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Friday, Jun 21, 2024

Revisiting Middlebury’s Racial History

Alexander Twilight Hall — the austere brick building separating the town from Middlebury College — is named for Alexander Twilight, the 1823 Middlebury College graduate who is known today as the first American black college graduate.

Today, Twilight is widely touted as an example of Middlebury’s rich legacy of inclusivity and racial diversity.

But who exactly was Alexander Twilight? Was he really the first black man at Middlebury?

The answer to that question is more complicated than it might first appear.

Twilight was born in 1795 in Corinth, Vt. His father was a free mulatto named Ichabod Twilight who fought in for the Union in the American Revolution, thereby earning his freedom.

While slave plantations were unique to southern states, slavery was nonetheless widespread in New England in the 18th century.

While Vermont nominally prohibited slavery in 1777, the indenture of blacks continued for decades.

Despite early state legislation, Vermont businessmen seized on the imprecise wording of the statute — which guaranteed that no adult be indentured — to exploit young black individuals for labor. Accordingly, Alexander Twilight became an indentured servant as a young man.

Some scholars see the practice as selective slavery, whereas others view it as a system of apprenticeship meant to provide social welfare to impoverished and disenfranchised blacks.

“Children frequently were indentured to a neighbor to learn a craft or a skill,” explained Middlebury College Associate Professor of History Bill Hart.

Whether labeled “slavery” or “apprenticeship,” Alexander Twilight’s indentured farm work prevented him from going to school as a young man. However, he worked for wages on the weekends and was able to earn his freedom a year early.

At 20, Twilight enrolled in the Orange County Grammar School in Randolph, Vt., where he undertook an accelerated course of study. He spent five years there before enrolling at Middlebury as a third-year student.

When Twilight was admitted, Middlebury administrators did not know that he was black. In fact, few acquaintances of Twilight knew of his ancestry at all.

“Throughout his lifetime we can not find evidence to suggest that he identified as [black],” Hart said.

In fact, most who knew him assumed Twilight was white. Twilight’s apparent ‘whiteness,’ however, was not always readily accepted. An initial census listed his family as, “‘all other free persons except Indians not taxed by the government,’’’ Hart said. ‘”All other free people’ could mean free blacks, unaffiliated Indians, [or] mixed race people.”

In every census from 1810 onward, the Twilights are listed as white.

The reason for this switch is likely the absence of Alexander’s father Ichabod from the family picture.

Ichabod’s fate is not known for certain, but scholars believe he passed away when Alexander was a young boy. When the census examiners returned in 1810, he no longer lived with the rest of the Twilight family.

Twilight’s mother was a ‘quadroon,’ or a quarter black, so Twilight was reclassified as white. This characterization followed him for the rest of his life.

“He neither embraced nor rejected his racial identity,” Hart said.

“The fact that he was mixed-race added another obstacle,” explained Peggy Day Gibson, the director of the Old Stone House Museum — the site of a school for which Twilight was headmaster from 1829 to his death in 1857, in a 2013 statement.  The obstacle was smaller, she asserted, “because he could pass for white.”

In the years after Twilight’s matriculation from the College, race became an increasingly controversial issue across New England.

In the 1820’s and the 1830’s, the Second Great Awakening precipitated the emergence of a number of social movements in New England, including abolitionism.

Early abolitionists fell into three primary categories: immediatists, who argued for the immediate abolition of slavery and incorporation of black people into the republic, gradualists, who advocated a gradual process of integration, and colonizationists, who thought that free blacks should establish new settlements in Africa.

At Middlebury, Colonization theory predominated. The American Colonization Society was formed in 1816 with the principal objective of establishing a black Republic in Liberia. Benjamin Labaree, Middlebury’s fourth president, was a vocal colonizationist who served as the President of the Vermont Auxiliary Colonization Society.

In the years after Twilight, Labaree and other Middlebury students and faculty debated the merits of colonizationism and the future role of black people in American society.

In exceptional instances, by the early 19th century elite mulattos began to infiltrate the overwhelmingly homogeneous institutions of New England.

In 1826, Edward Jones, a prominent mulatto from Charleston, S.C., and John Brown Russwurm, a Jamaican-born black man, graduated from Amherst College and Bowdoin College, respectively. A West-Indian born black man named Edward Mitchell was admitted to Dartmouth in 1824 after pressure from students, and became Dartmouth’s first black graduate in 1828.

