The College has played 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.
John B. Russwurm, Bowdoin’s first African American graduate (class of 1826), after whom the John Brown Russwurm African 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. 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 Freedmen’s Bureau, before the 1866 founding of his namesake, Howard University, of which he was the first president.
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 more than 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 multidisciplinary 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 in the Rock have all spent time on campus working with students and faculty. In 1996, the College sponsored an international symposium on eminent 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.
Images courtesy of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College.