Alfred Oscar Coffin was born in 1861 in Pontotoc Mississippi. He had his graduate education at Fisk University where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He later furthered his education at Illinois Wesleyan University.
He became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in biological sciences in 1889. Despite this giant stride, no white-dominated university was willing to employ him due to racism of the 19th century.
He prioritized research in anthropology but his significant work was The Origin of the Mound Builders which linked the origins of the mound builders of the Mississippi Valley to an area in Southeastern Mexico, according to Yale University.
His second work was the book titled Land Without Chimneys Or the Byways of Mexico published by The Editor Publishing Company in 1896. The book was a result of his wide travels in Mexico specifically in Monterey, Mexico City, and Guadalajara. It highlighted the history of the people and traced their ancient origins to the fabled civilization of Atlantis. Coffin’s work was the first time an African American had authored a notable book relating to Latin Americans.
He explored the high degree of civilization which was dominant in Mexico in ancient times. He made references to the temples of Montezumas, the elegance of the Toltec civilization and the architecture of the roads of Peru.
His book also highlighted the palaces of the sub-worshipers of Lake Titicaca and the civilization of the Pacific slope which was a sharp departure from the hunting tribes of the Atlantic. He also explored the remains of the red men and attempted to link them to prehistoric ancient Americans, according to archive.org.
He also invested a significant part of years in lecturing at two HBCUs, Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College and Wiley University, where he tutored in mathematics and romance languages, according to Yale University. He was also a disbursement agent at Alcorn A&M from 1895 to 1898.
He also did part of his teaching at the basic level where he took on the role of a school principal in San Antonio and Kansas City. He volunteered part of his time as an agent for the blind pianist and ragtime musician, Blind Boone.
Although Coffin was a trailblazer in the field of biological sciences, the prevailing cloud of racism became a barrier to his intellectualism in academia.