Alexander Twilight is believed to be the first African American to graduate from college in the U.S. in 1823. He was elected to the Vermont General Assembly in 1836, becoming the first African American to serve in a state legislature in the U.S.
He was born on a farm in Corinth, Vermont on September 23, 1795, the third of six children to a white mother, Mary Twilight, and a mixed-race father, Ichabod Twilight, who had served as a private in the American Revolution. His parents were both listed in the Corinth town history as “the first negroes to settle in Corinth.”
According to reports, Twilight worked for a neighboring farmer in Corinth from the age of eight. While performing various farming duties, Twilight learned reading, writing and math skills.
He was able to save enough to enroll in Randolph’s Orange County Grammar School in 1815 at the age of 20. Between 1815 and 1821, he completed the secondary school courses as well as the first two years of a college-level curriculum.
He went on to Middlebury College, entering as a junior in August of 1821 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1823. Middlebury College says Twilight became the first African American to earn a baccalaureate degree from an American college or university.
He became a teacher in Peru, New York, where he studied theology, the church and ministry. He led public worship and preaching occasionally. In 1826, 31-year-old Twilight married Mercy Ladd Merrill. The couple moved to Brownington where they built a house and used the second floor to house students who needed a place to board for school.
After a year in Vergennes, Twilight became the headmaster of the Orleans County Grammar School. According to BlackPast, to meet growing enrollment needs, he “designed, raised funds for, and built the first granite public building in Vermont, Athenian Hall, which contained classrooms and a dormitory.”
After conflicts with the Orleans County school administrators, Twilight moved to Quebec, Canada for five years. He returned to serve as headmaster in Brownington.
In October 1855, Twilight suffered a major stroke that left him paralyzed. The gifted educator and minister died two years later on June 19, 1857.
Many years later, in 2003, a museum in the state of Minnesota found twenty handwritten sermons by Alexander Twilight in their sermon archives and sent them to Old Stone House Museum (formerly the Athenian Hall) in Brownington, VT. It is believed that Twilight sent his sermons to a friend and former student, James W. Strong, who had moved to Minnesota in 1851.