Sharon E. Bingaman
In the present day we already know that Black youth in the United States are being grossly underserved in our educational system. Their educational needs are not addressed and they are not being taught by the correct methods of African Symbolic Imagery (ASI) and African Dialectic, as is discussed in Teaching Black Youth by Joseph A. Bailey II, MD. So many bright Black children falling by the wayside and with them may go the next breakthrough in countless areas known and unknown However, Black youth continue to strive for their places against all odds and show how mightily they can shine. Now, think back to an earlier time in this country when Black people were not even considered smart enough to be given the opportunity to attend the same school as white folks, if there was a school available to them at all. You see, there was a time when it was against the law to teach Black people to read, write and count.
Into this segregated society, Edward Alexander Bouchet was born in 1852. His parents had come north from South Carolina to Connecticut, his father having been a freed slave. William, his father, became prominent in the Black community and was very active as a deacon in the church along with being a janitor at Yale College and his Mother did the laundry for the students at Yale. Both parents recognized young Edward’s talents and were eager for him get the education they had been denied. They dreamed that one day their son would be among the ranks of graduates of Yale. And they chose to think big for their son as there had not been a Black person to ever attend Yale. In Edward Bouchet’s hometown of New Haven, the school system did not allow Black children to attend the public schools. There were only three schools for Black children in the town. These schools had nurturing Black teachers who knew how to connect with their students and were able to recognize the greatness in each pupil. In his school, the Artisan Street Colored School, the teacher was able to immediately see Edward Bouchet’s desire to learn and that he was destined to accomplish at a high level if the oppressive society would allow. He would go on to be accepted by the prestigious Hopkins Grammar School. Hopkins School is the third oldest independent secondary school in the United States and still in existence today. He gravitated to studies in Mathematics, History, Greek and Latin and in 1870, he graduated as Valedictorian. He and his family thought he was on his way.
In 1870, he entered Yale and continued to focus his studies on the sciences and mathematics but also French, Greek, German and Latin He was an outstanding student and in 1874 Edward Bouchet became the first Black person to be graduated from Yale and placed sixth in his class of 124. Based on his exceptional scholastic performance he was the first Black to be nominated to Phi Beta Kappa. He was not elected though until 1884-supposedly because of a need for reorganizing after a period of inactivity. After graduation, Edward Bouchet stayed on at Yale for two more years with financial support and the encouragement of Alfred Cope, a Philadelphia philanthropist. In 1876, He became the first Black person to earn a Ph.D. from an American university with his dissertation on geometrical optics and the sixth American of any race to earn a Ph. D. in Physics.
And so now what, you ask. Here was a Black man who had followed his dream and had broken so many barriers along the way only to find that there were more obstacles in his way. There was no place for him. No college or university would give him a faculty appointment. His earlier friendship with Alfred Copes paid off. There was a school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania called the ICY (Institute for Colored Youth) which was the city’s only high school for Black youth as that city was still segregated. Mr. Copes was a member of the board of managers and felt Mr. Bouchet a perfect fit for their needs and his. Board members at ICY knew that Black students were capable of achievements without limits, just as Edward Bouchet, and that these students were entitled to a classical education. In that year of 1874, Mr. Copes made a donation to ICY in the amount of $40,000 to set up a new science program in hope of enticing Dr. Bouchet to run the program and it worked. The ICY had played an important part in training thousands of Black teachers in order to provide the newly freed with the education they were hungry for.
For the next twenty-six years, Dr. Bouchet taught Physics and chemistry at ICY making a difference in the lives of the students. His goal was to instill in them the love of learning and exploration that he had enjoyed and to give them a chance at a better life. .Then in 1902 he resigned from his position when the college preparatory program was discontinued. There was a struggle in education whether to follow Booker T. Washington and his call for vocational training for blacks or the call of W.E. DuBois for academic education. New all-white board members emerged at ICY and, of course, replaced all the academic instructors with those favoring industrial training.
For the remainder of his career, Dr. Bouchet held various positions in different parts of the country and in and out of education. His last position was as principal of a high school in Ohio. A turn of health forced him to retire in 1913 and he returned to New Haven where he died in 1918.
This determined and talented Black man was an educational ground-breaker and met many challenges in his journey through life. Along the way, he achieved many firsts. He was the first Black person to graduate from Yale, the first Black person to be nominated for Phi Beta Kappa and the first Black person to earn a Ph.D. from an American university.
As has been the custom in the Black community, scholars are not recognized until after the fact, if at all. In 1998, Yale University put in place a tombstone in commemoration of him and the school’s graduate school of Arts and Sciences established an honor society that bears Dr. Bouchet’s name. Yale has also organized a Bouchet Leadership Award for those academics who help the cause of diversity in higher education. Some of our Black scholars wonder if they have had any impact at all on the Black community. A friend of Dr. Bouchet’s remarked after his passing that she had remembered him as probably the highest educated person in the area and that she knew he had inspired both Black and White students to see goals that they otherwise would have missed. She used her brother as an example noting that he became the first Black faculty member of Ohio State and said very clearly that it was because of the influence of Dr. Bouchet.