Scarborough, William Sanders

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William Sanders Scarborough

Classical scholar, college president

While U.S. laws denied African Americans the right to education, William Sanders Scarborough learned to read and write and developed an interest in classical languages. When allowed to further his education, he pursued that interest, becoming the nation's first prominent African American classical scholar. During his career in higher education, Scarborough served as president of Wilberforce University, took active roles in politics and religion, and steadily worked toward the betterment of his race.

On February 16, 1852, Jeremiah and Frances Gwynn Scarborough welcomed son William Sanders Scarborough into their Macon, Georgia home. Scarborough's father, freed by his master in 1846, worked for Georgia's Central Railroad as a trainer for new employees and sometimes as a conductor. Scarborough's mother remained the slave of Colonel William DeGraffenreid, a lawyer. He allowed the family to live in their own home. Scarborough's older brother, John Henry, died at the age of four; his younger sister, Mary Louisa, at the age of two.

William Scarborough's parents belonged to different churches, his father to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, his mother to the Presbyterian Church. They taught their son about God and also taught him the alphabet. J. C. Thomas, a white man who had given the family land for their home, chose to ignore potential legal consequences and taught Scarborough to read and write. A free black family helped him study arithmetic, history, and geography. John Hall, his mother's half-brother, taught him carpentry.

When the Civil War broke out, Scarborough's father realized that his son needed to learn a trade. He apprenticed the boy to a local shoemaker named Gibson. Later, Scarborough worked in Mr. J. Burke's bookstore. He also served as a clerk in the Freedman's Bureau. But none of these occupations attracted his full interest. Michele Ron-nick notes in The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship that early in life, Scarborough developed "affection for arts and letters." He wanted to become an orator like Frederick Douglass and a lawyer like John Langston.

When the war ended and he no longer needed to keep his education secret, Scarborough briefly attended Macon's Triangular Block Elementary School. Then the American Missionary Association opened Lewis High School, allowing him to study Latin, algebra, and geometry. In 1869, he went to Atlanta University, another enterprise of the missionary association. Ronnick states that Scarborough studied "Greek and Latin prose composition as well as Caesar, Livy, Cicero, Virgil, Tacitus, Xenophon, Homer, Demosthenes, Lysias and the New Testament." In 1871, Scarborough became the department's first graduate.

Professor and Scholar

Instead of attending at Yale as he had planned, Scarborough enrolled in Oberlin College, focusing on Latin and Greek. He often tutored classmates in mathematics as well as in languages. After graduating with honors from Oberlin in 1875, his search for a suitable teaching job took him to Macon, Georgia, then to Cokesbury, South Carolina, as principal of the Payne Institute for Blacks (1875–77). After various other teaching positions, he returned to Oberlin for an M.A. degree. Soon after completing his study, he learned of his election to the chair of Latin and Greek at Ohio's Wilberforce University.

On August 2, 1881, Scarborough married Sarah Cordelia Bierce, a white divorcee from Danby, New York. They met at Macon's Lewis High School where he taught and she served as principal. Later, they reunited at Wilberforce University, where they both served on the faculty. Despite the racial climate of the time, the marriage thrived. The Scarboroughs had no children.

In conjunction with his teaching, Scarborough wrote a textbook, First Lessons in Greek (1881), thus becoming the first African American to write a university-level textbook for study of the Greek language. The work received high praise from the scholarly community for its clarity and conciseness.

Scarborough actively sought involvement in the scholarly community. He joined the American Philological Association (APA) in 1882, becoming the third African American to receive this distinction. In 1884, he joined the Modern Language Association. His professional memberships grew to include such organizations as the American Social Science Association, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the Archaeological Institute of America, the American Negro Academy, the American Dialect Society, the American Folklore Society, the American Spelling Reform Association, the Egyptian Exploration Fund, and even the Japan Society. As part of the North American Reading Program, he served as an unofficial reader for the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Transactions of American Philological Association published more than twenty articles by Scarborough, many of them summaries of his presentations at their conferences. His scholarly inquiry covered a wide range of topics, from "The Theory and Function of the Thematic Vowel in the Greek Verb" (1884) to "Notes on the Function of Modern Languages in Africa" (1896) to "The Greeks and Suicide" (1907). Scarborough represented the APA at England's Cambridge University for its Classical Association meeting in 1921.

Even though Scarborough's colleagues treated him with respect, his experiences at APA conferences sometimes proved unpleasant. During an 1894 meeting at Williams College in Massachusetts, he spent the night in a tool shed after a hotel refused to admit him. He chose not to attend a 1909 meeting in Baltimore because the conference hotel refused to serve blacks. The paper he had prepared, however, was mentioned at the conference.

Scarborough's writing interests extended beyond classical studies. Ronnick describes him as "a well-published and well-known polyglot interested in issues involving classical studies, modern languages, racial progress and education in general." He wrote articles for The Arena, Education, The Manchester Guardian, The American Negro Academy, The African Times and Orient Review, Southern Workman, The New York Times, The London Times, and many other publications.


