John Newton Templeton: His legacy lives on
By Connie Perdreau
John Newton Templeton became the first African American to graduate from Ohio University Sept. 17, 1828. This is the first in a three-part series in honor of the 175th anniversary of his historic achievement.
What does the legacy of John Newton Templeton mean for us at Ohio University as we celebrate our Bicentennial Anniversary? First of all, by becoming the fourth African American in the country and the first in the former Northwest Territory to earn a college degree in 1828, he left us a milestone in the history of Ohio University and the history of Black Americans in U.S. higher education.
By graduating from Ohio University in 1828, Templeton placed Ohio University among the ranks of Amherst College (1826), Bowdoin College (1826), Dartmouth College (1828), as one of the first American institutions of higher learning to admit and confer a degree upon a student of color. All of us affiliated with Ohio University, regardless of color, can indeed be proud of this remarkable achievement in the early history of American higher education.
Templeton's personal life-long pursuit of devoting himself to promoting literacy and access to education to those who had been denied such opportunity, even if it meant being jailed for doing so, permeated the span of his entire professional life from 1828 until his death in 1851. This leads us to the second great legacy of John Newton Templeton that continues today in his spirit at Ohio University: Templeton scholarship awards to students of color and those for whom access to a higher education has been an obstacle.
Certainly Templeton, who had to work his way through the University as "the college servant" while maintaining a superior academic record, personally experienced the financial struggle of trying to make ends meet while simultaneously performing well in his classes. The Templeton Scholarship program, originally established in 1978, upon the 150th anniversary of Templeton's graduation, is singularly appropriate to commemorate this focus on rewarding students demonstrating academic excellence with the funding to pursue a college degree.
The third major legacy is a lasting testimonial to Templeton's activism for social justice, political engagement and leadership skills. The John Newton Templeton Award for Leadership and Academic Excellence was first awarded at the 1978 Ohio University commencement ceremony with the recognition of an Ohio University graduating student of color. Templeton would have been especially proud of this because he was known as "a race man," that is to say, he was strongly committed to bettering the conditions for black Americans in this country.
From his graduation speech on "The Claims of Liberia" to his frequent role as an officer in a variety of Associations of Colored Freedmen, Templeton showed his commitment to racial equality and made use of his Ohio University education to deplore slavery and discrimination in a most eloquent oratorical manner. Unlike the first three black American college graduates, Templeton chose to remain in the United States his entire life and fight the struggle for justice and equality here in the country in which he was born. He was committed to making the American dream accessible to all.
The impact of John Newton Templeton's presence here at Ohio University is shown each time a student of color earns a college degree, each time a student receives a scholarship or leadership award in his time, each time there is a student project or protest in the name of social or racial justice, each time a new student leader of color emerges and each time an alumnus seeks to promote education as the hope of the race. We must never forget that John Newton Templeton did it first.
Connie Perdreau, director of education abroad, has done extensive research on the life of John Newton Templeton and other historical people of color at Ohio University and throughout Southeast Ohio.