Lucy Stanton, Educator and Abolitionist, Was the First African American Woman to Graduate from College

Lucy Stanton from the Oberlin College Archives (source)

Lucy Stanton from the Oberlin College Archives (source)

On August 27, 1850, Lucy Stanton proclaimed the coming day when slavery would be abolished and encouraged the women at her commencement exercises at Oberlin College to be on the right side of history. She moved them with stories of women torn from their children and a brother killed in an attempt to protect his sister. She also connected the abolition of slavery to women’s rights, saying that “the freedom of the slave and the gaining of our rights, social and political, are inseparably connected, let all the friends of humanity plead for those who may not plead their own cause.” 

She called on the women to do their Christian duty and join the fight. “Woman, I turn to thee. Is it not thy mission to visit the poor? To shed the tear of sympathy? To relieve the wants of the suffering? Where wilt thou find objects more needing sympathy than among the slaves!”

Lucy was born free, but she had a passion to see others free as well. Born on October 16, 1831 in Cleveland, Ohio, she was the daughter of Samuel and Margaret Stanton. Samuel died before Lucy’s second birthday and her mother soon married John Brown, a wealthy businessman. Brown was an abolitionist and the family became involved in the Underground Railroad, often hiding as many as 13 runaway slaves in their home at one time. He also organized the city’s first school for African Americans, the Cleveland Free School, which Lucy attended.

In 1846, Lucy enrolled at Oberlin Collegiate Institute, later Oberlin College, where she became involved in the Ladies’ Literary Society and was elected its president. She completed the four-year Ladies’ Liberty Course, which is recognized as the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, becoming the first known African American woman to graduate from college. (Mary Patterson graduated in 1862 as the first African American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree.) Her commencement address, “A Plea for the Oppressed”, was a response to the Fugitive Slave Act, which was expected to pass later in the year. It was well-received and reprinted in the Oberlin Evangelist.

After graduation, Lucy became the principal of a school in Columbus, Ohio, a position she held for two years until she returned to Cleveland and married William Howard Day on Nov 25, 1852. Day was a prominent abolitionist, a librarian, and the editor-in-residence of the abolitionist newspaper Aliened American, Cleveland’s first newspaper specifically for African Americans. In 1854, she published “Charles and Clara Hays” in the Aliened American, the first published short story by an African American woman.

In 1856, the couple moved to the Elgin Settlement in Buxton, Canada to run a school for escaped slaves. The Elgin Settlement was a community established by the Rev. William King, a former slave owner turned abolitionist. King purchased 9000 acres and relocated there with 15 of his former slaves to create a refuge for fugitive slaves from the United States. While at Elgin, their only child, Florence, was born. A year later, William traveled to England to raise money for the settlement and when he returned he asked Lucy for a divorce.

Elgin Settlement is not the site of the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum (source)

Elgin Settlement is now the site of the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum (source)

Lucy moved back to Cleveland and worked as a seamstress to support her daughter, but she also requested a position with the American Missionary Association. Because she was married, but estranged from her husband, the Association questioned her morality and required endorsements of her character. Lucy’s character had always been above reproach and she had no trouble gathering endorsements from religious and community leaders in Cleveland. In spite of this, the AMA rejected her.

The Cleveland Freedman Association, however, welcomed the opportunity to employ someone of her character and education. So in 1866, they sponsored her to move to Georgia, and later Mississippi, to teach in schools for newly freed slaves. It was in Mississippi that she met Levi Sessions. Having received her divorce in 1872, Lucy and Levi married in 1878 and moved to Tennessee.

In Tennessee and later in Los Angeles, California, Lucy continued her activism and philanthropic work. She was an officer in the Women’s Relief Corps, a grand matron of the Order of Eastern Star, and in Tennessee the president of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Like many black women, Lucy’s accomplishments are often overlooked and not as well documented as her white counterparts. She lived a life of purpose, promoting education and the rights of African Americans and women until she died on February 18, 1910 in California.

Resources

Sessions, Lucy Stanton Day (1831-1910) at BlackPast.org Remembered & Reclaimed
A Plea For the Oppressed by Lucy Stanton at BlackPast.org
“I Shall Have Your Sympathy, If Your Judgment Refuses Me Your Support”: Lucy Stanton
Day, the American Missionary Association,and the Politics of Respectability at Oberlin
College Archives
ALIENED AMERICAN – The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
STANTON (DAY SESSIONS), LUCY ANN – The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
Lucy Stanton at Wikipedia

 

2 thoughts on “Lucy Stanton, Educator and Abolitionist, Was the First African American Woman to Graduate from College

  1. No woman was awarded a degree in Glasgow until 1894! Scandalous. Lucy sounds a remarkable woman, though not one I’d heard of.

    Thanks for your help earlier with the Suffragette Oak.

    • Anabel, I had never heard of her either. I love finding out about women I don’t know of. I do wish I could have found more information about her work in California. Oberlin College was unusual here in that it admitted women and African Americans at an early date. At this point there were still many schools that didn’t admit women, much less women of color.

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