Fourteen years after the United States outlawed slavery, the first African-American students enrolled at Penn.
William Adger, James Brister, and Nathan Mossell became the University’s first black students in 1879. Adger was the son of a former slave-turned-baker and furniture dealer, Brister was the son of a dentist, and Mossell, born in Ontario, was the son of a successful businessman who fled to Canada to escape racial hostility in America.
“The History of Women and Men of African Descent at the University of Penn,” an undergraduate course offered by the Department of Africana Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences, informs students about the scholars of color who helped integrate this prestigious place of learning, and their many hardships in guiding the University toward its present-day goals of diversity and inclusion.
Offered during the spring semester, the three-hour course currently meets on Mondays in the multipurpose room at W.E.B. Du Bois College House. The class is open to all races and ethnicities, but is largely populated by students of African descent.
“We take some things for granted,” says Brian Peterson, co-instructor of the course, director of Makuu, and a Penn alumnus. “This class really helps remind students that every day, we’re walking in someone’s footsteps.”
University Chaplain Charles Howard, co-instructor of the course who is also a Penn alumnus, says the class tells the story of black history at Penn, which has parallels with the greater journey of African Americans in the United States.
“We talk about the influence of slavery on America. We talk about education and civil rights, and how Penn intersects with them,” he says. “It’s not just focused on what happened in an eight-block radius.”
Course topics also include contemporary issues, and Peterson and Howard invite guest speakers from inside and outside the University.
Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum has spoken to the class, as has William Gipson, associate vice provost for equity and access in the Division of the Vice Provost for University Life; Jerome Allen, head coach of the men’s basketball team, and Vice President for Institutional Affairs Joann Mitchell.
Sean Vereen, a Penn alumnus and former associate dean at the University who serves as president of Steppingstone Scholars, an organization that helps prepare underserved students in the Philadelphia area for admission to top-notch public and private middle and high schools, recently spoke to students about the systemic inequalities that exist in the American education system.
Students in the class are required to complete an autobiography, view documentaries, contribute to a Black History at Penn blog, and conduct historical and contemporary research projects. The course is a seminar so Peterson says class participation is critical, as well.
Junior Victoria Ford, an English major, took the course last spring and is serving as a teaching assistant this semester.
“The thing I like the most about this class is not only do we discuss things, but we’re all about action,” she says. “The class is really centered around action projects that are going to help the African-American community on this campus and Penn’s community.”
Marlena Reese, associate director of Makuu and co-facilitator of the course, says she hopes students in the class have an opportunity to formalize their own arguments, thoughts, and ideas, and realize that they are part of a rich legacy and tradition of black students at Penn.
“I’m also hoping that they connect to each other,” she says. “It’s very rare that this many students of color are in the same room so I’m hoping that even though they know each other socially, they come to know each other more academically.”
Despite an unwelcoming and, at times, demeaning environment, each of the three students who began black history at Penn was able to receive a degree.
Brister graduated from the School of Dental Medicine in 1881, making him the first African American to earn a Penn degree, and went on to practice dentistry in Philadelphia and Illinois.
Mossell became the first African American to earn a medical degree from Penn in 1882, and became a prominent doctor and civil rights activist. His niece, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, later became the first African-American woman to graduate from Penn Law School. The Penn Alexander School in West Philadelphia is named in her honor.
Adger received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1883, making him the first African-American graduate of the College. He had planned to enter the ministry before his untimely death in 1885.
Originally published on February 13, 2014