Black History Month 2014: The first Black person to… be a college professor at a predominantly white institution

Charles L. Reason

Charles L. Reason

Every year for Black History Month I explore the obvious and not so obvious parts of American history that those called Black have taken part in. The things that we (Black people) have done other than be stolen from our homeland and made forced labor in a land foreign to us. I’m going to start this series by looking up the first time someone African-American did something and broke the color barrier in that activity or field. I’ll be starting with Wikipedia and working my way out:

I will be learning a lot of this as I go since I am a product of the standardized Euro/Anglo/Caucasian leaning public school system. I hope you enjoy learning with me. I’ll be going down the list chronologically as it appears in the Wikipedia article.

For my sixteenth entry this month:

1849:  First African-American college professor at a predominantly white institution: Charles L. Reason, New York Central College

Charles Lewis Reason (July 21, 1818 –August 16, 1893) was a mathematicianlinguist, and educator. He became the first African-American university professor at a predominately white college in the US, teaching at New York Central College, McGrawville.

In 1847, Reason, along with Charles Bennett Ray, founded the New York-based Society for the Promotion of Education among Colored Children. Twelve years later, he was appointed professor of belles lettresGreekLatin, and French at New York Central College, McGrawville, while also serving as an adjunct professor of mathematics. It was a majority white institution. He was the first African American to serve as a professor at a majority-white college.

In 1852 Reason left that post to become the principal of the Quaker Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia (later Cheyney University), a post he held until 1856. During his time there, Reason increased enrollment from six students to 118.

Reason returned to New York, where he served for decades in public education as a teacher, administrator, and reformer. During this time, he was instrumental in efforts to abolish slavery and segregation. He successfully lobbied for passage of an 1873 statute to integrate New York’s public schools. He was politically active in many community groups.

After the public schools in New York City were desegregated, he became principal of Grammar School No. 80 at 252 West 42nd Street. Although suffering two strokes (one in 1885 and one in 1890) that left him physically incapacitated, Reason continued at his post until he retired, some five months before his death.

Reason was also a poet. He contributed to the Colored American in the 1830s and was a leader of New York City’s Phoenix Society in the 1840s. He wrote the poem “Freedom,” which celebrated the British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson; it was published in Alexander Crummell‘s 1849 biography of Clarkson.


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