Alexander Crummell: One of the first black students at Cambridge
Although no one knows exactly when black students were first admitted to the University of Cambridge, there is evidence that some may have studied at or on the fringes of the university in the early 18th century. A Jamaican named Francis Williams is believed to have studied at Cambridge in the early 1700s, for example; a mixed race violinist called George Augustus Bridgetower was also awarded a degree for music he composed in 1812.
Alexander Crummell, however, is the first black student at Cambridge for whom official university records exist. There is ample evidence of his time at Cambridge and his name appears in Alumni Cantabrigiensis, a list of all known Cambridge students published in 1922. Dr Sarah Meer, university lecturer in English at the University of Cambridge, is giving a talk on Crummell on October 20th as part of the university’s Festival of Ideas.
Alexander Crummell was one of five children and born in New York in 1819. His father was a freed slave, reputedly an African prince brought from Africa to work for a wealthy merchant in the city; his mother was a freeborn woman from Long Island. In the 1820s, Crummell attended one of the primary schools set up by New York abolitionists to educate the children of freed slaves known as African Free Schools. He was then awarded a place at the Noyes Academy in New Hampshire, an experimental interracial secondary school founded in 1835 by New England abolitionists. When the school was attacked and destroyed, however, Crummell was forced to leave and enrolled at the Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York, where he trained to become a priest.
Crummell and his family were members of the Episcopal Church. The connections which this provided with Anglicans in Britain partly helped Crummell to secure a place at Cambridge. When he was finally ordained, he travelled to Britain to raise funds for his New York church. He preached about abolitionism and met powerful mentors, including Sir Benjamin Brodie, William Wilberforce and Thomas Babington Macaulay, who organised his preparatory training and interview and sponsored his studies at Queens’ College. Crummell studied at Cambridge from 1849 to 1853, which was at the time an important centre for the anti-slavery movement. Leading abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson and Wilberforce studied at Cambridge and were notably influenced by the abolitionist Master of Magdalene Peter Peckard…