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Thornton: Andrew Harris

For decades now, American colleges have been working to identify their first African-American students. The implicit message is that any college that can claim an early black student has a legacy of tolerance. Middlebury College has been so successful promoting Alexander Twilight (Class of 1823) that there’s an Alexander Twilight Elementary School in Sacramento.

The problem is that these early students actually tell us very little about tolerance. Twilight may have passed as white at Middlebury. Moreover, in 1836, when admitting a black student really would have been a statement - because the anti-slavery movement was in full swing - Middlebury blinked. That year they rejected Andrew Harris, described in the language of the time as a “full-blooded negro,” because they didn’t want to deal with controversy.

Harris wound up at the University of Vermont. So score one for tolerance at UVM, right? Unfortunately, the more we learn about Harris’s treatment there, the worse it looks. The university banned Harris from attending his own graduation – and there were additional clues that he’d been ill-treated, but nothing solid.

Until now.

Dr. Richard Candee, a New Hampshire researcher, recently discovered a remarkable 1838 document written by students at Maine’s Bowdoin College, denouncing what they called the "unfounded and wicked prejudice” against Harris at UVM.

It indicates that, every day during his two-plus years at UVM, Harris was completely excluded from every university activity other than lectures - even prayer.

It was personal. Harris’s class of 1838 had only 24 students. They all lived and studied in a single building. Under those circumstances it’s work to ignore someone. But they did and the administration let it happen. As far as we can tell from the historical record, Harris had one friend.

Such was the reality for UVM’s first minority student. And if the university is going to use Harris to suggest a heritage of diversity, it must also face its legacy of racism. Meanwhile, I have to wonder why it placed the state’s monument to Harris in the back of a parking lot – based on the map of markers posted on line, it's the only “roadside historic marker” in the state of Vermont that’s invisible from a road.

So now Bowdoin is the new contender for the first American college with a true history of tolerance - where in 1838 students told Harris “we heartily sympathize with [you] and feel entire willingness to receive [you] as a fellow student.”

Kevin Thornton is an historian and filmmaker from Brandon. His current project is about mourning and Civil War memory in Vermont.
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