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The Ex-Slave Who Authored a Greek Language Book

William Sanders Scarborough
William Sanders Scarborough, an the African American ex-slave that wrote a Greek textbook. by C. M. Bell – 1903. Portrait of William Sanders Scarborough by C. M. Bell, 1903 / Public Domain

William Sanders Scarborough was an African-American, emancipated slave who authored a Greek textbook. His First Lessons in Greek was written in 1881. The textbook offered Greek to English and English to Greek language practice as well as exercises on Greek grammar and vocabulary building. Yet there has always been a strong bond between Greeks and Africans as well as African-Americans.

By Matthew Quest

Scarborough (1852-1926) was born an African slave in Macon, Georgia in the American South. His mother was a slave while his father was freed by his master. In an environment of terror, degradation, and subordination, he grew up to become perhaps the first African- American professional classical scholar.

William Sander Scarborough’s early life and formative years

As a child, Scarborough witnessed the slave auction block, and it was perhaps this that fueled his desire to rise far above the circumstances of his birth.

Later on in his life, for example, he became a commanding Black intellectual during the Jim Crow Era. He also forged an interracial marriage with a divorced white woman, Sarah Cordelia Bierce, a fellow educator. At that time, merely the suggestion of sex across the color line could get Black men killed. Those accused of such acts were either lynched or thrown into wells. At times, William Sanders Scarborough also gave lectures at universities graced with memorials of Confederate politicians who made a name defending the slave regime during and after the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865.

The racism and struggles he faced as an African-American did not stop Scarborough from educating himself and others, however. The former slave attended college at Atlanta University in Georgia—now known as Clark Atlanta University—and Oberlin College, Ohio. After completing college, Scarborough returned to Macon to teach at Lewis High School. He later married Sarah, the school’s principal.

Arsonists burned the school to the ground in December 1876. The fire brigade merely watched, which was emblematic of the contempt for Black life and empowerment Scarborough knew first hand. This at a time when African-Americans were fighting side by side with Greeks in the Greek War of Independence.

William and Sarah found refuge in Wilberforce, Ohio. There, they becoming teachers at Wilberforce University, a historically black university. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are higher education institutions in the United States established prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Their intention was to primarily serve the African-American community.

An ex-slave writes a Greek textbook

First Lessons in Greek
William Sanders Scarborough’s ‘First Lessons in Greek’. Credit: Amazon

William Sanders Scarborough, an ex-slave, wrote First Lessons in Greek in 1881, with its many declensions or grammatical changes of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. The text included Greek to English and English to Greek exercises to encourage the practice of Greek grammar and vocabulary building. Xenophon’s Anabasis was the required reading aiming to test students’ mettle in this great learning endeavor.

One can only wonder upon reading First Lessons on Greek what it meant for African-Americans to learn the Greek alphabet and vocabulary for words like honor, virtue, glory, citizen, or soldier. It is impossible now to fathom what it must have been like learning the verbs for reading and writing at a time when it was illegal to educate the descendants of the enslaved in most places not so long ago. What about verbs such as conquer, conceal, accuse, or silence? Or enslave, liberate, and free? How would it feel as a former slave to learn those words in another language and translate them back into his own?

Barbara Goff, a scholar of West African classical receptions, has suggested that for conquered peoples, the Classics could have been “a secret language” of empowerment. Undoubtedly, this was also true for African-American students. It was not inherently an obstacle to self-esteem or the foundation of internalized racism.

Students of William Sanders Scarborough learned of places such as Athens, Abydos and Macedonia. They read about philosophers like Socrates and politicians such as Peisistratus or Aristides. Furthermore, they also were educated about Persian kings such as Cyrus and Darius. They were taught how to say the words Egypt, tanned skin, and blackness in Greek.

Scaborough on Homer, Thucydides, Euripides, and Aristophanes

Scarborough’s classical studies included scholarship on Homer, Virgil, Caesar, Thucydides, Demosthenes, and Plato. He thought about the meaning of fate and suicide among the classical Greeks. He wrote an analysis of Aristophanes’ comedic play The Bird, the story of Pisthetaerus, an Athenian who implores various birds of diverse habitats to create a great city in the sky.

