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Alexander Twilight: The First African-American to Earn a Baccalaureate Degree from an
American College or University
Editor’s Note: On a winter day in 2003, Old Stone House Museum employees opened their mail to find they had received a collection of handwritten sermons by the Rev. Alexander Twilight. A museum in the state of Minnesota had been cleaning out their sermon archives and came across twenty sermons and sent them to Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, VT. The Museum staff believe that Rev. Twilight sent his sermons to a friend and former student, James W. Strong, who had moved to Minnesota in 1851. The twenty sermons were dated from 1842 to 1854, with most of them dated from 1853. To view these historical documents visit: oldstonehousemuseum.org/
Alexander Twilight (1795 – 1857): The records indicate that Twilight was of mixed race and it is clear that he was of very light complexion, which may well have obscured his partially African origins. He was born in Corinth, Vermont on September 23, 1795, the third of six children. His parents were Ichabod and Mary Twilight, who were both listed in the Corinth town history as “the first negroes to settle in Corinth.” Not much is known about his parents. Ichabod served during the Revolutionary War from 1782-3 as a ‘private’ in the Continental Army, Second New Hampshire Regiment, 6th Company. There have been many guesses about Ichabod and Mary’s background, e.g. that they were freed slaves or were decendents of same, that they were the result of racially mixed unions, and that the name of Twilight was taken because of their light skin. These are all guesses that may one day be resolved with more research.
Early Years and Education: It appears that Alexander labored for a neighboring farmer in Corinth, probably beginning around 1803 when he was only eight years old. There is no proof that it was an indenture agreement. For the next twelve years he learned reading, writing and math skills while performing various farming duties. He was able to save enough (probably with some assistance from the farmer for whom he labored) to enroll in Randolph’s Orange County Grammar School in 1815 at the age of 20. During the next six years (1815-1821) he completed not only the secondary school courses but also the first two years of a college level curriculum. Following his graduation from Randolph he was accepted at Middlebury College, entering as a junior in August of 1821. Two years later he received his bachelor’s degree. Middlebury College claims him to be the first African-American to earn a baccalaureate degree from an American college or university.
Career: From 1824-28, Twilight was employed as a teacher in Peru, New York where he met and married Mercy Ladd Merrill who came from a family of some means in Unity, New Hampshire. At the time of their marriage in 1826, Alexander was 31 and Mercy was 21 or 22 years of age. In addition to his teaching duties, Alexander continued studies that focused on theology, the church and ministry, occasionally leading public worship and preaching. He was licensed to preach by the Champlain Presbytery in Plattsburgh. After four years of teaching in Peru, he moved across Lake Champlain to teach in Vergennes where he spent week-ends holding services in the neighboring towns of Waltham and Ferrisburg. Twilight was invited to become the principal of the Orleans County Grammar School in Brownington, Vermont after a year in Vergennes.
When Twilight arrived in Brownington in 1829 to be principal of the school, he was also invited to become the Brownington Congregational Church’s “Acting Pastor” and was ordained by the church in November, 1829. In 1831 he led the church in conducting a revival which resulted in membership increasing to as many as a hundred who covenanted to be in fellowship.
Upon their arrival in Brownington, the Twilights moved into a small three-room house a few hundred yards to the east of the school building. He at once set about building a larger home in front of this small dwelling so that the couple could accommodate as many as nine or ten boarding students. Enrollment in the school grew so fast that classroom space and available accommodations in town were being taxed. Twilight pressed his board of trustees for a larger building but failed to receive support from the majority. Finally in 1834, he resigned as acting pastor of the church and laid out a foundation plan for land donated by Cyrus Eaton across the road from the Twilight house. It called for a four story granite building measuring 36 x 66 feet. Over the following two years the present stone house was erected following the lines and general appearance of a similar building, quite possibly Painter Hall at Middlebury College. The first three floors featured a kitchen, dining room, parlor, 14 student dorm rooms and 6 recitation rooms. The fourth floor consisted of two classrooms, one of them a 20 x 40 foot assembly room which was probably large enough to accommodate the entire student body. As with other Grammar Schools of the period, females comprised a third of the student body.
It is not known how the building was funded. One source (the Rev. Clark Ferrin, pastor in Barton writing in 1868) reports that “on his own resources he set to work and built the granite house.” Others suggest that Cyrus Eaton, who had just built on adjacent land, loaned Twilight the substantial funds necessary to finance construction. However it was financed, the granite was harvested from nearby fields and the building slowly emerged. It was named “Athenian Hall” and was ready for occupancy in 1836.
This was also the year that Twilight was sent by the town as its representative to the State Legislature in Montpelier. He wanted to persuade his fellow legislators that the land rents which supported the Orleans County Grammar School should not be divided between that school and the town of Craftsbury which had decided to have its own school. Twilight argued that one good school was better than two not-so-good schools. If the County’s resources for education were to be split two ways, there could follow more schools which would become increasingly mediocre. It appears that he lost this battle, for Craftsbury was granted its petition to receive funds for its own grammar school. The 1836 legislative session began on October 15 and came to an end only six weeks later.
In 1842 the house that had been the Twilight’s home for the past thirteen years, built when they first moved to Brownington, was sold. The reasons for selling the property are unknown, but it’s possible that he was financially overextended. In 1844 his contract with the school was renewed at a slightly higher salary and in 1846 he resumed his services to the Congregational Church as acting pastor. It seems likely that the Twilights moved into the Stone House, remaining there through 1847. We know that there were disputes with the school’s trustees and with the church’s deacons, both groups reprimanding him for various faults including a stubborn lack of cooperation. This led Twilight to resign from both positions, selling Athenian Hall to the school’s trustees and leaving Brownington to teach in Shipton, Quebec (now Richmond) and later to Hatley, Quebec, a village just a few miles north of the U.S. border.
Without Twilight’s leadership the school limped along until the fall of 1851 led by the Rev. William Scales who also served the church as pastor (1847-1851). Then for three terms, the school was closed until the summer of 1852. At this time Twilight was persuaded by both church and school to resume his Brownington duties. He continued in the church’s pulpit for only one more year and then resigned. He continued to lead the grammar school until October, 1855 at which time he suffered a major stroke, which left him paralyzed. He died two years later, June 19, 1857, and was buried in the graveyard adjoining the Congregational Church.
Comments from those who knew this gifted educator and minister, either as resident students of the school or from those who associated with him as neighbor, citizen and clergyman all indicate a man of iron will, but who was also graced with a robust sense of humor.
His hand-written notes for sermons that he preached reveal a minister who was thoroughly acquainted with the Bible which he considered to be of divine origin. He clearly was a man of firm convictions, and hoped to convince any who heard him to be persuaded of what he had to say. He saw human history as progressive, directed by God, ever bending toward an increase in individual freedom, which was guided by conscience, and which he viewed as “an inestimable treasure….given to man by his munificent Creator, as an inalienable inheritance” (Sermon #14). He regarded slavery as a relic of older civilizations and considered it to be out of place in a Christian democracy. (But as far as we know he refrained from being active in local abolition groups.) He preached in favor of total abstinence from alcohol. Vermont officially became a temperance state in 1852.
Due to diminishing school enrollment Athenian Hall, the school dormitory, was closed for good in 1859. For a brief time Mercy Ladd Merrill Twilight continued to live there with a few boarders. She then continued alone until finally moving to Derby, a few miles north, in 1865. When she died in 1878, she was buried next to her husband in Brownington.
Source: The Old Stone House Museum, A Project of the Orleans County Historical Society, Brownington, VT: oldstonehousemuseum.org/twilight-bio/ (Accessed: 9/3/2015)