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A classical scholar's odyssey from slavery to academic renown


In 1864, when Sherman's army marched through Georgia in the Civil War, William S. Scarborough heard the guns resounding from his home in Macon, where he lived as a slave. Not too many years later, Scarborough was a world-respected scholar in Greek and Latin literature.
William Sanders Scarborough (1852-1926). Portrait in Rembert E. Stokes Library, Wilberforce University

Scarborough was a "living refutation" of segregationist Sen. John C. Calhoun's statement that "no Negro can learn Greek," said Michele Ronnick, associate professor of classics at Wayne State University, in her Feb. 7 Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium lecture sponsored by the Department of Classics in Mason Hall.

At the height of his career, Ronnick said, Scarborough lectured on the chronology of Plato's writings at the University of Virginia in 1892, with portraits of Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders looking down from the walls. "He was reminded of Calhoun's challenge as he lectured in 'a place no other Afro-American could enter except as a servant,'" she said, quoting from Scarborough's unpublished autobiography, "and he felt that Jefferson Davis would be 'perplexed, if not horrified' to see him lecturing there."

In her talk "Pioneer African-American Classicist: The Path-Breaking Career of William Sanders Scarborough," Ronnick traced Scarborough's life from the early educational support he received from enlightened white slave owners in Macon to his university presidency and achievements as a researcher, author and teacher.

Latin excited Scarborough at Lewis High School in Macon (showing him, he said, "what literature the South had fed upon all these years"), and he went on to graduate with honors in classics from Oberlin College in 1875. "He returned to his old high school, where his wife-to-be, Sarah Cordelia Bierce, a white divorcee and missionary teacher, was the principal.

Racial controversy embroiled the school during an era when many prominent figures from both races thought a liberal arts education, and especially classical learning, was wasted on Blacks. The Washington Bee quoted a typical argument of the "industrial-training" camp promoted by Booker T. Washington and his patrons, in citing an Atlanta Constitution editorial that Blacks would do better "to learn how to use a pick, not Greek and Latin."

After arsonists set fire to the high school in 1876 and the Macon fire department let it burn to the ground, Scarborough moved to South Carolina. He found the racial environment there "even worse than Georgia," so he returned to Oberlin and got his M.A. He then accepted a professorship at Wilberforce University in Ohio, a prominent school for Blacks, and published a successful college textbook, "First Lessons in Greek." He and Bierce married in New York City in 1881.

Scarborough was among the first African American members of the nation's most prestigious academic bodies, the third to join the American Philological Association (APA) and first to join the Modern Languages Association, which has set up a first-book prize in his honor.

Despite his successes, Scarborough endured many insults and financial problems, Ronnick said. Michigan's famed archaeologist Francis W. Kelsey had the task of dis-inviting Scarborough from the APA's meeting in Baltimore in 1909. Kelsey wrote Scarborough that the Hotel Belvedere's manager said dinner would not be served "where a member of your race is present" and would sue for breach of contract if the APA canceled the meeting. Someone else read Scarborough's paper.

"For 40 years," Ronnick concluded, "Scarborough was an engaged, intellectual citizen and educator. He broke barriers of race and class and flew in the face of those who entertained ideas of intellectual inferiority of his race. He also refuted those who put down his pursuits as Uncle Tom-ism. His command of classical languages enabled the next generation of Black scholars to advance farther in other fields."

When Scarborough felt oppressed by his failure to get good wages, promotions and diplomatic appointments, his friend and fellow Black classicist Richard T. Greener encouraged him, said Ronnick, who is editing Scarborough's long-ignored autobiography for publication. "Greener reminded him of the story of the Athenian statesman Aristides, known as 'the Just' for his integrity, in Plutarch's 'Lives.'"

Facing a vote on his ostracism, which meant banishment from Athens, Aristides met a peasant and asked him how he planned to vote. For ostracism, the peasant replied. Aristides asked the peasant why he wanted to punish a man he didn't know. "It vexes me to hear him called the Just," the peasant replied.

"Greener," Ronnick said, "told Scarborough his fate was like Aristides's."

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