The former slave also examined the history of Iphigenia, a daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra and thus a princess of Mycenae. This was the subject of two plays by Euripides—Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia in Tauris. In an early example of what we now call comparative literature, he also reflected on this goddess as seen by the French playwright Racine and German playwright Goethe.

Furthermore, he speculated on the authorship of Andocides’ oration Against Alcibiades. Scarborough wrote popular pieces about the utility of studying Greek and specialised in studies of the theory and function of thematic vowels in Greek verbs. Through his work, the author and scholar opened the path for other famous African Americans such as the archeologist John Gilbert would soon follow in his footsteps.

American racism and the historical implications of Scarborough’s work

Is a Greco-Roman classical education a critical component of African-American advancement from having been a conquered people? Did such an education and mastery challenge ideas about the racial inferiority of people of African descent in the nineteenth and early twentieth century? William Sanders Scarborough, an African-American former slave, thought so. Indeed, he was a Black man who had the audacity to write a Greek language textbook.

John C. Calhoun, the famous white supremacist politician from South Carolina and defender of American slavery, is known to have said that if a Negro could be found who knew Greek syntax, then he would admit that people of African descent should be “treated like human beings.” This is one way of thinking about the historical reception of Scarborough’s scholarship on the Greek language.

That William Sanders Scarborough appeared to meet this apparent universal standard and false code of merit was a triumph on one level. However, would Greeks then and now accept judgment of their humanity and citizenship rights based on their competency in Yoruba or Zulu? It would be seen as peculiar if not insulting. Yet, this Black scholar used his mind to break the shackles of a legacy of sadistic brutality and miseducation using the authority of the Greeks long before African studies achieved its contemporary institutional authority.

The scholar Lorna Hardwick reminds us that Greco-Roman antiquity does not authorize only one identity, culture, or political system. Yet one interpretation of this during Scarborough’s life, which is still present among some, was a justification of European superiority. Interestingly enough, Greeks were among some of the least non-racist towards African Americans. They even served them in their establishments which was against the law in Jim Crow states.

While today, many are ambivalent or even hostile to the study of ancient Greco-Roman languages—some think they are opposing racism in this way—Scarborough was austere, prideful, and dedicated to his scholarly and professional accomplishments. He was aware that he had an education superior to that of most white men.

William Sanders Scarborough in 1915
William Sanders Scarborough in 1915. Credit: Joiner, William A. – Joiner, William A. half century of freedom of the Negro in Ohio. 1915, Press of Smith Adv. Co. (Xenia, Ohio) / Wikipedia

William Sanders Scarborough’s academic career

William Sanders Scarborough was a professor of Classics who later  became president of Wilberforce University (1908-1920). He was the school’s leading scholar. Amongst the earliest Black academics, Scarborough was, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has said, “the black scholar’s scholar.” As such, the ex-slave became a precursor to W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of Black studies, Pan Africanism, and the modern civil rights movement. Du Bois also taught for a short time at Wilberforce.

The diverse themes of Scarborough’s public lectures included reflections on the roles and social status of Black farmers, entrepreneurs, craftsmen, soldiers. He also focused on journalists as well as the education of Black people. This, in addition to his studies on the role of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. Further studies included Christian theology, the sociology of deviance, racial conflicts, and rebellion.

The academic liked to meditate on the personalities and works of Black intellectuals and political leaders from his era, including Frederick Douglass, Alexander Dumas, Alexander Pushkin, Bishop Daniel Payne, Henry McNeal Turner, and Booker T. Washington. In addition, he wrote about African-American folklore and dialect. He instructed in creative writing, and the function of foreign languages and patois in Africa. These he compared with Yoruba, Xhosa, and Zulu.

His work as a public figure

Scarborough was the third African-American to join the American Philological Association and the first to join the Modern Language Association. The latter named a first-book prize in his honor in 2001. The instructor and speaker was a member of the American Spelling Reform Association, the American Social Science Association, the American Foreign Antislavery Society, and the Egyptian Exploration Fund.

William Sanders Scarbrorough was, moreover, a Mason of the International Organization of Good Templars and a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church). Additionally, he became a trustee of the Church and longtime editor for the AME Sunday School Union. As a scholar, he furthermore received an LL.D. from the president of Liberia College, Edward Blyden. Blyden was also only the second black member of the American Philological Association, in 1882.

