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Before Green and Bouchet, another African American Yale College grad. Maybe.

Just last Friday, we told you that the first African American to graduate from Yale College was not Edward Bouchet in 1874, but Richard Henry Green in 1857. Since then, though, we've been reminded of two other nineteenth-century alumni whose histories complicate—or problematize, as they like to say in the academy—our attempt to name the first African American graduate.

The most fascinating case surrounds Moses Simons, Class of 1809, who is, oddly enough, considered to be Yale's first Jewish graduate. (Dan Oren ’79, ’84MD, makes that case for Simons in his book Joining the Club: A History of Jews at Yale.) But two scholars, relying almost exclusively on an account of an 1818 criminal assault trial in New York, have advanced the claim that Simons was African American—most likely, they say, the son of a Jewish man, also named Moses Simons, and of an African American mother.

Simons's family

The evidence surrounding Simons's early life is scarce. It's not even entirely clear who his father was, although he was almost certainly one of five brothers named Simons who emigrated from London to South Carolina in the 1770s and '80s. But Adam Wolkoff, a doctoral candidate in history at Rutgers, has shown that four of the Simons brothers, all of whom were slaveholders, "appear to have left significant portions of their estates to free blacks, including their mixed-race children and 'housekeepers.'" The fact that one of the brothers, Montague, fathered a mixed-race child is documented in court records. While no evidence from their South Carolina roots proves that the younger Moses Simons himself had an African American mother, Wolkoff argues that it is certainly possible, given the family history.

There is similarly scant evidence about Simons's career at Yale—and at the Litchfield Law School, where he studied after he earned his bachelor of arts. Yale records confirm his graduation and that he came from Jacksonboro, South Carolina, where some of the Simons brothers lived, but nothing in those records indicates anything about his race.

Simons obtained an apprenticeship in Albany with New York's attorney general after law school. In 1816, he began practicing law in New York City, where he circulated comfortably among socially prominent white friends and colleagues. But his career was thrown off track in 1818 by the aftermath of what seems to have been a racial insult.

The sole known source for that story—the best evidence that Simons was a person of color—is the New York City Hall Recorder, an influential legal periodical of the time in which a man named Daniel Rogers summarized court proceedings in the city. Wolkoff happened on the story a few years ago, as did another scholar working independently of him: Laura Copland, an assistant dean of faculty affairs at Eugene Lang College.

An insult to his honor

As Rogers told it, Simons and his brother attended a public dance put on by a French dance instructor in New York on December 20, 1817, then returned again the next night. On that second night, after Simons's brother danced with "the handsomest girl in the school," several men complained to the host about the presence of the "two coloured men" at the dance. The host, one Charles Berault, told the brothers of the complaints, and they agreed to leave.

On January 8, 1818, Berault hosted another dance, and Simons (without his brother) bought a ticket and tried to gain admittance. Berault refused him at the door, explaining again the objections of others to his presence. Simons asked to know who objected, and when Berault refused to answer, Simons slapped him, saying: "if you will not give me up the names, then take this!"

At Simons's subsequent trial for assault, his lawyers essentially argued that he was provoked by an insult to his honor. (Their defense was unsuccessful; the jury found him guilty, and he was fined ten dollars.) They brought forth prominent character witnesses to testify to his importance and good reputation, but they did not—at least in Rogers's account—argue that Simons was not in fact "colored." As Wolkoff puts it in an unpublished paper, "They apparently never attempted to prove that Simons was, by ancestry, not black, nor did they discuss his Jewish heritage. They implied his whiteness by association with institutions of power in the early republic, from Savannah’s merchant halls, to Yale College and Litchfield Law School, to a clerkship with the prominent Federalist politician Abraham Van Vechten."

