Our First African American Graduate
Remembering the life of abolitionist Andrew Harris, class of 1838, forgotten for more than a century and a half
- By University Communications
George Washington Henderson, who graduated in 1877, was long revered as the University of Vermont’s first African American graduate. It wasn’t until 2004 that Andrew Harris received his due recognition, 166 years after his graduation, when UVM archivist Jeff Marshall was tipped off by then Middlebury College archivist Bob Buckeye.
Another decade passed before the university formally recognized Harris with a ceremony in 2014. Today, an academic scholarship and an award are given in Harris’ name to students who embody his values and principles.
So, just who was Andrew Harris? His life ended only three years after graduation, but what it lacked in longevity was exceeded by Harris’ impact on the African American community and its struggle for freedom.
The Road to Burlington
Senior history lecturer Kevin Thornton dug deep into Harris’ life in his 2014 paper, “Andrew Harris, Vermont’s Forgotten Abolitionist.” Harris was born in upstate New York in 1814 and adopted by a white Presbyterian minister and his family. He began his college search at a time when the abolition movement was at its height, and according to Thornton, had aspirations to “preach the gospel to an underserved population.”
Harris became a UVM student when every other school rejected him, and paid a dollar initiation fee to enter as a sophomore in November 1835. But his time in Burlington wasn’t easy. “For one thing he was not listed in the catalogue of students between 1835 and 1838,” writes Thornton. “Despite the presence of a tiny anti-slavery minority, the segregationist impulse and hostility among the majority of his classmates lasted until the very end.”
In fact, Harris was forced to accept his diploma offstage due to pushback from his 23 classmates. “He had an uphill climb, and it must have been very difficult,” Thornton told VPR in a 2014 interview. Harris left Burlington for Philadelphia after graduating fourteenth in his class in 1838.
A Powerful Voice for Freedom
Harris wasted little time establishing himself as a powerful voice of the abolitionist movement in Philadelphia, and became involved in every way he could. “He made himself a target at a time where to stick out in that way was dangerous. You had to have a lot of physical courage,” Thornton told VPR.
In May of 1839 he delivered a provocative speech to a crowd of 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.
Here’s an excerpt from that speech:
If the groans and sighs of the victims of slavery could be collected, and thrown out here in one volley, these walls would tremble, these pillars would be removed from their foundations, and we should find ourselves buried in the ruins of the edifice. If the blood of the innocent, which has been shed by slavery, could be poured out here, this audience might swim in it – or if they could not swim they would be drowned.
His influence continued to grow after becoming a Presbyterian minister in April 1841, and he served as the pastor of Philadelphia’s St. Mary’s Street Church, commanding respect from black and white clergymen.
Harris died of a fever 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.
Excerpts of this story are from the 2014 article "UVM's First African American Graduate Receives Long Overdue Recognition" and the 2004 Vermont Quarterly article "Breaking News from 1838."