Claiming an Education: Early Black American Humanists
This exhibit explores the growth of the humanities in the community, from the perspective of the Black Americans who first studied and worked in and around Athens County.
Central figures in this exhibit include John Newton Templeton, who in 1828 became the university’s first Black American graduate, and Martha Jane Hunley Blackburn, who was the first Black American woman to graduate, having had to find her own housing in Athens during her stay.
“The exhibit also spotlights institutions such as the Albany Enterprise Academy, an academy founded in 1863 so Black students would have access to higher education. Finally, space is given to discussion of Black American literature penned by educators and storytellers from the region.
Eventually, freedom from bondage and personal connections led to the creation of Black American and mixed-raced communities throughout the Ohio River Valley. John Newton Templeton became the first Black American to earn an advanced degree in Ohio and is believed to be the fourth Black college graduate in the country.
Milton Holland formed a Black military unit in Albany, the Attucks Guard, training his men at the Athens fairgrounds. Joseph Corbin Carter started as a teaching assistant at the age of 15 and and went on the help create University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
John McHenry Jones published the novel Hearts of Gold, challenging conventional thinking about a range of topics including racism, systemic injustice, lynchings, interracial relationships, and forced labor. James Edwin Campbell moved to Chicago and became a staff writer for the Chicago Times-Herald and wrote two volumes of poetry.
Olivia Davidson built the Tuskegee Institute with her husband Booker T. Washington. Connie Perdreau pursued groundbreaking research in the area of Black history of Ohio University and Southeast Ohio. Edwin Curmie Price became Ohio University’s first Black faculty member when he was hired by the English Department in 1963.
Barbara Ross-Lee was born in 1942 and determined to pursue a career in medicine at a time when there were few female physicians. Carolyn Lewis was born in heavily segregated Bluefield, West Virginia, and in 1971 she became the first Black woman to graduate from the Perley I Reed School of Journalism at West Virginia University.
On Dec. 1, 1968, a group presented then Ohio University President Vernon Alden with a list of six demands. One of those demands was for a Black “curriculum with full University accreditation, which would be created, administered, and directed by black professors and students.”
From about 1850 to 1863 Albany, Ohio, located about ten miles from Athens, served as an important station on the Underground Railroad. The town became a regional educational hub as well as a safe place for free Black Americans, including freedom seekers, and recently freed Black Americans, to settle, and soon a community was established.
Charles Smith's play Free Man of Color dramatizes the life of John Newton Templeton, a freed person and the first Black man to graduate from Ohio University. Virginia Hamilton was an internationally celebrated children’s book author. Zakes Mda is an acclaimed and prolific novelist, playwright, painter, and poet with several ties to Athens, Ohio.
Several prominent Black journalists began their careers at Ohio University. One of the first Black graduates of the university’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism was Alvin C. Adams, Jr., followed by columnist Clarence Page. Eddith Dashiell is the director of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.
Mount Zion Baptist Church, at the intersection of Carpenter and Congress Streets in Athens, served as a central religious institution and gathering place for southeastern Ohio’s Black community for most of the 20th century. In 2013, the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society was formed to restore and maintain the building as a Black cultural, educational, and arts center.
The Multicultural Genealogical Center in Chesterhill, Ohio, is a major repository for research about Black history in southeastern Ohio. Nelsonville, Ohio, native Ada-Woodson Adams (1939- ) and her late husband Alvin C. Adams were among the many people who co-founded the center to retrieve and preserve documents that might otherwise have been lost or ignored.