- The Works of William Sanders Scarborough: Black Classicist and Race Leader
William Sanders Scarborough, born a slave in Georgia in 1852, rose to become an important black intellectual, classicist, and racial activist in Jim Crow America. In many ways he embodied the new opportunities opening to African-Americans after the Civil War. He received a master’s degree from [End Page 79] Oberlin College, and then went on to become professor and then president of Wilberforce University in Ohio. He married a white woman, gave more than twenty papers at the American Philological Association, and was the first black member of the Modern Language Association. He wrote for both black and white audiences about professional and racial issues. Yet scholars will search in vain for Scarborough in the American National Biography and the on-line database, “Black Thought and Culture,” with its 1,100 authors. As Michele Ronnick points out in her introduction to this collection of his works, Scarborough has been essentially forgotten. Her meticulously edited collection of Scarborough’s numerous and various writings will therefore be a welcome arrival for American historians and classicists interested in the history of their discipline.
Ronnick points out that Scarborough’s “overarching achievement was the example that he made of his life: he lived with serious intent as a citizen, race leader, educator, and scholar” (xxiv). Scarborough’s energetic battles on several fronts become clear in this collection. His writings span an astonishing range of genres over five decades, and Ronnick sensibly notes that this compilation cannot serve as “le dernier cri” on Scarborough but only as “an entry point into his life and times” (xxv). Ronnick has helpfully separated his writings into sections by genre: military, speeches, journalism, book introductions, book reviews, obituaries, biographies, travel narratives, education (in general and of blacks in particular), philology (general and classical), writings on what she calls “politics, policy and prejudice,” and finally farming.
Read back to back, these essays give the impression of a life utterly dedicated to resolving what Scarborough called “the Negro Question” (376). Many of his essays are purely and somewhat predictably in the vein of racial uplift. Yet there are also gems of peculiar interest, such as an essay on “Negro speech forms” (235–38) that anticipates the debates about Black English in the late twentieth century, and another on the fate of indigenous African languages in an age of constant contact with foreigners (239–246). Scarborough was particularly eager to open the rapidly professionalizing field of classical study to black men at a time when the study of Greek and Latin remained the privileged domain of elite whites. Scarborough often combined the two agendas, as in an article from 1891, in which he points to black achievement and chooses the specific example of a “young colored student” who was attending the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (378). He praised his hero, Frederick Douglass, as a “veritable Pylian Nestor, from whose lips flow words sweeter than honey” (102).
Valuable as it is, the volume would have benefited from several things to make it even more useful to historians of the United States, of racial relations, and of Rezeptiongeschichte. Ronnick might have engaged more—in her introductory essay and in the endnotes to the thematic sections—with the rich historiography on American history, race relations, higher education, and transatlantic classical scholarship during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Second, each of the individual sections would have benefited from a short introductory essay to put the writings in the section into some perspective. When Scarborough writes about the military or about classical philology, the genre and audience for each of these is presumably different, and Ronnick could have shown who was responding to Scarborough, and in what way. Finally, Ronnick might have evaluated Scarborough both as classicist and as race leader: in his day, was he thought to be a major classical scholar, along the...