African-Americans at the University at Albany
by Geoff Williams, University Archivist
Charlotte V. Usher was the first African-American student to attend the Normal School during the academic year 1858-59. There is no record of her graduation. Two thirds of students in the early years left school before completing the two-year course. A diploma was not required to teach and many students left for reasons of financial hardship. Her signature is in the registration book but no photos.
January 25: Evelena Williams was the first identifiable African-American graduate of the State Normal School. Williams taught and was principal for nine years in a one-room school house for African Americans in Jamaica, N.Y. She lost her job when the Jamaica schools were integrated in 1893 or 1894. She became a typist after losing her teaching position.
June 11: Georgine Sheldon Lewis of Albany earned a B.S. degree. She married a Mr. Wilkins and moved to Baltimore. After his death, she returned to New York State College for Teachers and earned an M.S. in 1931. She subsequently became a faculty member at Miner Teachers College in Washington, D.C., which later became a part of what is now the University of the District of Columbia. She
was the first African-American to earn a
graduate degree from the University and is believed to be the University's first African-American graduate to become a college faculty member.
June 21: James William Phillips graduated with a bachelor of arts degree. He is believed to be the first African-American male student to graduate from the school.
June: Warren R. Cochrane, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who rode the train to NYSCT, became the second African-American male graduate. An English major, he was active in his class where he was chairman of the Finance Committee. He had a distinguished career with the YMCA and as a civic leader. While serving at the Butler Street, Atlanta, Ga., YMCA, he organized Atlanta's first Negro Voters' League. He was appointed to a national civil rights commission by President Carter. He received the University's Distinguished Alumni Award in 1978. The award citation noted that Cochrane "has devoted his life to overcoming prejudices against Blacks by his endeavors in creating and maximizing economic, social, and political opportunities for Black Americans and minorities everywhere."
Augusta Baker, (1911-1998), B.A.'33, B.S. in library science,'34, was a well- known children's librarian, often considered "America's first lady of traditional storytelling." A storyteller with the New York Public Library and subsequently the University of South Carolina, she is believed to be the first African-American head of the children's department at the New York Public Library, where she served some 20 years as coordinator of children's services and storytelling specialist. She was the University of South Carolina's Storyteller-in-Residence from 1980 to 1994. Her legacy survives in "A(ugusta) Baker's Dozen," an annual celebration of storytelling in Columbia sponsored by the Richland County Public Library and the USC library school. More information >>
K. Leroy Irvis is believed to be the University's 3rd African-American male graduate. Irvis entered the New York State College for Teachers (NYSCT) in 1935 after spending a year as a student at the Albany Collegiate Center, a Depression-era two-year college run by the NYSCT. He was too young to be admitted to the NYSCT when he graduated from Albany High, and even too young in 1935, but he had demonstrated exceptional ability while a student at the Albany Collegiate Center and was admitted at the age of 15 (the minimum age for admission was 16) and graduated in 1938 at the age of 18 with a bachelor of arts degree, summa cum laude. Irvis earned his M.A. from the NYSCT in 1939, and moved to Baltimore, where he taught, and subsequently to Pennsylvania. Irvis was active in the NAACP, in boycotts of stores that wouldn't admit African-Americans. He subsequently earned his law degree from the University of Pittsburgh, and was elected to the Pennsylvania House. He became the first African-American Speaker of the Pennsylvania House and was recognized as a distinguished leader of the Pennsylvania House. He passed away in 2006. He received an honorary degree from Albany in 1986 in recognition of his achievements. More information >>
In 1946 the College community watched an Advanced Dramatics class performance of five scenes from Romeo and Juliet with a white Romeo, Arthur Collins '48, and an African-American Juliet, Mary Cheatum '49. This may be the first instance of a play done with a mix of white and African-Americans at the University.
John Jennings '49 was the first African-American president of the Student Association, 1948-49. This was at a time when there were very few African-Americans on campus —maybe five or six out of 1250 students. He had a prominent career in NYS Civil Services.
Daniel W. Joy '52 was winner of the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1997. The award citation noted that "as Justice in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Second Department, he is known for decisions blending significant compassion, understanding, and law." Joy received his J.D. degree from Brooklyn Law School, then devoted 25 years of his life to public service in the housing field, serving as Deputy Commissioner of New York City's housing department and overseeing the city's central heat complaint facility in Harlem. In 1983 he was elected to Civil Court of the City of New York.
Clyde Payne '57 was elected the second African-American Student Association President, 1956-57.
