News From 1838
Old idols die hard. George Washington Henderson, Class of 1877, has
long been revered as the University of Vermonts first African
American graduate. With that distinction comes the props of a pioneer
the portrait in Waterman Building, the nod in litanies of UVM
pride. To be sure, Henderson is worthy of celebration. Born a slave
in Virginia, he worked his way through college by teaching in Jericho,
Vermont and went on to a career as a minister, professor, and higher
Worthy, but just not first. With UVM celebrating its 200th commencement,
its time to set the historical record straight, says Jeff Marshall,
University archivist. George Washington Henderson was nearly forty years
too late; Andrew Harris, UVM Class of 1838, your time has finally come.
Harris first came to Marshalls attention six years ago on a tip
from Bob Buckeye, now retired as Middlebury Colleges archivist.
Buckeye came across a footnote reference to Harriss enrollment
at UVM in The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume III. Marshall took up
the hunt, finding confirmation of Harriss matriculation in the
yellowed pages of the University of Vermont General Catalog 1791-1900.
Among the 24 members of the Class of 1838, Marshall hit archival pay
dirt: Andrew Harris, licensed by preb of Phila 40; d 1841; name
not in catalogues of Presidents record, must have entered after
And thats about where the trail of Andrew Harriss time in
Burlington ends. Alumni files and contemporaneous sources such as letter
and diaries yielded nothing for Marshall. The student yearbook was a
thing of the future. The UVM Registrars Office confirmed having
Harriss record on file but didnt offer up a look, resolute
in the duty of protecting his privacy even 157 years beyond the grave.
Harriss post-Vermont biography is a good deal clearer. Though
he would live just three years past his college graduation, Harris made
a name for himself as a Philadelphia minister and abolitionist. On May
7, 1839, he was among the speakers at the annual meeting of the American
Anti-Slavery Society, an event that drew a crowd of nearly 5,000 to
the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City.
A sample of the heat Harris kindled from the pulpit: 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.
Marshall notes that Harriss ordination in April 1841, when he
assumed the pastorate of Philadelphias St. Marys Street
Church, put him in the powerful position of being a leader in the African
American community and a religious leader able to command respect from
white clergymen and their congregations. But Harris would be dead in
less than a year, cutting short his potential at age 31.
Though Marshall wrote about Harris in the UVM Special Collections newsletter
some six years ago, weaving him into the commonly known University history
has been a long process but not as long as Harriss years
of total obscurity.
I think people simply forgot about him, Marshall says. I
dont know whether anyone thought it was an important question
to ask before the 1960s.