Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Flashback Friday: Professor William S. Scarborough, Classics Scholar and First Black Member of the MLA

July 31st, 2009 by Ajuan Mance


William Sanders Scarborough (1852 – 1926) was the first Black scholar to openly challenge Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of industrial education, arguing in essays and other media that African Americans were as capable as white people of high achievement in the liberal arts. Scarborough was the first African American member of the Modern Language Association, and only the third Black member of the American Philological Association. He was also the author of a widely used and influential textbook, First Lessons in Greek. First published in 1881, this this introductory classics text was adopted by a number of institutions, including Yale University. The profile below was published in the nation’s most widely circulated Black periodical of the period, The Christian Recorder.


From The Christian Recorder Magazine, November 25, 1886


Prof. William S. Scarborough, the distinguished subject of this sketch, was born in Macon, Ga., February 16, 1852. His parents were Jeremiah and Frances Scarborough, natives of that city. A brother and sister died quite young, leaving him the sole surviving child, and on October 29, 1883, his father also died. From an early age books were his greatest delight. He evinced such a desire for learning that, though it was then a law in Georgia that any negro caught with a spelling book in his hand should receive severe punishment, and the white man who taught a negro should pay a heavy fine or go to the penitentiary, he was sent to a private school ostensibly to play; but with his book concealed he spent half the time in school. When eight years of age he could read fluently and write well. Young Scarborough was a great favorite among his white playmates who, strange to say, often assisted him in his lessons. He continued in this cladestine way to attend undisturbed some one of the few private schools up to the close of the war, when he was placed under the instruction of a Miss Kidd from the North. He remained under her tutelage until the American Missionary Association opened its schools in that city and then, passing through the different grades thus established, he finished at the Lewis High School in 1869. With this preparation, with studious habits, with fixedness of purpose remarkable in a lad of seventeen years, he entered Atlanta University to prepare for Yale College. Here he spent two years, the sole member of his class, reaching high standing in Greek, Latin and mathematics. In 1871 he graduated from the preparatory department of Atlanta University and the following September decided to go to Oberlin College. His preparation in Greek and Latin was thorough and extensive, beyond the requirements for matriculation. Having held high rank throughout his course he graduated in 1875 from the department of philosophy and the arts, with the degree of A.B. – the only colored member of his class.

