By Bethany Miller
From slavery to higher learning, Ohio University's first Black graduate, John Newton Templeton, dedicated his life to extending education to African-Americans long after also becoming the first student of color to receive an undergraduate degree in the Northwest Territory on Sept. 17, 1828. Now, 175 years later, the University still remembers his legacy.
Reminders of Templeton's commitment are strewn throughout campus. The first known dedication was the Edward C. Berry and the Alumni Gate in 1915. And on the 150th anniversary of Templeton's graduation in 1978, the University began The John Newton Templeton Award for Leadership and Academic Excellence and The John Newton Templeton Scholarship, both recognizing outstanding students of color.
The Templeton-Blackburn Memorial Auditorium is another reminder of his legacy, renamed in 1993 in honor of Templeton and the first Black female graduate, Mary Jane Hunley Blackburn. Also in remembrance of Templeton is the Templeton Scholar Program.
Templeton's journey to creating this well-known legacy began with his birth into slavery on a cotton plantation in South Carolina. Named after John Newton, the author of "Amazing Grace" and Rev. James Templeton, a southern abolitionist who strongly opposed slavery, he was born around 1807 in rural South Carolina. But liberation soon followed when he and his family were freed and taken to Ohio where Rev. Robert G. Wilson later learned of Templeton's gift and brilliant intellect. When Wilson became president of Ohio University in 1824, he offered Templeton the opportunity to pursue a higher education. The University's policy of admitting qualified male students regardless of color opened the doors to Templeton's academic opportunity.
Lacking the financial means to pay for his education, Templeton became Wilson's "college servant," a position later maintained by students of any color, in President Wilson's log cabin, now the Visitor's Center on campus and the oldest house in Athens.
Templeton was the first and only student of color at Ohio University; when on Sept. 17, 1828, he was one of 10 graduates in his class.
After commencement, extending education to African-Americans deprived of academic opportunities became a life-long goal of Templeton. He started his teaching career in Chillicothe and moved to Wheeling, W. Va., where he was arrested for teaching Blacks to read and to write. Undiscouraged, Templeton moved to Pittsburgh where he was the first teacher and principal of the first school for African-American children in the city.
Templeton continued his civic and educational activism when he became associated with Martin Robinson Delaney, a political activist who later became known as the father of Black Nationalism before Marcus Garvey. The team used an African-American newspaper to reach educational needs of Black adults.
Templeton's death in 1851 did not end his educational influence. His dedication to the pursuit of equal education opportunities will always be remembered by the many generations who follow in his pioneering footsteps.
Bethany Miller is a student writer with University Communications and Marketing. This article is based on research conducted by Connie Perdreau, director of education abroad.