In the two-hundred plus years of its history, Bowdoin College has been at the center of a number of the most momentous passages in the history of African America, playing a remarkable role in abolitionism, the civil war, the civil rights movement, and the development of African American culture in all spheres—education, science, business, and the arts.
Bowdoin’s first African American graduate (class of 1826), after whom the John Brown Russwurm Afro-American Center is named, was among the nation’s first three African Americans to graduate from institutions of higher education. In 1827, Russwurm went on to found the Freedom’s Journal, the country’s first black newspaper. He later became Mayor of the Maryland section of Liberia, a colony in Africa for freed slaves.
In the years leading up to the civil war, several of the College’s current properties—including the Russwurm Center—served as stops on the Underground Railroad. Many faculty at the time were well-known abolitionists, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose 1851 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is often considered the first “shot” of the great war, wrote the book at her house on Federal Street in Brunswick (now owned by the College) while her husband served on the Bowdoin faculty. The Civil War general Oliver Otis Howard, who fought in many major battles of the war, was a member of the class of 1850. He then became the first steward of the Freedman’s Bureau, before the 1866 founding of his namesake, Howard University, of which he was the first president.
During these tumultuous years, with John Van S. de Grasse and Thomas J. White, both members of the class of 1849, Bowdoin became the second Medical School in the country to graduate African Americans. De Grasse was the first African American to serve as a regimental surgeon in the field in the Union Army. In 1854, in recognition of his extraordinary abilities, de Grasse also became the first African American to be admitted to the Boston Medical Society. Among the African-American students at the Medical School was Benjamin A. Bosemon, Jr., who attended lectures in 1864. During the Civil War, Bosemon served as a surgeon in the Union Army, ending the Civil War in South Carolina. He went on to participate in the short-lived but remarkable Reconstruction experiment in bi-racial democracy, serving three terms in the South Carolina State House of Representatives.
Moving into the twentieth century, Bowdoin was also an important stopping point for many prominent figures in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to campus in May 1964, speaking to an audience of over a thousand. Later visitors included Bayard Rustin, Dr. King’s advisor, and the primary organizer of the March on Washington, and Stokely Carmichael (also known as Kwame Ture), the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and subsequent prime minister of the Black Panther Party.
In 1969, the Bowdoin faculty voted to establish the Africana Studies Program as a multi-disciplinary approach to the study of the history, politics, culture and experiences of people of African origin in Africa and the African Diaspora. With the establishment of the Program, the College hosted a range of prominent poets, novelists, and other artists of the African American community. Maya Angelou, Edwidge Danticat, Paule Marshall, Ntozake Shange, Derek Walcott, Sonia Sanchez, and Sweet Honey and the Rock have all spent time on campus working with students and faculty. In 1996, the College sponsored an international symposium on the premier African American poet Michael Harper. Through this event, and many others, the College has received some of the most important scholars of African American history and culture, including Cornel West, Angela Davis, and Patricia Williams.
Prominent African Americans have also continued to emerge from Bowdoin. E. Frederic Morrow, of the class of 1930 (though he never graduated due a family emergency) went on to become the first African American to hold an executive position in the White House, as a presidential aide. In recognition of his accomplishments, the College presented him with an Honorary Degree in 1970. Kenneth Chenault, class of 1973, and Chairman and CEO of American Express, was the first African American to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Geoffrey Canada, the world-renowned founder and CEO of the Harlem’s Children Zone, an organization providing networks of social service, education and community-building programs to thousands of children and families in a 60-block area of Central Harlem, was a 1974 Bowdoin graduate, and students from HCZ continue to come to campus every year to work with Bowdoin students, faculty and staff, as they, in turn, learn to do research into the various aspects of African American culture.
Images courtesy of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College.