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William Sanders Scarborough and the enduring legacy of black classical scholarship

The American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) was founded in 1881 as a place “where young scholars might carry on the study of Greek thought and life to the best advantage.” Today, the ASCSA is a center for research and teaching on all aspects of Greece, from antiquity to the present. Its campus in Athens has two research libraries, an archaeological sciences laboratory, archives, and other facilities. The School carries out excavations at the Athenian Agora, the political and commercial heart of the ancient city, and at the ancient city of Corinth.

More scholars than ever can fulfill the founders’ vision, but the School has recently committed to doing even more. In July 2020, as part of a long-term commitment to address historical underrepresentation of Black, Indigenous, Asian, Hispanic, and other People of Color scholarly communities in Classical Studies and Hellenic Studies, the ASCSA announced a fellowship honoring William Sanders Scarborough, a trailblazing African American scholar.

The ASCSA’s early leadership actively welcomed African American scholars of Classics. In 1885, Wiley Lane, Professor of Greek at Howard University, was slated to go to the School to study modern Greek, supported by funding from the federal government. Tragically, Lane died of pneumonia before he could depart. In 1886, the Chair of the ASCSA Managing Committee, John Williams White, encouraged William Sanders Scarborough (1852–1926) to attend the School and asked Scarborough to tell other Black scholars about the ASCSA. Lack of funds prevented Scarborough from going. It was not until the 1890-91 school year that John Wesley Gilbert of Paine Institute (today Paine College) in Augusta, Georgia became the first African American member of the ASCSA, with the support of a Brown University fellowship.

William Sanders Scarborough
Professor William Sanders Scarborough (image via Wikimedia)

Though Scarborough never made it to ASCSA, the award celebrates his sterling reputation as an intellectual pioneer whose achievements as a professional black philologist were unparalleled. With the help from friends and family, and even his mother’s owner, he was able to overcome a childhood spent in slavery to become an icon within the academy, renowned first as the author of First Lessons in Greek (1881), published at a time that many did not believe a person of African descent had the intellectual capacity to do so, and later as president of Wilberforce University (1908–1920), which (under the aegis of the African Methodist Episcopal Church) was a powerhouse among the historically black colleges and universities founded during the 19th century.

Throughout his life, Scarborough championed the classically-based liberal arts as a way for his students to get the best from life. Revelling in his books, happy in his marriage, and interested in every sort of cultural pursuit, his life mirrored the same classical values.

Scarborough traveled widely to the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy, including Rome and Mt. Vesuvius, but this consummate philhellene was never able to fulfill his dream of studying Greek archaeological antiquities firsthand at the ASCSA. Twice in his life, once in 1886 and once in 1896, he was offered admission. On both occasions, a lack of funding was the impediment, along with his busy life as an academic and political figure. Undaunted, he continued to develop his career by presenting many papers, mainly at the American Philological Association, but also the Modern Language Association. He also joined many professional and academic organizations, including the Archaeological Institute of America, the American Negro Academy, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Classics remained a significant discipline at Historically Black Colleges and Universities well into the twentieth century. And yet, for many decades after Gilbert attended, black scholars of Classics did not attend the School. While the ASCSA formally remained open to all, the shifting politics of race in the United States, the School’s increasing focus on archaeology, the changing interests of black scholars and intellectuals, financial constraints, and other factors all contributed to this absence.

For too long, serious study of the Humanities and Classics was a door closed to the overwhelming majority of black men and women rising up after generations of enslavement and the rise of Jim Crow segregation. Pursuing a classical education thus became an act of defiance. As W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk (1903):

I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. … From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?

That Promised Land—the world of letters—remains for all of us to discover in our own personal and collective educational journeys. Exploring Classics and the Humanities is tantamount to climbing the branches of humanity’s collective intellectual family tree. Exploring the deepest longings, hopes, and fears of great writers and thinkers whose intellectual legacies we inherit, we not only can gain a fuller appreciation of all that has come before us, but we can gird ourselves for the struggle against modern social, economic, and political injustices that still make it so difficult, in Du Bois’ words, to “dwell above the veil.”

Funding opportunities, like the ASCSA’s Scarborough Fellowship, contribute to this noble effort. So, too, does a deeper understanding and appreciation of the great accomplishments and struggles of scholars like William Sanders Scarborough and generations of students and scholars who sought to follow his path and those who continue to share his dream.

Feature image by Giacomo Brogi via Wikimedia

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