Image of Black Classicists Portrait Exhibition

In 2015-2016, BU hosted the exhibit “Portraits of Black Classicists, from Slaves to Scholars,” curated by Michele Valerie Ronnick, Professor of Greek and Latin at Wayne State University, and brought to Boston University by Stephen Scully, Professor of Classical Studies. It was on display at the Hillel House from November 2015 to January 2016 and then at the Howard Thurman Center from January 2016 to March 2016.

These 15 Black Classicists (1880s-1900’s), 13 men and two women, lived at a time when the nation – white and Black, men and women – was debating how Black people should be educated and what their place in society should and could be. Prominent African Americans, like Booker T. Washington, argued with passion and a sense of urgency that education for Black people should be utilitarian, what was called then “industrial training.” He founded Tuskegee University on that principle – and to this day it does not teach Greek or Latin, while others like W. E. B. Dubois insisted that “higher education” be open to Black people. Whites also engaged in this argument, many arguing that it was not suitable for Blacks to seek “higher education” as they were not intellectually capable of its rigors.

BU’s own John Wesley Edward Bowen spoke out strongly on this question in an article entitled “An Apology for the Higher Education of the Negro” (1897): “If a young Negro has a burning spirit within for something higher, a desire to study mathematics or science or Latin or Greek, he ought to have that desire gratified, and made into a cultured gentleman, a man of large ideas and broad vision, a leader of high character. … America cannot exist and perpetuate her institutions with one class free to be liberally educated and to pursue the instincts, ambitions, and aspirations of their nature within the limits of law, and another class hedged in, pressed back, discouraged from seeking the highest attainable culture, and shut up to elementary and industrial training. … Thought makes character. The better the thinker the better the workman. It is thought that rules the world, not money, and certainly not muscle or skill. The power to do a thing well comes from the power to think a thing well,… brain power comes from books, for books contain the crystallized thought and power of the ages.”

Exhibit Curator: Michele Valerie Ronnick, Professor of Greek and Latin, Wayne State University (Boston University PhD 1990); also editor of The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough (Detroit, 2005)