Jones, Russwurm and Mitchell were all publicly mixed-race at their graduations, unlike Alexander Twilight.

By the 1830’s, however, abolitionists were clamoring for wider racial acceptance.

In 1845, Middlebury, Dartmouth, Williams, Amherst and the University of Vermont each received recommendations for four black prospective students from Philadelphia. They all rejected the applicants.

In justifying his assertion that, “Middlebury is not designed especially for the colored race,” Middlebury President Labaree couched his argument in geography. “Middlebury is not inclined particularly to encourage negroes from all parts of the country to resort here for education,” but, “Colored young men in Vt. and States adjacent, who would naturally fall to us, we will cheerfully receive.”

Despite Labaree’s argument for the prioritization of local students, white students came from a number of states, including Pennsylvania.

Reverend Mitchell, a colonizationist pastor in Rutland, helped Labaree respond to allegations of inconsistency by writing a letter of recommendation for nineteen-year old black Rutland resident, Martin Freeman. Seizing on the opportunity to shore up Middlebury’s reputation in the anti-slavery community, Labaree chose to accept Freeman.

Unlike Alexander Twilight’s admission, Freeman’s admission was well-publicized and controversial. Despite his self-professed unease at the all-white school, Freeman excelled at Middlebury and became class salutatorian when he graduated in 1849.

After Freeman graduated he emigrated to Liberia, joining Amherst’s Jones and Bowdoin’s Russwurm in fulfilling early colonizationists’ aspirations to send educated black Americans back to Africa.

For decades after Freeman, only a handful of black students —  no more than one per year — were admitted to the College. Among those admitted was Middlebury’s first black female student, Mary Annette Anderson, who graduated in 1899. The prestigious Bronx School of Science contributed many of Middlebury’s black matriculants in the early 20th century.

In 1962, The Campus published an editorial warning the college administration that “an absence of Negroes during the current revolution in race relations would be a grave deficiency in any college.”

It was not until the galvanization of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960’s and the pivotal assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that the number of black students at Middlebury slowly began to rise.

The Campus published an article in 1965 headlined “20 Negroes Apply for Admission to Class of ’69” that celebrated the sharp increase in black applications to Middlebury — up from a single application just three years earlier.

In 1970, Middlebury created a “Dean of Diversity” position, and fifteen years later created a diversity panel called “The Twilight Committee.”

Concomitant with increases in the admission of blacks at Middlebury in the 1960’s and 1970’s came increased scrutiny of Middlebury’s past racial history.

Alexander Twilight’s story was virtually unknown until 1971, when an edition of the Middlebury College newsletter featured an article about “the first black American college graduate — Alexander Lucius Twilight class of 1823.”

The timing rediscovery of Alexander Twilight’s blackness was no accident.

Following the Civil Rights movement, Amherst College asserted that Edward Jones, Amherst class of 1826, had been the first black college graduate in America. Not to be outdone, Middlebury College historians dredged up old census data to indicate that Alexander Twilight had been the nation’s first college graduate — despite his ambiguous racial identity whilst a student at Middlebury.

Owing to Twilight’s undisclosed racial identity as a student, his admission graduation was not monumental during his lifetime as it is now — for all intents and purposes, he was just another free ‘white’ man graduating from a small liberal arts school.

Middlebury is not alone among academic institutions in its revisionist evaluation of racial history. An article published in the New York Times last Sunday headlined “New Contenders Emerge in Quest to Identify Yale’s First African-American Graduate” describes the messy and imprecise process of identifying early college graduates on the basis of tenuous racial associations.

Admissions policies at Middlebury and other institutions shifted widely due to changing leadership and shifting perspectives on race in America.

The legacy of Twilight and other early black college graduates remains relevant today, as Middlebury continues to attempt to create a racially diverse student body.

In 2005, a Middlebury College Task Force on the Composition of the Student Body outlined a goal of “increase[ing] the number of U.S. students of color who graduate to 15 percent within six years.”

In 2012, only 5.4 percent of the members of Middlebury’s freshman class were black. In 2012, the percentages of black students in freshman the classes at both Williams College and Wesleyan University were more than double Middlebury’s percentage.

Middlebury’s racial landscape is still shifting. As the College continues to strive for a diverse student body in the future, a nuanced and critical reflection on both the shortcomings and the successes of Middlebury’s racial history is necessary to form an appropriate plan for Middlebury’s future.