• Date of Birth: February 16, 1852
  • Born City: Macon
  • Born State/Country: GA
  • Parents: Jeremiah & Frances Gwynn S., slaves.
  • Date of Death: September 09, 1926
  • Death City: Wilberforce
  • Death State/Country: OH
  • Married: Sarah Cordelia Bierce (1851-1933), 2 Aug. 1881, New York, NY
  • Education:

    Lewis High School, Macon GA, 1869; Atlanta University, 1869-1871; A.B., Oberlin College, 1875; A.M., 1877; LL.D. Liberia College, 1882;  Ph.D., State University at Louisville, KY, 1892;  Ph.D., Morris Brown College, Atlanta, GA, 1908.

  • Professional Experience:

    Latin teacher, Lewis High School (Macon, GA), 1875-6; Payne Institute (Cokesbury, SC), 1876; Professor of Ancient Languages, Wilberforce University, 1877-1891 & 1897-1920; prof. New Testament Greek, Payne Theological Seminary (Wilberforce, OH), 1891-7; president, Wilberforce University, 1908-20; research consultant, Bureau of Economics, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Washington, D.C., 1920-22; founding member, Negro Academy, 1897; member, founding committee for N.A.A.C.P., 1909; hon. member, Alpha Phi Alpha, Xi Chapter (Wilberforce) 1912, 1914.

  • Publications:

    First Lessons in Greek (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1881) [reissued 2019]; The Birds of Aristophanes: A Theory of Interpretation (Boston: J. H. Cushing, 1886); The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship, ed. Michele Valerie Ronnick, foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,  (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005); 

    Collected WorksThe Works of William Sanders Scarborough: Black Classicist and Race Leader, ed. Michele Valerie Ronnick, foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).


  • Notes:

    Scarborough, who was born in slavery in Macon, GA, is the first professional classicist of African descent in the United States. His father was a freedman who worked for the Georgia Central Railroad and his mother belonged to William DeGraffenreid, who nevertheless allowed them to marry and live in their own home. With help from both blacks and whites, he learned to read and write in secret before the Civil War and afterwards matriculated at Macon’s Lewis High School and later Atlanta University. His path-breaking career, marked in its early years by the publication of his book, First Lessons in Greek in 1881, countered arguments against the those who doubted black intellectual ability in general and those who in particular would thwart it by denying black people access to higher learning and classical studies in schools and universities. He was a lifetime member (1882-1926) of the American Philological Association following his friends Richard Greener (1844-1922) and Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912), who were the first two blacks to join the APA, Greener in 1875 and Blyden in 1880.  During the years 1884-1920 Scarborough presented more than 20 papers at the APA’s annual meetings, summaries of which were published in the organization’s Proceedings. His lecture on Plato at the APA’s meeting in July, 1892 in Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia was particularly moving. As described in his Autobiography, he knew along with his audience that as “a Negro member of that learned body,” he was “standing in intellectual manhood. . .where no Negro had ever been allowed even to enter, save as a servant.” (p. 121)

    His work reached far beyond the academy, however, and he took part in vital political and educational issues of the day. Seen as an exemplar, he not only was active in virtually all the organizations established by blacks during the period, but also worked across the color line with leading figures of high and low profile, meeting men and women such as John Sherman, Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Warren Harding, A.M.E. Bishop Daniel A. Payne, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Col. Charles Young, and the black millionaires Madame C. J. Walker and Abraham Lincoln Lewis. As president of Wilberforce University, he was an inspiration to black people from all walks of life, both here and abroad,  and stepping from the teacher’s podium to the military stage, he even guided the work of the Student Army Training Corps, an officer training camp at Wilberforce during World War I. In 1884 he became the first black member of the Modern Language Association, which in 2001 established The William Sanders Scarborough book prize in his honor. 

    Scarborough’s personal world was equally remarkable. His 45-year marriage to Sarah Cordelia Bierce was both interracial and a success. She, the principal of the Normal Department at Wilberforce (1877-1914), worked by his side for the uplift of mankind through education regardless of race or gender, and together they affected not only the lives of generations of students, but all those who met them in outside the classrooom.

  • Sources:

    The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship, ed. Michele Valerie Ronnick, foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,  (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005); Michele Valerie Ronnick, “William Sanders Scarborough: The First African American Member of the Modern Language Association,” Publications of the Modern Language Association, Special Millennial Edition 115 (2000) 1787-1793; “First Lessons in Greek: William Sanders Scarborough’s Date with  Destiny,” African Methodist Episcopal Review 118 (Oct.-Nov. 2002) 30-43; William Sanders Scarborough, First Lessons in Greek (1881), ed. and introduction by Michele Valerie Ronnick, foreward by Ward W. Briggs, Jr. (Mundelein, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., 2019).

  • Author: Michele Valerie Ronnick