Born in Macon, Georgia on February 16
Becomes first graduate of Atlanta University
Graduates with honors from Oberlin College
Appointed as chair of Latin and Greek at Wilberforce University
Marries Sarah Cordelia Bierce; publishes Greek language textbook
Becomes member of American Philological Association
Becomes professor of Hellenistic Greek at Payne Theological Seminary
Rejoins Wilberforce faculty as vice president
Elected president of Wilberforce University, a position he holds for twelve years
Serves as delegate to First Universal Races Congress in London
Takes job with U.S. Department of Agriculture
Dies in Wilberforce, Ohio on September 9

In 1892, Scarborough temporarily lost his position at Wilberforce as the college moved toward a more industrial-oriented curriculum. He became professor of Hellenistic Greek at Payne Theological Seminary, a school associated with Wilberforce but with its own governing body. At Payne, Scarborough had to raise his own salary. He received some income from his writing, but necessarily depended partially on his wife's income as a Wilber-force professor. In 1897, the university reappointed him and named him vice president.

Elected President of Wilberforce University

In 1908, Wilberforce elected Scarborough president, a position he held until 1920. Under his leadership, the curriculum expanded and academic standards reached a higher level. The university instituted new methods of accounting. Indebtedness dwindled as financial stability increased due to additional state funding, private endowments, and alumni giving. A new building, Emery Hall, graced the campus. A new tradition of holding an annual Founder's Day celebration began.

Along with his university duties, Scarborough took an active role in the community. In 1879, he received appointment as Wilberforce's first postmaster. During the First World War, he served on the governor's Ohio Council of National Defense. As a member of the Committee of One Hundred, he helped garner public support for war efforts. He served on the staff of Ohio's federal food administrator, promoted food conservation, and represented blacks as a labor advisor for the state.

Scarborough devoted much of his energy toward advancing educational opportunities for blacks. He desired more for his race than the technical training advocated by his friend Booker T. Washington. Although not discounting Washington's ideas, he believed that blacks deserved a well-rounded education. His own experience proved that they could achieve respect and honor in higher education. His articles on race and education include "Future of the Negro" in the March 1889 Forum, "The Negro Farmer's Progress in Virginia" in the December 1926 Current History, and "The Educated Negro and his Mission" in The American Negro Academy Occasional Papers, No. 8 in 1903.

Active in politics, Scarborough gained respect as an outstanding advocate for black Republicans in Ohio. On the local level, he worked to abolish segregation in Ohio's schools. On a national level, he supported the candidacies of such men as Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and developed a strong friendship with Warren G. Harding.

Throughout Scarborough's presidency, he remained active in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He edited church publications and wrote articles for the AME Church Review and the Methodist Review. He represented his church as a delegate to its 1901 conference in London. In 1911, he went to the University of London for the First Universal Races Congress. In 1919, he attended the Interchurch World Movement of North America conference in New York City.

Amid all these interests, Scarborough continued his work as a classicist. Harold Villard notes in Dictionary of American Biography that Scarborough's love of languages led him to study not only Latin and Greek but also "Sanskrit, Zend, Gothic, Lithuanian, and Old Slavonic." In recognition of his scholarly work and his contributions to higher education, a number of colleges granted him honorary degrees. In 1892, the State University at Louisville, or what he called Kentucky State University, granted him a Ph.D. He received honorary degrees also from West Africa's Liberia College in 1882, Morris Brown College in 1908, and England's St. Columbia's College in 1909.

Takes Job with Federal Government

Following his presidency at Wilberforce, Scarborough sought a job with the federal government. As part of his work with the Department of Agriculture, he spent time in Virginia studying the progress of black farmers. The resulting work, "Tenancy and Ownership among Negro Farmers in Southampton County, Virginia" became U. S. Department of Agriculture Department Bulletin, No. 1404 (1916).

After months of battling ill health, Scarborough died on September 9, 1926, in Wilberforce, Ohio. His body lay in state at the university he had served so faithfully. The autobiography that his wife began editing did not reach publication until 2005. Editor Michele Ronnick describes Scarborough as "an engaged intellectual, public citizen, and a concerned educator," concluding, "In terms of his classical studies he accomplished as much as some of the better-known figures from this era, and in fact more than many. Scarborough was in the widest sense of the word, a pioneer. He not only broke through barriers of race and class but stayed the course."



Ronnick, Michele Valerie, ed. The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 2005.

Villard, Harold G. "Scarborough, William Sanders." In Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 16 Ed. Dumas Malone. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935. pp. 409-10.

Weisenburger, Francis P. "Scarborough, William Sanders." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.


Ronnick, Michele Valerie. "Essay: Concerning Pap Finn's 'Mulatter' College Professor and William Sanders Scarborough (1852–1926)." Negro Educational Review (January-April 1998): 89-92.

―――――. "William Sanders Scarborough: The First Professional Classicist of African-American Descent." Negro Educational Review (July-October 1996): 162-68.

Weisenburger, Francis P. "William Sanders Scarborough: Early Life and Years at Wilberforce." Ohio History 71 (October 1962): 203-292.

―――――. "William Sanders Scarborough: Scholarship, the Negro, Religion, and Politics." Ohio History 72 (January 1963): 25-50.


Some Scarborough papers are housed in the Wilberforce University Library.

                                  Marie Garrett