In Response to: The Color of Classics

William Sanders ScarboroughI wanted to call your attention to a bit of Princeton’s institutional history, which should be remembered amid the current controversies. 

The photo featured on this flyer is a former slave named William Sanders Scarborough (1852-1926). He was not only a classicist affiliated for 44 years with the American Philological Association and the presenter of 24 papers at its meetings, but also the first Black member of the Modern Language Association. In 2000 I established this point in the millennial edition of the PMLA, and in 2001 Professor Eddie Glaude *97 was the first to win the book prize the MLA had set up in Scarborough’s honor. 

In addition, Scarborough visited Princeton at least twice. In my edition, The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship (2005), Scarborough describes stopping at Princeton in 1875 shortly after graduating from Oberlin to visit his friend, Matthew Anderson, at Princeton Theological Seminary:

“My arrival created some anxiety as well as curiosity on the part of Princeton officials. No negro had ever entered the college proper, though some were in its seminary . . . It was rumored that I had come to take post-graduate work in the college. I have often wondered what would have happened had I made the rumored attempt, but I was only reconnoitering.” (p. 56)

Sixteen years later he was back in Princeton to present a paper, “Bellerophon’s Letters,” at the meeting of American Philological Association held there in July 1891. (p. 115)

Thus with Scarborough as example in Princeton and beyond, there is significant history of Black engagement with classics prior to the 21st century, and the Alumni Weekly could have given at least a nodding reference to it through Princeton’s own history.

Editor’s note: The author is a distinguished service professor in the Department of Classical and Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Wayne State University.

Michele Valerie Ronnick
Detroit, Mich.