Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Profiles in Forgotten Courage

DOUGLAS KIM ’87

In 1830, slavery was still legal in Connecticut. It had been outlawed in New York by that time, but it would be 18 more years before all men would be created equal in Connecticut. This was, after all, the state that counted the most number of slaves in New England at one point. It was in this climate that Bishop Thomas Church Brownell, the president and principal founder of a small Episcopalian college in Hartford now known as Trinity College awarded a Master of Arts degree to one Edward Jones of Charleston, SC. This marked the first academic degree awarded to a black man by a college in the state of Connecticut.

Trinity was only in its fourth year of commencement exercises, yet it was decades ahead of Yale in graduating black students. Yale was founded in 1701, but it wouldn’t award a degree to a black man until Richard Henry Green in 1857. (And many sources assert it was Edward Bouchet in 1874 whose tombstone in New Haven reads: “First African American graduate of Yale College.”) Regardless, Trinity was more than two decades ahead of Yale.

The odd thing is you won’t find a statue of Edward Jones anywhere on Trinity’s 100-acre leafy campus today. There is no building that bears his name or even a plaque. He’s not even mentioned on the website. There is no discussion of Jones at all. The memory of Edward Jones is entombed in the bowels of the Watkinson Library where history is preserved, archived, and, unfortunately, sometimes completely forgotten.

Edward Jones is remembered today, but not by Trinity. Before receiving his Masters degree, Jones graduated in 1826 from Amherst College, where he is celebrated as their first black alumnus, as well as one of the country’s first black college graduates. (The first is generally acknowledged as Alexander Lucius Twilight from Middlebury College in 1823.) Today, Jones conspicuously lives on at Amherst in the coveted Edward Jones Prize, in a prominent mural on campus, all over their website, and embedded in their curriculum.

How can this be? Why is Edward Jones a complete unknown at Trinity? On the one hand, we call for the names of Elihu Yale, Thomas Jefferson, John Calhoun, Cecil Rhodes and Woodrow Wilson to be expunged from our campuses, yet at the same time, we ignore historic figures whose lives actually touch the very institutions where we cultivate the keepers of history. How do we even begin to justify this dereliction of legacy? Why is the institutional memory at Trinity so profoundly lacking that we completely forget one of our own?

Credit where credit is due. No, make that long overdue. As Black History Month draws to a close, let’s right this wrong. Let’s claim this part of our past that’s been collecting dust for years. We stand on this man’s shoulders. Let’s be proud of this historic milestone, of Bishop Brownell’s courageous act, and, most of all, of the Rev. Edward Jones, M.A. ’30.

Douglas Kim ’87 is Vice-President of his class. He works as an advertising creative director in New York, and recently served on the National Alumni Association.

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