superintendent of schools, and eventually served as the governor of the Maryland Settlement in that country.
*It is possible and even likely that other African Americans graduated from U.S. colleges and universities before Russwurm and his predecess Alexander Twilight. Such records may have been destroyed or not yet discovered; and it is unclear how many people of African descent may have attended and/or graduated from U.S. colleges and universities, but were passing for white.
Posted by Ajuan Mance