William Sanders Scarborough

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William Sanders Scarborough (February 16, 1852 - September 9, 1926) is generally thought to be the first African-American classical scholar. Scarborough served as president of Wilberforce University between 1908 and 1920 after having been born into slavery. He wrote a popular university textbook in Classical Greek that was widely used in the 19th century.

Early life and career[edit]

Scarborough was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1852 to a free railway employee and an enslaved mother. He inherited his mother's status. Despite prohibitions against educating slaves, he was educated surreptitiously and had mastered the three R's, geography and grammar by the age of 10. He became an apprentice shoemaker and served as the secretary of a prominent black association at an early age due to his level of education.

After the end of the American Civil War, he was able to complete his education at Lewis High School in Macon before attending Atlanta University in 1869 for a couple of years.[1] Scarborough completed his degree at Oberlin College graduating in 1875. He then returned as a teacher in classical languages to Lewis High School, where he met his future wife Sarah Bierce, who was the Principal. Arsonists torched the Lewis High School in 1876 and the local fire brigade let it burn to the ground. Scarborough briefly became Principal of the Payne Institute in Cokesbury, South Carolina, but found the racial environment in South Carolina even less hospitable than Georgia. He then returned to Oberlin to complete a Master's degree.

Wilberforce University[edit]

Scarborough became a professor in the classical department at Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio, in 1877. He married Bierce who had previously been a white divorcee and missionary in 1881 and she also became a teacher at Wilberforce. Professor Scarborough also published a popular Classical Greek textbook, entitled First Lessons in Greek, in 1881 and became the first Postmaster in Wilberforce the same year. A second book, Birds of Aristophanes, followed in 1886.

Scarborough was one of the first African-American members to join prestigious academic associations being the first member of the Modern Language Association and the third member of the American Philological Association. The Modern Language Association has named a first-book prize in his honor.

Despite his prominence as a scholar, Scarborough suffered the effects of discrimination throughout his career. In 1909 when he had just become the President of Wilberforce, he was barred from attending an American Philological Association meeting in Baltimore, Maryland because the hotel refused to serve dinner if he was present and was threatening to sue for breach of contract if the Association cancelled the Conference. The paper that he was due to read at the conference was read by someone else. However, in 1892, Scarborough gave a lecture on Plato at the University of Virginia with pictures of Jefferson Davis and other confederate leaders on the walls and no other African Americans allowed into the room except as servants.

In 1908, Scarborough was appointed President of Wilberforce University, serving in that position until 1920. Wilberforce University was the African-American college and Scarborough was considered one of the leading African-American scholars. As such, he published a number of papers on Negro education, as well as his works on classical languages.

Final Years[edit]

In 1921, President Harding appointed Scarborough to a position in the United States Department of Agriculture which he occupied until his death. He was working on an autobiography which wasn't published during his lifetime. However, Michele Ronnick, full Professor in the Classics Department of Wayne State University found a copy of the manuscript in the archives of the Ohio Historical Society. Ronnick edited The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey From Slavery to Scholarship which was published in 2005 by Wayne State University Press with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates.

Scarborough was a participant at the London session of the second Pan-African Congress held in 1921.


  • First Lessons in Greek 1881
  • Birds of Aristophanes 1886
  • The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey From Slavery to Scholarship (Unpublished during his lifetime)


Further reading[edit]

  • Ronnick, M.V. (ed.) (2005) The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey From Slavery to Scholarship, Wayne State University Press, ISBN 0-8143-3224-2
  • Ronnick, M.V. (ed.) (2006) "The Works of William Sanders Scarborough: Black Classicist and Race Leader", Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-530962-1

External links[edit]