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Throwback Thursday: When Black History Began at UAlbany

The 19th Century signatures of Charlotte V. Usher, at left, and Evelena Williams surround the photo and yearbook inscription of Georgine Sheldon Lewis. (Photos courtesy of University Archives

ALBANY, N.Y. (February 16, 2017) — For much of UAlbany's history until the Educational Opportunities Program was born on campus in the fall of 1968, the University's student body and faculty racially were predominantly white — by a wide margin.

Enrollment of African-Americans was usually fewer than 10 per class through the mid-'60s, but this included notable figures. Among them were Student Association presidents John Jennings '49 and Clyde Paine '57. Mary Cheatham '49 played the female lead in an Advanced Dramatics production of Romeo and Juliet. (Her Romeo was a white student, Arthur Collins '48, who went on to a distinguished UAlbany faculty career in the Department of English). The brilliant K. Leroy Irvis '38 graduated summa cum laude at the age of 18 and went on to become the first African-American Speaker of the Pennsylvania State House.

But milestone figures came much earlier than that. Charlotte V. Usher (whose signature is at left in the photo above) was the first African-American student to attend the then 14-year-old institution known as the Normal School, during the academic year 1858-59. There is no record of her graduation, but this was not unusual for the school's students: two-thirds left before completing the two-year course. Financial hardship was one reason, but another was that even one year of classes often allowed students to move on to a good teaching career.

The first confirmed African-American graduate of the school was Evelena Williams (signature at right) in 1884. After graduation, Williams taught and was principal for nine years in a one-room school house for African Americans in Jamaica, N.Y.

The Normal School became the four-year New York State Normal College in 1890, but had to wait 21 years for its first African-American graduate: Georgine Sheldon Lewis, who earned a B.S. degree in June of 1911. Alongside her photo in the school yearbook — that year called Our Book — was listed her maiden name, Georgine Lewis, her hometown of Troy, N.Y., an inscription from Act III, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (spoken by the title character), "I am constant as the northern star," and her membership in Borussia, a German study society.

Twenty years later, after the death of her husband, Lewis returned to what had become the New York State College for Teachers and earned an M.S. in 1931, becoming the first of her race to earn a graduate degree from the institution. She is believed to have achieved another first: the University's first African-American graduate to become a college faculty member, when she acquired a position with Miner Teachers College in Washington, D.C., now part of the University of the District of Columbia.

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