In 1996, JBHE published an article identifying the first Black graduates of the nation’s 50 flagship state universities. Using information provided to us by the universities and other sources, we identified George Washington Henderson as the first Black graduate of the University of Vermont. Henderson was born a slave in Virginia and moved to Vermont after the Civil War. He enrolled at the University of Vermont in 1875 and graduated in 1877. Henderson then studied theology at Yale and taught at Straight University in New Orleans and Wilberforce University in Ohio. Henderson died in 1936.
But new information has come to light that shows that Andrew Harris, described in an obituary published in the Rochester Daily Democrat as a “full-blooded Negro,” was a member of the Class of 1838 at the University of Vermont, nearly 40 years prior to the graduation of George Washington Henderson.
Research by Kevin Thornton, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Vermont, found that Harris was born in 1814 and adopted by a White family at the age of 2. He was rejected for admission at Union College and Middlebury College but accepted at the University of Vermont. The 1836 “records of examination” at the University of Vermont lists all students alphabetically with their marks for each course taken. Harris is listed alone at the bottom. At his graduation ceremonies, Harris was the only member of the class not permitted to address the assembly.
Harris moved to Philadelphia and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. He became a noted abolitionist. Harris died on December 1, 1841 at the age of 27.