Remembering the Work of Early Black Classicists

Fifteen years ago,  Michele Valerie Ronnick, now a full professor in the department of classical and modern languages and literatures at Wayne State University in Detroit, authored a photographic historical essay on early African American scholars in the classics that appeared in the pages of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Her research, and that of other scholars, brought to light the pioneering work of these African American scholars, many of whom had been forgotten in the annals of Black academic achievement. Since that time a photographic exhibit of 15 Black classicists has appeared around the country, most recently at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C.

Among the Black scholars featured in the exhibit is William Sanders Scarborough, who was born into slavery. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Oberlin College in Ohio. In 1881 he authored the textbook First Lessons in Greek. Scarborough was a member of the Philological Association for 44 years and in 1884 became the first African American member of the Modern Language Association. Scarborough served as president of Wilberforce University in Ohio from 1908 to 1920.

Professor Ronnick went on to edit two books on Scarborough: The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship (Wayne State University Press, 2005) and The Works of William Sanders Scarborough: Black Classicist and Race Leader (Oxford University Press, 2006).

In January, Bolchazy Carducci Publishers is reprinting Scarborough’s 1881 textbook First Lessons in Greek with an introduction by Professor Ronnick. The cover of the new addition resembles the original nineteenth-century edition.

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