File Photo by Mark Bushnell Historian Kevin Thornton holds a University of Vermont account book from the 1830s, which shows the tuition payments made by Andrew Harris, the school’s first black graduate. Harris paid the standard tuition fee of only 50 cents per semester.
BRANDON — Kevin Thornton is on a mission — a mission to have the University of Vermont recognize Andrew Harris, its first African-American graduate.
Harris overcame extreme prejudice from his classmates to graduate in 1838.
Thornton said his attempts to have UVM acknowledge Harris had been ignored. But that didn’t stop the UVM history professor and Brandon resident from spreading the word about Harris.
This week, Thornton’s persistence paid off when a UVM official acknowledged Harris’ place in the school’s history.
“The story of Andrew Harris was unknown to the University of Vermont community for many years until the Special Collections director at UVM Libraries confirmed his status as the first African-American to graduate from the university, a fact that was noted in an article in our alumni magazine,” Thomas Gustafson, vice president for university relations and administration, said in an email.
Until recently, UVM was thought to have graduated its first black student in 1877.
Harris, who was from the Finger Lakes region of New York, was living in Troy at the time when he decided to pursue a higher education, said Thornton, who followed through on the initial discovery.
Thornton said Harris’ application for admission to nearby Union College was rejected. He then worked his way up the Champlain Valley, where he was also turned down by Middlebury College.
Harris had better luck when he applied to UVM and was accepted.
But Harris’ years at UVM were miserable, Thornton said.
He said when Harris “first entered the university, students said they wouldn’t attend classes with him,” but they backed down after the president gave them an ultimatum.
Like other college students at the time, Harris studied the classics, Greek and Latin literature, math and some science.
Thornton said the prejudice even extended to the grade sheets, which were listed alphabetically, except for Harris, who was listed at the bottom.
“There’s an account of the graduation in 1838 that says he was not allowed to come on stage to accept his degree,” Thornton said.
He said the school’s administration caved in to a threat by Harris’ fellow classmates to boycott the ceremony if Harris were allowed to participate.
After his graduation in 1838, Harris moved to New York and then Philadelphia, where he “becomes part of a very tiny, black intellectual elite and someone who is also connected to a lot of white abolitionists and reformers,” Thornton said.
At the time, Harris also became a Presbyterian minister. But in 1841, just three years after his graduation, he died unexpectedly.
Thornton regards Harris as a pioneer and a graduate UVM should recognize for overcoming discrimination to obtain his degree.
“I admire the guy, and I also think UVM owes him a little bit,” Thornton said.
Gustafson, the UVM official, agreed.
“It has taken time to give Harris the acknowledgement on campus received by George Washington Henderson, who was thought to be the university’s first African-American graduate, but plans are in development to bring much deserved attention to him, an endeavor that will be facilitated by Professor Thornton’s thoroughgoing research efforts,” Gustafson said. “While it’s premature to talk about specifics, we’re confident that the university will find the appropriate way to recognize and honor this important historical figure and highly significant member of UVM’s alumni community.”
Thornton’s frustration prompted him to offer the following resolution at the Brandon town meeting last week:
“The town of Brandon instructs and directs its legislators to inquire why the University of Vermont has spent over $1 million on its president’s residence and approximately $400,000 landscaping the administration building but has done nothing to commemorate Andrew Harris, class of 1838, the first black abolitionist in America with a college degree.”
Thornton said the resolution passed on a voice vote with only one “nay.”
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