William Sanders Scarborough participated in the March 5, 1897 meeting in celebration of the memory of his friend Frederick Douglass as well. Douglass founded Alexander Crummell’s American Negro Academy. The African-American author played an active role in the early years of this first major African-American learned society. This was an organisation which refuted racist scholarship, promoted black claims to individual, social, and political equality, and studied the history and sociology of African- American life.

The pioneer to whom few can measure up

Scarborough gave many lectures throughout the U.S. and frequently corresponded for newspapers and journals. Those included the Christian Register and Christian Recorder, Southern Workman, Forum, African Times and Orient Review, Voice of the Negro, Cleveland Gazette, Transactions of the American Philological Association, Arena, Education, and Independent. In 1921, President Warren G. Harding appointed the academic to a position in the US Department of Agriculture. There he remained until the end of 1924.

He was furthermore a central figure of the African-American dialog with the classics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, we know of his life and work from the dedicated scholarship of an unsung scholar to whom few can measure up. Michele Valerie Ronnick, Distinguished Professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, has compiled and published Scarborough’s writings, autobiography, and Greek textbook.

As a scholar of Classica Africana however,  she has done much more. Emblematic of her own legacy, she created a traveling exhibit in 2003 with the support of the James Loeb Classical Library Foundation at Harvard University. This featured the photographs of Scarborough and his fellow Black classicists. This portraits, which have been exhibited at institutions in small towns and large metropolises in the U.S. and U.K., have introduced us to new classical scholars.

Scarborough’s memory joins many others

Aside from William Sanders Scarborough, we now also learn of Edward Blyden, Charles H. Boyer, Frazelia Campbell, Helen Maria Chestnut, William Henry Crogman, and Orishatuka Faduma. Other Black classical scholars include John Wesley Gilbert, James Monroe Gregory, Richard T. Greener. There was also Wiley Lane, George Morton Lightfoot, Reuben Shannon Lovinggood, Lewis Baxter Moore. Pinckney Warren Russell, and Daniel Barclay Williams must also be noted. This is not an exhaustive list, but is ever unfolding as a result of further research.

A word should be said here about Edward Wilmot Blyden, John Wesley Gilbert, and Orishatukeh Faduma. Blyden was a famous Pan-Africanist who tied together the Caribbean. He was a native of Saint Thomas of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Liberia of West Africa. John Wesley Gilbert, the first Black archaeologist, studied in Greece and the Congo. Faduma, the man from Guyana, went to Sierra Leone and took on a Yoruba name. He taught primarily in North Carolina.

The study of the Greco-Roman classics was not an obstacle for these scholars in discovering the precolonial African heritage. Rather, it was a gateway. They were forerunners of William Leo Hansberry, who kept notebooks of references to Africa and Africans among the Greco-Roman writers, and Lorenzo Dow Turner, who focused on African languages and creole linguistics. Turner studied the descendants—who have always been an archive of resistance—of the enslaved and how they communicated on the Sea Islands, located off the southeastern US coast in the Atlantic Ocean.

Contemporary scholarship in Scarborough’s name

With the support of the Methodist Church, William Sanders Scarborough was able to visit the United Kingdom and Europe three times. Yet he was never able to visit his beloved Greece. The American School of Classical Study at Athens, situated in the district of Kolonaki, recently funded a fellowship in his memory. They did so for independent scholars of under-represented groups specialising in antiquity studies. Scarborough was a forerunner of this.

Not to be outdone, William Sanders Scarborough completed another manuscript: “Questions on Latin Grammar.” His publishers doubted they could profit from it. For that reason, it was still in his desk drawer when he passed away. Competent authorities of his generation were not eager to publish superior works by Black scholars. They did not care to even to acknowledge their humanity. Nevertheless, as Ronnick has noted, while working alone at his desk, Scarborough experienced a form of liberation “through the cultivation of his own intellect.”

Although Scarborough’s works were rarely cited (or sighted for that matter) across the color line, he never gave up his studies. He had his Homer, Virgil, and new studies of the Gullah-Geechee dialect of southern coastal African-Americans. Out of these, the recognition of African vocabulary and cultural survival among the descendants of the enslaved later emerged. Unfortunately, however, that is a field that is still “Greek” for far too many.

By Matthew Quest

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