Testimony from witnesses supports the idea that Simons was perceived as a person of color. One of his character witnesses, former French emissary Edmond-Charles Genêt (a pause here for history geeks: yes, that's the guy from the Citizen Genêt affair), told the court that when he and Simons were in Albany, there existed "no other prejudice against him except on account of his complexion." The keeper of Tammany Hall said that on more than one occasion, Simons had been dining there when "Southern gentlemen" objected to his presence, and he had quietly left.

At this point, you might wonder if Copland and Wolkoff—and we—are reading this all wrong: maybe all these racial references are about Simons being—or looking—Jewish. But Rogers made plain what he thought Simons's heritage was in a lengthy editorial comment appended to his description of the case. Rogers's racist screed acknowledged the moral wrong of slavery but argued against giving African Americans an equal social footing, suggesting that miscegenation is the inevitable outcome. "Let not the African tinge mantle on the cheeks of our descendants," he wrote. Rogers essentially recommended that the legal community shun Simons.

Copland points out that Simons's law practice seems to have declined after this incident; Rogers's article may have been a kind of "outing" of Simons to a community that had either not known about his heritage or had chosen not to ask questions. "There's a period after the trial where he doesn't show up at all," says Copland, "then he shows up representing a black woman named Sarah Heddy, who was accused of stealing a hat." It was his first recorded black client, Copland adds. Simons left New York for London in 1821, and he died there a year later.

What does it mean to be first?

So what do we make of Moses Simons? The incomplete record of his life makes it hard to say for sure that he was African American, only that he was perceived as such by some people. If he was, his graduation from Yale College in 1809 would make him the first known African American to graduate from any American college, 14 years before Alexander Lucius Twilight graduated from Middlebury.

But the complication arises over what we seek to document or celebrate when we identify a "pioneering" African American. The case of Edward Bouchet is clear enough. He was the son of a former slave and was apparently identified as a person of color before, during, and after his time at Yale. He undoubtedly faced all the prejudice and obstacles that African Americans faced in his time: even after he earned his PhD, he had trouble finding a job in higher education and instead taught high school.

Richard Henry Green, whose father helped found a historically black church in New Haven, was identified as "colored" in the 1840 census, "mulatto" in 1850, and "black" in 1860. But he is listed as white in the 1870 census, when he was practicing medicine in upstate New York, and his wife, daughter, and their descendants were identified as white people. Was he perceived as black at Yale?

And what about Simons? "At a minimum," says Wolkoff, "he came from an extremely complicated family situation." The record of his trial suggests that he may have toed a difficult line, being recognizably African American in appearance but carving out for himself a kind of "whiteness by association," as Wolkoff put it. Living with such a fragile identity must have carried its own burdens, but they were different ones from Bouchet's.

Another candidate

Finally, let's talk briefly about one more Yale man of African descent. Randall Lee Gibson, Class of 1853, grew up on a sugar plantation in Louisiana, the descendant of a family of wealthy white planters and slave owners. He was a colonel in the Confederate army, fought to defend the institution of slavery, and called black people “the most degraded of all races of men.’’ He became a US senator from Louisiana after Reconstruction.

But as Vanderbilt law professor Daniel Sharfstein ’00JD detailed in his book The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, Gibson's great-grandfather Gideon Gibson came to South Carolina in the 1790s as a "free man of color" with a white wife. By Randall Gibson's time, the family explained any dark complexion in the family as Gypsy or Portuguese roots, Sharfstein says. It was only after a political rival asserted in the pages of the New York Times that Senator Gibson was black that he learned the truth about his family.

So what now? Is Simons the first African American to graduate from Yale College? Or, if you consider the evidence for Simons incomplete, can it possibly be Randall Lee Gibson, who was four years before Richard Henry Green and one-eighth African American, more or less?

Or perhaps we should simply continue to celebrate the people of color who broke barriers to their people's success. And, if someone asks who the first African American graduate of Yale College was, we can answer that—like so much about the history of race in America—"it's complicated."


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Richard Henry Green, Edward Bouchet, Moses Simons, Randall Lee Gibson
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