John Chavis is considered the first Black college student in America. Born free, he studied under with the president of what would later become Princeton University and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Chavis was born in either 1762 or 1763 to free parents in heavily debated places of origins that include North Carolina, Virginia, and the West Indies. Most historical accounts say North Carolina as his state of birth. Details of his early life are scant, but in the 1790s, Chavis began studying privately with John Witherspoon, who was the president of the College of New Jersey Theological which is now Princeton University.
Prior to studying with Witherspoon, Chavis fought in the Revolutionary War for the U.S. Continental Army in Virginia, then became an educator. Chavis and his wife, Sarah Frances Anderson, moved to New Jersey in pursuit of better opportunities, which is where he encountered Witherspoon.
After Witherspoon’s death in 1794, Chavis entered Virginia’s Liberty Hall Academy, now known as Washington and Lee University, named after President George Washington and Confederate General Robert F. Lee, both known slave owners.
While no record of Witherspoon’s graduation exists, it is possible he did so because of his status as a licensed minister with the Presbyterian Church. In the early 1800’s, he moved his family to Raleigh to open a school to teach both Black and white students. When white parents balked at mixing the races, he taught white students in the day and Black students at night, charging the white students a higher rate.
After Nat Turner’s violent rebellion left several whites dead, Chavis’ school, considered one of the best in the state, was shut down. Chavis died in 1838 under mysterious circumstances. Some history suggests that he may have been murdered either because of his anti-slavery beliefs or because he taught both Blacks and whites. The Presbyterian church continued to pay the family until 1842.
Alexander Twilight, who graduated from Middlebury College in 1823, is the first documented Black college graduate.
Chavis is just one of the subjects in Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates‘ new book, 100 Facts About The Negro, inspired by Joel Augustus Rogers’ 1957 book, 100 Facts About The Negro With Proof.
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