The Graduation of Dartmouth's First Black Student

Edward Mitchell matriculated after a student committee pressed the board of trustees to reverse their initial refusal of Mitchell's admission.

“Since the matriculation of Edward Mitchell, Class of 1828, exactly 107 race students have attended Dartmouth College here in the mountains of New Hampshire. This number is far more than have attended any of the other New England colleges with the exception of Harvard.” –Pittsburgh Courier, October 2, 1943

African-American students have been studying and thriving at Dartmouth since the foundational days of the institution. This sentiment was shared by Forrester “Woody” Lee ’68 in his presentation, “History of African Americans at Dartmouth College 1775–1950,” during a “Blacks @ Dartmouth” conference held on campus from March 28–30. In just 45 minutes, Lee altered the way some members of the Black Alumni of Dartmouth Association (BADA) and the Afro-American Society (AAm) saw the early history of African-Americans at Dartmouth.

A professor of medicine at Yale, Lee has been researching this topic in his free time for the past year. He’s visited Rauner Special Collections Library and used Yale and Dartmouth online resources. Lee found that more than 130 African-American students—a number much higher than originally known to BADA—had studied at Dartmouth prior to 1950, beginning with the matriculation of Edward Mitchell, Class of 1828.

Prior to the Civil War, “Dartmouth was recognized in the African-American community as a place where a man of color could go to get educated,” says Lee. “Some of these students were rejected by other institutions. It’s a fascinating story and one we should be very proud of.” Some of the early graduates of Dartmouth and of Dartmouth Medical School went on to be the first college-educated doctors and lawyers in Liberia, surgeons in the Civil War, a clergyman in Philadelphia, and a civic leader and active abolitionist in Boston.

In admitting Mitchell in 1824, Lee noted that Dartmouth was the forerunner of other Ivy League schools, as the next college to admit an African-American student was Harvard in 1870. In petitioning the Dartmouth trustees to accept Mitchell, the students wrote, “From what we know of Mr. Mitchell’s moral character and intellectual attainment we wish him every success; so, far from feeling any disrespect towards him on account of his color or extraction, we think him entitled to the highest praise.”

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