Life and Major Achievements of Alexander Twilight, the first Black man to obtain a college degree
A lot of firsts occurred during the lifetime of Alexander Lucius Twilight. He was the first African-American man to earn a bachelor’s degree, the first African-American to be elected into the Vermont House of Representatives, and he built Vermont’s first public granite building Athenian Hall.
Read on to learn more about the life of Twilight and how he transformed education in Vermont, paving the way for many African Americans to follow.
Early Life: Birth, African Descent, and Education
Twilight was born in 1795 in Bradford, Vermont to Ichabod and Mary Twilight. Both his parents were of mixed parentage: African and English. The name “Twilight” might have been given to them due to their complexions. It’s not known if his parents were slaves at some point in their lives. We do know for a fact that Ichabod fought in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). In 1798, together with his parents, the Twilight family moved to Corinth, Vermont.
Legally, Twilight was recognized as a white person. In 1810, there was a census and by that time, Ichabod had died. When the census taker arrived at the Twilights, he only met Mary, who appeared white, as well as her racially ambiguous children.
In his early teens, Twilight started working on a farm in Corinth as it was common practice in the early 19th-century United States. He also balanced his education with his job, studying subjects such as mathematics and science.
In 1815, he became a student at Orange County Grammar School. He was a good student, and when he graduated, he attended Middlebury College, where he stayed for two years. Upon his graduation in 1823, he became known as the first African-American to earn a bachelor’s degree from an American university.
Middlebury only made this claim in 1826 when Amherst College announced that its graduate Edward Jones was the first-African American to receive a bachelor’s degree. However, during Twilight’s time at Middlebury, the institution only enrolled white students. Though he was of African descent, many people saw him and his family as white.
A year after his graduation, Twilight moved to Peru in Clinton County, New York, where he took up a teaching job. It was also during that period that he courted and eventually settled down in 1826 with his wife Mercy Ladd Merrill.
Aside from teaching, Twilight also decided to study theology and was active in the church. He would even sometimes lead church services as the Champlain Presbytery awarded him with a preaching license. After spending four years as a teacher in Peru, he decided to move back to the city of Vergennes in his home state of Vermont.
The year 1829 was a big one for Twilight. He was promoted to principal of Brownington Academy and was also ordained as a minister. He also built a home for his family, which exists as of 2023.
In his desire to support students from out of town who attended his school, he decided to embark on a building project in the mid-1830s. By 1836, he had overseen the construction of a four-story dormitory called Athenian Hall. The dormitory was built with granite, making it the first public structure made with that material.
While in education, he also entered into politics. In the same year that Athenian Hall was completed, he was elected into the Vermont House of Representatives. This made him the first man of African descent to become a member of the state legislature.
After spending nearly 20 years at Brownington, the African-American educator resigned from his position as principal following a falling out between him and the school’s board of trustees. He traveled to Quebec, Canada, where he continued to teach for about five years.
Sadly, Brownington could not survive without Twilight’s direction. The school was forced to temporarily close down in 1852 due to low enrolment. Eventually, he was convinced to resume his position as principal, which he took on until his health declined in 1855.
Did you know…?
Other notable alumni of Middlebury College include Samuel Nelson, an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. American actor and comedian Jason Mantzoukas and Bill Maris, the founder of Google Ventures graduated from the college in the mid-1990s.
Personal Life, Beliefs & Death
Twilight and Mercy had no children throughout their marriage. Of the married couple, he was the first to die after suffering a stroke. Now partially paralyzed, the African-American scholar and preacher was forced to step down from his position at Brownington. He died in June 1857. Mercy died 21 years later in 1878.
While he was alive, he held several beliefs and wrote many sermons. Though he wasn’t an abolitionist, he viewed slavery as antiquated, abhorent, and out of touch with Christianity. He also spoke against alcohol consumption.
Here are some of Alexander Twilight’s major achievements, incredible feats that many African Americans that came after him drew heavily upon:
Alexander Twilight House & Athenian Hall
In the 1830s, Twilight oversaw the building of his family home and Athenian Hall. Today, his family house serves as home to the Orleans County Historical Society. Athenian Hall was transformed into the Old Stone House Museum.
Middlebury College named one of its halls Alexander Twilight Hall in honor of their famed alumnus.
Lyndon State College in Vermont also named its auditorium after Twilight.
A school in Sacramento, California called the Aspire Alexander Twilight College Preparatory Academy began its operations in 2009.
The Twilight Awards is an educational award program that rewards and recognizes teachers and schools. The initiative was named after the educator.
The hypo-descent rule
As its common in the U.S. to have the hypo-descent rule, a rule which marks a person as a particular race if he/she has any of that race ancestry, Alexander Twilight was certainly a man of color. Thus one’s racial identity emerges from the race that is furthest removed from whiteness.
Why didn’t Twilight identify as Black?
His college record marked him as white. This came as no surprise considering the fact that Middlebury admitted only white men. Alexander Twilight and many of his family members never identified as Black. It is possible that he did this in order to properly advance in his career and life, as America back then was rife with racial discrimination underpinned by the institution of slavery.
Who was Alexander Twilight?
Born: September 23, 1795; Corinth, Vermont, U.S.
Died: June 19, 1857; Brownington, Vermont, U.S.
Burial: Brownington Congregational Church, Vermont, U.S.
Parents: Ichabod and Mary Twilight
Wife: Mercy Ladd Merrill
Education: Randolph’s Orange County Grammar School (1815-1821), Middlebury College (1821-1823)
Did you know…?
- A portrait of Alexander Twilight was put up in the Vermont State House. He also featured in a 1996 Vermont Life Magazine article about Athenian Hall.
- For some time it was erroneously thought that Amherst College’s alumnus Edward Jones was the first African American to earn a college degree in the United States. Jones had graduated from the Massachusetts institution in 1826. Twilight graduated in 1823, a whole three years before Jones.