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An alum recently told us that he had just learned that Alexander Twilight—the first black person in America to receive a college degree—earned his degree from Middlebury in 1823. He wanted to know why we don’t speak more frequently about this amazing man and this noteworthy historical fact.

His question made me think—not only about Alexander Twilight but also about a contemporary of his, Emma Willard. Even if you don’t know much about these two people, their legacies of fierce independence and determination have been woven into our collective consciousness and have helped form our institutional character. They continue to shape us today, more than 188 years later.

Twilight didn’t see boundaries to his capabilities or his place in society. He didn’t let other people’s views of what he should be deter him. When he thought something needed to happen, he put himself front and center to make it happen—beginning with his determination to get an education.

Alexander Twilight was known for his "iron will." He was the first African American to earn a college degree.

For 12 years, beginning at the age of eight, he worked as a farm laborer, possibly as an indentured servant; yet, he found a way to learn to read, write, and do math. He finally enrolled in grammar school at the age of 20 and later entered Middlebury as a junior because he had completed two years of college-level work by then. Twilight continued on as a gifted educator, minister, and legislator, becoming a significant force for change in his community. Stories about him refer to his “iron will,” a quality we prize at Middlebury.

Emma Willard ran a women’s school in her home very near the College. Her nephew attended Middlebury, and as she learned about the things he was studying, she realized that her own students, indeed women everywhere, were being shortchanged because they were not taught “higher subjects,” such as mathematics.

When Willard asked permission for her students to audit some classes, she was flatly refused. So, with fierce determination to do what she believed was necessary, she wrote a treatise, “A Plan for Improving Female Education,” which was read by many power makers of her day, including President Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.

Emma Willard didn't take "no" for an answer, and she changed women's education forever.

It induced New York’s governor to invite her to open a school there; Willard changed women’s education forever.

Both Willard and Twilight had an appetite for challenging the norm. As an institution, we value that quality and expect it of ourselves. Indeed, many Middlebury students today follow in their path—of getting things done regardless of the vessel they inhabit, male, female, black, white, or whatever it might be. The world of the 21st century requires nothing less.

If Alexander Twilight and Emma Willard, two people so marginalized on so many levels, could imagine themselves as transcending the boundaries of what society expected back then, then any Middlebury student today can do the same. Why not tap into their spirit?

What’s your internal drive? Where do you hesitate to go, intellectually, socially, and culturally? What would happen if you just decided to do it?  (To comment, click on “comments,” directly beneath the post title.)

Learn more about Alexander Twilight here and also here. Learn more about Emma Willard here.

13 Responses to “Status Quo or Status Why Not?”

  1. Moriel Rothman says:

    Great post, Shirley. Thanks for sharing this. We certainly could benefit from tapping into the legacies of Twilight and Willard, and this post is a great beginning (even talking about the two of them is a start, and I plan on going through my day with both of them on my mind).
    So, thanks!

  2. Jay Saper says:

    Thank you Dean Collado for recognizing such admirable people. Mori, I do agree that I will go on through my day with both of them in mind, but perhaps for a different reason. How exactly is it that an alumn could have just recently learned about Alexander Twilight? For some reason I am not convinced this person could not have named other distinguished alumni (but I am sure they would have been white). How does racism affect the history of Middlebury we tell? How come the only building named after a black person on campus is farther away and darker than the rest?

  3. Cedar Attanasio says:

    Nice post, Shirley.
    I have always been proud to be associated with these two historical personages, however indirectly. However, I certainly am hesitant to embrace their legacies.
    Perhaps this is because of how little I know (and or is known) about Twilight. My previous efforts to research Twilight yielded little recognition or illustration of his racial obstacles, and we are forced to fill in the blanks (his poverty situation is more clear). With respect to Emma Willard, who I’ve studied a little more closely, I’m appreciative of her impact and overcoming of obstacles. I’m not, however, ready to endorse her ideas, such as the unfettered nationalism and Eurocentricity of her educational vision. So, you’ll pardon my lack of enthusiasm for individuals who overcome personal obstacles so that they can join and thereby reinforce the status quo. I understand the desire to ground one’s self in the Middlebury Legacy, and find heroes in its past. I’m just saying that might be contrived.

