UVM’s first black graduate is now part of the campus experience

Local News

The Andrew Harris Commons is an area of the University of Vermont campus for reflection, contemplation and gathering. It was dedicated to his memory this past October.

“We acknowledge Andrew Harris in a way that says, ‘you know, maybe you were invisible at that time when you were here’, because it wasn’t the greatest time for him, ‘but now we see you’,” UVM vice president for human resources, diversity and multicultural affairs Dr. Wanda Heading-Grant said.

Once Andrew Harris arrived at UVM from Cayuga, New York, he might actually have been better off had he been invisible. He was listed last on the grade sheets, in smaller letters than everyone else, while his classmates were in alphabetical order.

“He wasn’t allowed to attend chapel, which was required of all students every day, and was not allowed to attend the graduation of his class,” UVM Silver Special Collections Library director Jeffrey Marshall said.

“I can only imagine what that lonely, alienating experience might have been like for him, and that’s just not what we want education to be for anybody,” UVM Mosaic Center for Students of Color director Beverly Colston said.

Colston thinks Andrew Harris would be pleased to know that his experience of loneliness in the 1830s isn’t replicated today.

“It’s a different landscape than the one that Andrew Harris had to face. I think that communities, and the ability to have a cultural community, enables folks to feel empowered in their identities,” she said.

In May of 1839, less than a year after he graduated, Andrew Harris spoke before 5,000 people at New York City’s Broadway Tabernacle at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. In doing so, he may have been the country’s first black college graduate to publicly call for not only abolition, but full equality for African-Americans.

“He was also prominent within his community in Philadelphia, a leading minister there in what was at the time, the 1830s and early 1840s, the largest community of African-American citizens,” Marshall said.

The main reason Andrew Harris isn’t more widely known — he died of a sudden fever in December of 1841 at the age of 27.

What did Andrew Harris look like? Unfortunately, we can’t show you. Photography existed during his lifetime, but it was new technology and prohibitively expensive. It didn’t come into widespread use until after his death. No other images of his likeness — like paintings or sketches — seem to have survived, either.

However, there are a plaque and an academic chair dedicated to him inside UVM’s main administration building, as well as a scholarship in his name.

“I appreciate the work that he had done around access and opportunity and equality, and so I want to do more,” Heading-Grant said.

This story is just a taste of what you’ll be able to see later this week on our half-hour-long special to honor Black History Month.

It’s called Hidden History, and it’s airing twice this Thursday. You can catch it at 5:00 p.m. on Local 44 and at 7:30 p.m. on Local 22.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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