UVM's First African American Graduate Receives Long Overdue Recognition
- By Jon Reidel
Andrew Harris’ life may have lasted only three years after becoming the first African American to graduate from the University of Vermont, but what it lacked in longevity was exceeded by Harris’ impact on the African American community and its struggle for freedom.
Harris, one of 24 students to graduate in 1838, wasted little time establishing himself as a powerful voice of the abolitionist movement. In May of 1839 he delivered a provocative speech to a crowd 5,000 at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City calling for an end to slavery. His influence continued to grow after becoming a Presbyterian minister and serving as pastor of Philadelphia’s St. Mary’s Street Church in April of 1841, commanding respect from black and white clergymen.
Harris died less than one year later at the age of 27, but not before going down in history as the first black college graduate to publicly call for an end to slavery and full equality for all African Americans.
It took a bit longer -- about 160 years -- for Harris to receive due recognition for his contributions to UVM and society as a whole. On Oct. 16 of this year, at a celebration on the third floor of Waterman, Harris was properly recognized at a dedication ceremony in his honor.
“Today, our recognition of his courage, tenacity and accomplishments will be noted with the dedication of a memorial plaque and the placement of an academic chair,” said Wanda Heading Grant, vice president of Human Resources, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, at the dedication. “I am an alum of this University. As a woman and person of color, I have unfortunately experienced societal oppression. It fills me with pride and joy to know that our institution, my institution is working hard to turn our bittersweet history regarding diversity and inclusion around.”
The revelation that Harris might replace George Washington Henderson, class of 1877, as UVM’s first African American graduate came after UVM archivist Jeff Marshall acted on research and insight from then Middlebury College archivist Bob Buckeye, who came across the discovery while researching Martin Freeman, Middlebury’s second African American alumnus. Middlebury college's first, Alexander Twilight, was the first African American college graduate in the United States in 1823. Henderson remains the first African American to be inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
Marshall conducted research that resulted in an article for the Special Collections newsletter Liber in 1998. Senior history lecturer Kevin Thornton would spend years digging deeper into the history of Harris, producing an in-depth paper in 2014 titled “Andrew Harris, the University of Vermont’s Forgotten Abolitionist.”
At the ceremony, UVM President Tom Sullivan acknowledged the work of these authors and Vermont Quarterly magazine editor Tom Weaver, who wrote about Harris in the Spring 2004 issue of Vermont Quarterly magazine. Sullivan said Harris overcame tremendous adversity to earn his degree and worked hard during his brief life to promote education for African Americans. He quoted Harris directly from his speech to abolitionists in New York.
“The colored people are also charged with want of desire for education and improvement; yet, if a colored man comes to the door of our institutions of learning, with desires ever so strong, the lords of these institutions rise up and shut the door; and then you say we have not the desire or the ability to acquire education. Thus while the white youth enjoy all these advantages, we are excluded and shut out, and must remain ignorant.”
Beverly Colston, director of the ALANA Student Center offered a moving open letter to Harris, thanking him for paving the way for other African American students to attend UVM and that his struggle was not in vain. Her letter read in part as follows:
“So long ago you banished our invisibility and by your presence here established our right to be included. You would be happy to know that there are many students of color who have followed in your wake. They match you in courage, determination and commitment to education. They are scholars, leaders, activists, athletes and more. They participate in every possible area of university life. They win awards at graduation and sit on the stage with the distinguished guests and visiting dignitaries.
"Andrew, this might be hard to imagine but there is a place on campus called The ALANA Student Center, whose mission it is to hold space much as you did. The center’s presence on campus seeks to make ever visible the student of color community at UVM, and it is our priority to empower students like you, who courageously make their way through this institution. I wish we could have been there to support your journey and smooth your way. As you faced the isolation and loneliness of being the first and only, I wish we could have offered you the haven of community, the light of mentorship and the support of advocacy. Please know that all that you endured was not in vain.”
This ceremony, the academic chair and the commemorative plaque are just some of the ways the university has sought to recognize Harris. At the May 2014 commencement ceremony, President Sullivan spoke about Harris' legacy and accomplishments, sharing with graduates the story of Harris' perserverence in the face of adversity. The university is creating a student academic scholarship in Harris' name and an Andrew Harris Award to be presented at the annual UVM ALANA student awards banquet to a student who exemplifies and embodies the values and principles of Harris.