Contemplating Colgate’s Extensive History

On Wednesday, October 14, Visiting Assistant Professor of History and Colgate Bicentennial Research Fellow Jason Petrulis presented his lecture “Teaching Colgate’s History” as a part of the University Libraries Colloquium Series. During the session, Petrulis explained his goals, findings and reactions from teaching the course History 312: History of Colgate last spring.

“It was a workshop in learning how to use archival material, learning how to frame a research question and how to do public history,” Petrulis said. In honor of Colgate’s bicentennial year in 2019, Petrulis hoped his class would uncover parts of Colgate’s history that may have been overlooked or lost over time and, in the process, include more voices in the telling of its history.

At the center of Petrulis’ study were Colgate’s earliest students of color. He presented records from 1826 of seven Native Americans students educated at the Hamilton Literary and Theological Institution, which later became Colgate University. These seven students were believed to be some of the first racial minority students educated alongside white students at any institution, as most early formal education for Native American students was segregated, as was the case with education at Harvard University and Dartmouth College.

Additionally, from the school archives, Petrulis and his students pieced together that the first Chinese student educated at Colgate attended from 1840 to 1842. This student, Julian Ahone, was one of the first ten, if not the first six, Chinese students educated in the United States at any grade level at that time, and likely the first admitted to an American university.

However, the first student of color who completed his education and graduated from Colgate was Samuel J. Smith in 1946. Petrulis explained how Smith was born to a Portuguese-Indian mother and an English father in Kannur, India. After losing his parents, he migrated to join American

missionaries in Burma and was then educated in the United States.

Less than ten years later, the first African American student, Henry Livingston Simpson, graduated from Colgate in 1853. It was noted that Simpson was likely one of the first 30 African American students to graduate from a university.

Colgate University was also mentioned in W.E.B Dubois’ “The College-bred Negro” study in 1900. Dubois collected reports from universities to survey how many African American students had graduated from each college. At this point in history, just under 400 African Americans graduated from institutions that included white students. Dubois listed Colgate as among the top ten integrated institutions in the United States.

“The history of students of color is something a lot of other institutions celebrate and mark,” Petrulis said. However, Colgate lost track of knowing this information, and Petrulis is working to get this information back into circulation.

To the best of his knowledge, Petrulis knew of only one building at Colgate named after a person of color, and he encouraged the school to commemorate other graduates of color on campus in this way. He noted that Colgate alum Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. ’30, a prominent congressmen and civil rights activist, has a statue in the middle of Manhattan but that there is nothing on Colgate’s campus to memorialize him.

The Batza Room in Case-Geyer Library was filled with students and faculty from a range of departments, curious about Colgate’s history. Senior Alex Schaff was one such student, expressing his view on the importance of learning about the university’s past.

“I would like there to be much more awareness of our history of Colgate because it would give me insight into the people that have evolved this place into what we see it as today,” Schaff said. “I would feel more connected to this institution if I knew of my place within its vast narrative.”