William Saunders Scarborough- Scholar and Linguist
A little-known name in the history of African Americans is that of William S. Scarborough, noted to be the first Black classical scholar. Dr. Joseph A Bailey II, MD describes a scholar as “those whose thinking and feelings follow the gentle mathematical processes of Nature so as to arrive at Knowledge. And, upon continuing beyond, they get ever nearer to a Free Mind and its Wisdom. Whereas Knowledge is the manipulating and maneuvering of Spiritual ingredients to expand Rational Understanding in specific activities of daily living, Wisdom manipulates and maneuvers Spiritual Principles for Right Life Living. Both paths deal with acquiring whatever liberates the Mind (e.g. by language, conduct) from being hypnotized. The resultant Free Mind brings an end to confusion, conflict, disharmony, and illusions of reality and Fashions “ME/WE” benefits.” The title of linguist rests easy with Professor Scarborough as it means he was fluent in many languages. With William Scarborough’s Knowledge and his gift for languages, he was able to master a number of classical languages such as Greek and Latin, and turn that into a “ME/WE” benefit for his students when he wrote the textbook First Lesson in Greek.
William S. Scarborough was born in Macon, Georgia in 1852 to a free Black man and his mother, who was multi-racial, and Enslaved. According to his autobiography, he learned to read and write by the age of six from Free Blacks known through his father and by pretending to be playing in and around school houses while actually listening and learning. After hearing something, he would quickly get home to write down , in secret, what he had heard. At that period in our history, all involved in the process of teaching the Enslaved to read and write were breaking the law and there was a heavy price to be paid if caught. If a free person, there could be a heavy fine, and/or imprisonment. The Enslaved could be subject to a savage beating and cutting off of body parts. As Frederick Douglas said in his book, My Bondage and My Freedom, slave owners felt that teaching slaves to read and write “would forever unfit him for the duties of a slave” What that meant was that once the Enslaved had some education they would no longer be able to be controlled by the white owners and that would mean rebellion against a sadistic, evil system designed to make the owners a lot of money. William Scarborough knew that education was the way up and out for African Americans and that was the road he chose to take.
By the end of the Civil War, and with the beginning of Reconstruction, Black men and women were eager to get an education when and where they could. But there would be no organized effort from local white folks, so in 1865, the first Freedmen schools were established in Macon in the basements of African American churches and came under the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau was a part of the federal government established after the Civil War that was supposed to help the Enslaved who had been freed to become part of society at large. One of those ways was to teach Freed people to read and write. The schools were staffed with local teachers, two of which were white, and even some former Enslaved. However, after the schools were up and running, the Freedmen’s Bureau passed the responsibility of the schools over to the AMA or the American Missionary Association. I wasn’t long before the Black teachers were replaced or reassigned as assistants putting the Black residents of Macon out of jobs and Europeans back in top positions. This pattern was repeated in every major city in Georgia. It was at Lewis High, the first school to actually have its own building, that Mr. Scarborough received a high school education. It was the school of choice for Black families in Macon who wanted secondary and normal (teacher) training for their children. The cost for Lewis High was said to be 25-50 cents per month and the enrollments were high. After graduating from high school, Mr. Scarborough attended Atlanta University for a few years but ultimately graduated with his degree from Oberlin College in 1875.Upon graduating from Oberlin he returned to Lewis High School. Because he was a gifted linguist, skilled in many languages including Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and some Slavic languages, he taught classical languages at Lewis and also met his future wife there as she was the principal. When an arsonist set fire to the high school, Mr. Scarborough took a position as principal at the Payne Institute in Cokesbury, South Carolina. Payne Institute is now Allen University, named after Bishop Richard Allen founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church. At that time the mission of the Institute was to educate freed African American Enslaved and train them to be ministers and teachers. But Mr. Scarborough was there only a short time because he found the climate of hate and bigotry toward Black people worse than in Georgia. He then returned to Oberlin College to finish his master’s degree.
At the young age of 25, he held a position as a professor of Latin and Greek at Wilberforce College and wrote a book to help his students with Greek. In 1881 that book, First Lessons in Greek became the standard at colleges and universities throughout the nation including Yale University. It was in that same yearr that Mr. Scarborough became the first post master in Wilberforce. In 1882, he received his doctorate from Williams College and eventually went on to be chosen President of Wilberforce from 1908 to 1920.
It was his scholarship that allowed him to become only the third Black man to be asked to join the American Philological Association and the first to be asked to join the Modern Language Association. These are societies run by white folks with their dogma. From our vantage point today, we would wonder why he would want to become a part of these organizations, but keep in mind that Professor Scarborough had no other models to follow but European males as the standard set by white society. The educational and cultural systems at the time held the Greeks and Romans in such high esteem that this was the only avenue through which he could be socialized. The Philological Association now renamed the Society for Classical Studies is devoted to all aspects of the Greek and Roman civilizations. It was thought that all great thinking came out of Greece and Rome. He had no idea that the Greeks, after studying in Africa, brought back what they had learned, made changes and claimed it as their own. According to Joseph A. Bailey II, MD in his paper, Ancient Greeks, “..they converted foundational African concepts from being God-centered and Spiritual over to being ‘Man centered’ and Secular. Since the Greek city-states were the starting point of Western civilization their secular world- view shows in all aspects of today’s Western life, including explanations of the metaphysical.” What Professor Scarborough could not know at that time is that whereas Greek logic emphasizes what one should think when one thinks correctly, African logic emphasizes how one should think to build a solid, thoughtful structure. African Logic, which is mathematically based, is what is needed in order to do critical thinking!
Along with scholarship, Professor Scarborough was also very prominent in political activities at the state level. As a state central committeeman he organized civil rights leagues in his district that were concerned with the state of the Negro at that time and he was named a speaker to the Colored Men’s Conference in Pittsburgh in 1884. His ideas about scholarship and Black men were so strong that he openly challenged Booker T. Washington’s idea of industrial education for African Americans. He argued that African Americans were as capable as white people in reaching high levels of achievements in the liberal arts and he was an excellent example of that position.
After retiring from Wilberforce, he was appointed by President Harding to the United States Department of Agriculture remaining there until his death in 1926.
There are many interesting Black male and female scholars in our history which we are not made aware of . These are people we can study and learn from and be able to appreciate those such as Professor Scarborough. We can be proud of what he was able to accomplish in a time with many more obstacles for Black Americans. What we do know is that Ancient Africans were the smartest people to have walked this earth inventing mathematics, language, music, art and the sciences that we know of today such as physics , Astronomy, Astrology to name but a few. We also know that you share those same brilliant genetics with the Ancestors. To paraphrase Joseph A. Bailey, II MD.- By Black youth understanding their brilliant history , it might cause them to justify the reversal of their attacks on Black nerds from: “Are you trying to act white?” to the correct: “Are you trying to act Black?” The next step is to honor our Black Scholars past, present and encourage those of the future. By Sharon Bingaman RN