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Breaking News From 1838
Thomas Weaver

Old idols die hard. George Washington Henderson, Class of 1877, has long been revered as the University of Vermont’s 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 education leader.

Worthy, but just not first. With UVM celebrating its 200th commencement, it’s 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 Marshall’s attention six years ago on a tip from Bob Buckeye, now retired as Middlebury College’s archivist. Buckeye came across a footnote reference to Harris’s enrollment at UVM in The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume III. Marshall took up the hunt, finding confirmation of Harris’s 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 President’s record, must have entered after October ’37.”

And that’s about where the trail of Andrew Harris’s 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 Registrar’s Office confirmed having Harris’s record on file but didn’t offer up a look, resolute in the duty of protecting his privacy even 157 years beyond the grave.

Harris’s 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 Harris’s ordination in April 1841, when he assumed the pastorate of Philadelphia’s St. Mary’s 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 Harris’s years of total obscurity.

“I think people simply forgot about him,” Marshall says. “I don’t know whether anyone thought it was an important question to ask before the 1960s.”