  4. Hudson Cavanagh says:

    I think its great that we acknowledge our institutional history and the major figures in it; however, I agree with Cedar that we may be misrepresenting some facts about Middlebury’s historical figures.

    Although Alexander Twilight was certainly part black, he was actually, as we can see from his picture, very white looking, which could have contributed greatly to why he was able to get through Middlebury. From what I have been able to find and what I have been told in the past is that the majority of his direct ancestors were actually white: his mother was white was his father was mixed race. This revelation, in addition to his Caucasian appearance makes the claim that he was the first black man to graduate college a little misleading. This is in no means a moral comment on his “iron will,” by all accounts he came up from poverty and went on to live a very successful life, however, his life arc was probably influenced by the fact that in many contexts he could pass for white.

    While I believe we should proudly embrace the historical figures associated with us, I believe we at Middlebury are much less defined by tradition than by our vision of the future. Our institutional strength is that we are constantly evolving so, despite our association with important historical figures, we are defined by those who have yet to make an impact. The only status quo I believe our community should embrace is critical awareness of ourselves and our global environment and a commitment to self-improvement.

  5. hector vila says:

    Very inspiring, Shirley. And following this past weekend’s PPR, thinking about the question, “would you give your life for your country?”, which I think parallels your post in some ways, I said to myself, “I’ve been a teacher for 26 years, I think I do that.”

    To teach and to live among 18 – 24 year olds is a challenge to one’s imagination and will — I feel it this week given my exhaustion. Both Twilight and Willard, as we note their respective accomplishments, did very simple things, small things: educate themselves and others by being grounded in the moment; they occupied this moment by imagining something else, something different.

    Given our state of affairs, now thinking globally, the biggest challenge I see is to imagine. I find that this is a place we’ve yet to inhabit.

    Thank you for your work, Shirley!

  6. Carol Peddie says:

    Thanks Shirley for bringing creativity and innovation back to the forefront.

    I’d love to hear more not only on the questions you ask “What’s your internal drive? Where do you hesitate to go, intellectually, socially, and culturally? What would happen if you just decided to do it?” but also on WHY people don’t just do it – are there obstacles here that make others hesitate or shy away from their internal drives? Or do they just need to see some others succeed prior to taking their own first steps?

  7. Hanna Mahon says:

    Thanks for your post, Shirley. While I agree that changing the status quo is extremely important, I do think that the administration needs to do more to facilitate this sort of self-motivated action for social change at the school. For instance, why is it so hard for students to become Independent Scholars? To me, working to major in something you are passionate about is exactly this sort of boundary-transcending work both Twilight and Willard would support (though on a smaller scale, to be fair). Additionally, why is it impossible for students to help improve the curriculum? The Peace and Justice Coalition (formally the Peace and Conflict Studies Club) has reached out to countless faculty members and administrators to develop a peace studies program at Middlebury and right now we are at somewhat of an impasse because we have been told that as students we have no say in the matter. Further, why can there only be one student-organized symposium a semester and countless faculty-organized ones?

    If administrators like you truly want students to understand that it is acceptable for us to challenge the status quo you have to demonstrate that you respect our efforts for change on a school level. If you do not want students to feel discouraged by bureaucracy and by administrators working to maintain the status quo, you need to create a space for students to enact change right here and right now.

    Thanks for addressing this issue, it means so much.


  8. Tara Affolter says:

    Thanks for bringing this up Shirley. I smiled as I read about Alexander Twilight. I agree with Jay that there continues to be a type of marginalization of Twilight’s legacy at Middlebury. Thanks for helping us think about whose footsteps we walk in and how we can work to challenge the status quo.

    I also want to applaud your willingness to open yourself to comments and reflections. Students trust you and are inspired by your work (see the comments above both the challenges and praise) to attest to this.

    I say it as much as I can, but I am really happy you are here.


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