Ashley Bryan was hired by the Department of Chemistry as an associate professor in September 1961. He was granted continuing appointment with the rank of professor effective September 1963. Bryan was the first African-American faculty member. He served until his retirement in 1987.
Harriet Tucker '66 was elected the first African-American Homecoming Queen.
Robert Peterkin, B.A.'66, M.S.'76, is currently Director of the Urban Superintendents Program and Francis Keppel Professor of Educational Policy and Administration at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. His work focuses on the restructuring of urban public schools for educational equity and higher student achievement, most recently as a court-appointed monitor in a federal case settlement agreement involving an urban school district and plaintiffs of color. More information >>
Summer Session College Opportunity Program (COP) program was initiated and attracted a small number of inner-city students. The Educational Opportunities Program was launched in the fall with 164 minority students. Harry Hamilton, an African-American professor in the Physics Department, became the first director of EOP. Hamilton was also the chair of the Albany NAACP.
Fall: Department of Afro-American Studies was created. Seth Spellman served as first interim chair. The first permanent chair was Nathan Wright. The department adopted name of African and Afro-American Studies in 1974. In 1990 it was renamed the Department of Africana Studies.
Black Students' Alliance founded during 1969-1970 school year.
Victor K. Looper Jr.'70 is believed to be the first African-American member of the University Council, on which he served from 1972 to 1980. Also served as a member of the Alumni Association Board of Directors. Winner of the Excellence in Alumni Service award.
May: Sherrie Moore was the first EOP student to graduate.
September: EOP Student Association (EOPSA) founded by Black and Puerto Rican students.
October 26: Puerto Rican Organization for Liberation & Education formed as a separate entity within the EOP student body. It was the predecessor of Fuerza Latina.
First African-American dean was Seth Spellman. He served as the first and only dean of the James E. Allen Jr. Collegiate Center, a program that combined senior year of high school and freshman year of college, allowing a B.A. to be earned in three years. The program closed in 1976. Spellman would later serve as Dean of the School of Social Welfare.
First African-American head of a major university administrative office: Leon Calhoun, Director of Office of Personnel.
May 5: First Fountain Day celebration began as part of Mayfest. Fred Brewington '79, one of originators, is African-American. It originally took place on Human Awareness Potential Day (HAP Day). Student Association Vice President Brewington and Central Council Academic Affairs Committee Chair David Ruffo are generally credited as the originators of the idea for Human Awareness Potential Day, and by implication the celebration of the turning on of the campus fountains as a major student event. More recent information suggests that Philip Mussman'78, and a group of his friends in a club that played fight songs at football games, played a role in originating the idea for Fountain Day as a major student event.
First annual Martin Luther King Jr. Black History Month Luncheon.
First African-American to hold a vice-presidential office at the University was Frank Pogue, Vice President for Student Affairs, from 1983-1986.
Clyde Frazier Jr. '88 founded the Friends of Fredrick E. Samuel Foundation in Harlem in 1984. The Foundation eventually grew and became incorporated in 1991 as a non-profit foundation, offering job development, college recruitment, tutoring, teen-parent counseling and programs for senior citizens. Frazier was an investigator for the Revenue and Crime Bureau in the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. He was killed in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. More information >>
H. Patrick Swygert became the first African-American president of the University, serving until August 1995. He focused on strengthening the undergraduate experience and building the University's research mission. He launched the Campaign for Albany in 1991, the first fundraising initiative of its kind for the University. The campaign raised $55.3 million.
Zoraida Diaz B.S. '91, M.S. '94 recorded the most triples of any player ever in Division III women's softball and finished her sophomore season as the team's leading batter. As a junior, she was named to the All-Championship Team when the Lady Danes won the New York State Women's Collegiate Association Championship.
Shirley Jones, a member of the School of Social Welfare faculty, became the University's first African-American woman to be awarded the rank of Distinguished Service Professor, a designation for eminent faculty conferred by the State University of New York Board of Trustees.
October 21: Inaugural African-American, Latino, Asian and Native American (AALANA) event was held at The Madison in New York City. Clyde Frazier Jr.'88 was presented with "Distinguished Alumnus in Community Service" award for his volunteer efforts on behalf of New York City youth.
The Africana Studies master's degree program, the only one in the State University of New York system, was ranked second in the nation for the third year in a row by Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine.
Editor's Note: We want to build our archive of information about the history of African Americans at the University at Albany. If you have information to add, please email University Archivist Geoffrey Williams.