Ex-slave William Sanders Scarborough wrote a Greek textbook after gaining his freedom in the United States. In 1881, he penned the classic text “First Lessons in Greek,” at age 29. The textbook included exercises on Greek grammar and vocabulary development, as well as translation practice from Greek to English and vice-versa.
Scarborough was born in Macon, Georgia, on February 16, 1852, as an African slave in the southern United States. Greek Reporter reports that his mother was a slave, but his father was set free by his owner. Scarborough grew up to become possibly the first African-American professional classical scholar.
His father, Jeremiah, was employed by the Georgia Central Railroad after gaining his freedom at some point in the past. His mother Frances Gwynn worked for her owner William Kirkland DeGraffenreid, whose family established New Berne, North Carolina, in 1710.
The DeGraffenrieds granted Scarborough’s family numerous rights. They actually helped Scarborough by giving him books. After the deaths of his brother, John Henry, and sister, Mary Louisa, his parents encouraged him to learn to read and write, although illegally, because he had become their only remaining hope.
After the end of the Civil War, Scarborough’s education system flourished and he made quick academic gains. He enrolled at the University of Atlanta. He was the most advanced student in the school and the sole graduate of the 1869 academic year, according to a study by Michele Valerie Ronnick—who wrote the Introduction of Scarborough’s “First Lessons in Greek”.
After completing all of Oberlin’s prerequisites, he enrolled in Oberlin College in 1875 to further his education in classical languages. Following a brief and terrible experience teaching in the South — his first post at Lewis High School in Macon ended when it was burned down by arsonists in 1876 — he returned to Oberlin and obtained his M.A. Later, he taught ancient languages at Wilberforce University.
Scarborough took advantage of his chances and evolved into a model employee quickly. In 1881, he collaborated with New York City publisher A.S. Barnes to release “First Lessons in Greek,” a 147-page introduction to ancient Greek for students. In 2019, Ronnick reprinted a facsimile version of this rare book.
He received widespread acclaim for the book, and the following year he became a member of the American Psychological Association (APA). Two years after he joined the APA in 1882, he made history by becoming the first African-American member of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in 1884.
In 1881, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) was established to train the next generation of academics to continue the investigation of ancient Greek culture.
In July 2020, the ASCSA established a scholarship in honor of Scarborough, a pioneering African-American scholar, as part of its aim to redress the long-term underrepresentation of Black indigenous, Hispanic, Asian, and other People of Color in Classical and Hellenic Studies.
In spite of Scarborough’s inability to attend ASCSA, he is still being honored for the groundbreaking work he did as a trained Black philologist.
Between the years 1908 to 1920, Scarborough presided over Wilberforce University as its president. On September 9, 1926, he passed away. He was 74 years old. His profound impact on classical studies will last for generations to come.