Immediately after graduation he returned to Macon and accepted the position offered by the A.M.A. to teach Latin, Greek and mathematics in the Lewis High School, but in September, 1876, he returned to Oberlin and spent some months in the theological seminary, devoting himself to Hebrew and Hellenistic Greek. During the winter he was called to the principalship of Payne Institute, located at Cokesbury, S.C. (now merged into Allen University, Columbia, S.C.). The following summer he was earnestly besought by Rev. Dr. Pike (now deceased, but at that time one of the secretaries of the A.M.A.), to go to Africa and devote himself to literary work there – that of learning the language and translation. This he did no accept, as he felt it a duty to remain at home. While I New York the same summer (1877) he was called to the chair of Ancient Languages in Wilberforce University, situated near Xenia, which position he has held for nearly nine years with marked ability. His vacations, while in Atlanta, were employed in teaching what is now the Howard Normal School, at Cuthbert, Ga., and while a student at Oberlin he was twice principal of Albany Enterprise Academy, located at Albany, Ohio, during the long winter vacations then given. Such is a brief outline of Prof. Scarborough’s career as a student and teacher. His experience in teaching has been large and varied. Clear in explanation, polished in language and bearing, profound in scholarship, always the perfect gentleman, he has impressed himself upon many young minds as few young men have been able to do. Add to these characteristics a most laudable ambition, an unflinching steadfastness of purpose, unwavering uprightness and straightforward devotion to principle, and we find wherein lies the power which has enabled him to attain the heights and win the fame which is undeniably his. But his has not been the mere routine of a teacher’s life; he has been an incessant student, an indefatigable worker. During 1880 he prepared his “First Lessons in Greek,” which was published by A.S. Barnes & Co., in June, 1881. This book, the first of the kind ever written by a colored man, has received the highest encomiums from the press, while its merits have been recognized and acknowledged by some of the finest scholars in the land. It has also received the most practical recognition – that of adoption – by schools and colleges, both white and colored. In 1883 he added to his already arduous duties as a teacher that of editor, he and Mr. I.W. Fitch, a classmate in college, having purchased the Author’s Review and Scrap Book. This periodical succeeded well in its intent to fill a need in the school-room and is still flourishing, but Prof. Scarborough was obliged to relinquish the project because of the time it involved and the distance from its place of publication (Pittsburgh, Pa.) He has bee a frequent contributor to the press on the various topics that have agitated both the world of politics and of letters. The articles that have emanated from his pen have shown him to be no cloistered student, but an active, energetic scholar, alive to the needs and rights of mankind and abreast the growing thought of the country. Thus he is equally at home whether championing the political rights of the colored man in the daily papers, discussing with noted scholars the debatable points in classic literature, or expounding New Testament Greek in the pages of the reviews. In political life Prof. Scarborough has also been prominent both in his native and adopted State. He has been elected to State conventions in each. He was one of the callers of the convention which met in Columbus, O., Dec. 26, 1883, to consider the civil rights of the negro, and as State Central Committeeman of the 7th District he organized civil rights leagues in that district. He was appointed one of the speakers to address the Colored Men’s Inter State Conference, held in the city of Pittsburgh, Pa., April 29, 1884, on “Our Political Status.” Among his other public appointments the A.M.E. Church honored itself and him by making him a delegate to the M.E. Centennial Conference, held in Baltimore, Dec. 9, 1884. With all else he has been an active worker in the campaigns as speaker whenever other duties would allow. But it is as a scholar that he has become most widely known and has won his brightest laurels. As a teacher and philologist his ability is unquestioned. A workman is known by his tools as well as his work, and there is nothing connected with his special labors that he does not seize upon to better prepare himself, as his classic library will show. He has paid special attention to Sanskrit, Gothic, Lend, Luthuanian and Old Sclavonic as aids to special labors. Nor has he neglected the modern languages, as he is at home in the literature of the French, German, Italian and Spanish. Naturally a modest man, he has not asserted his place as many have done, but his ability has done it for him and in spite of him. The American Philological Association, that group of the most noted scholars of the country, elected him a member of that body in July, 1882, at its session at Harvard University , the third colored man whom it has thus honored. Before the same at its session at Dartmouth College, in 1884, he read a paper on the “Theory and Function of the Thematic Vowel in the Greek Verb,” – the first colored man to win such a distinction. This paper was received with high commendation by distinguished men of this country and elicited warm praise from the renowned Prof. Jebb, of the University of Glasglow, Scotland. At the last annual meeting of the same association Professor Scarborough read a learned paper entitled “Birds of Aristophanes; A Theory of Interpretation,” which is now in the hands of D.C. Heath & Co., of Boston, for publication; and our subject has also in preparation for the next meeting of the A.P.A., in July next, a paper entitled “Grotes’ Theory of Interpretation of a Certain Passage in Thucydides, B’k VI., 17.” And in addition to all the foregoing, he is preparing a paper for the American Spelling Reform Association, which meets in Vermont in 1887. The American Social Science Association, which holds its annual meetings at Saratoga, also claims him as one of its members; and we doubt not that in this, as in the others, he will continue to add to the sum of human knowledge, and raise the growing standard of negro scholarship in the world. He is a member of the Modern Language Association of America, of which Rev. Carter, of Williams College, in 1882, conferred on him that of LL D. In August, 1881, he was, by the lamented Bishop Dickerson, married to Sarah C. Crice, of New York, a lady of much talent and culture, who has been closely associated with her husband in all his literary pursuits – a companion in every sense and an ever present incentive to greater effort. Being just in the prime of life, of a good physique and possessing, in so high a degree, all those moral and intellectual characteristics which, with his energy and perseverance, go to win success, we predict for Prof. Scarborough long life, high honors in every sphere of action to which duty may call him – a fit exemplar to the many young people of our race in this part of the world.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in Academia, African Americans, Black Colleges, Black History, Black Students, Higher Education, race

One Response

  1. therese padgham

    I have a student who is writing an article about this W. S. Scarborough, and I would like to use the photograph of the etching of Scarborough from in our student org newsletter. How do I get permission to use the image in electronic and print media? Thank you.

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