By Annalise Simons ’21, Colgate summer research fellow
Likely among the first African Americans to graduate from a U.S. college, Henry Livingston Simpson, Classes of 1853 (AB) and 1855 (theological degree), went on to lead a national African American Baptist missionary organization.
Simpson delivered a “warmly applauded” oration on the abolitionist William Wilberforce at his 1853 undergraduate commencement.
Henry Livingston Simpson was the first known African American student to graduate from Madison University and likely one of the first 20 African American college graduates in the United States.
Simpson was born in Columbia County, N.Y., on September 10, 1824. He attended the Grammar School (later Colgate Academy) before earning his undergraduate degree from Madison University in 1853 and his theology degree in 1855 — doing so despite calls in 1853 for his expulsion by southern financial supporters and those who felt enrolling an African American student was too political in the volatile pre-war period.
Despite the sentiments of those prejudiced individuals, Simpson was well regarded both during and after his time at Madison. An observer of his undergraduate commencement oration (on the abolitionist William Wilberforce) noted, “The author of the piece ‘Wilberforce’ was very warmly applauded, partly because he is a colored young man, whose character and conduct have won for him high esteem, and partly because his performance was replete with just and noble sentiments.”1 Simpson also gave an address — “Africa: Its Destiny” — at the graduation ceremonies for his theological degree from Madison.
Simpson built an illustrious professional and personal life after graduation. The noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass cited him as a positive example in support of expanded higher education opportunities for African American men. U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward and his wife attended Simpson’s wedding to Harriett Bogart2 in 1857. Seward’s wife, Frances, wrote to her son about the wedding: “The Church was filled — about 100 guests, white & colored went to the house, where they had a supper which Father said seemed to him just like all others of the kind here & at Washington. Aunty made it her business to see that the white guests do not defraud the colored in the matter of eating — being naturally less polite some supervision was necessary.”3 While Frances Seward's impressions of the ceremony showed signs of progress in interracial relations, they also clearly reflected the existing biases of the day. After Harriett’s death, Simpson married Emmeline Shadd on July 3, 1862.
Following the completion of his theology courses, Simpson was ordained a Baptist minister in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1856. He travelled widely and frequently, working as a Baptist minister in Ohio, Georgia, and Canada, as well as serving as a missionary for the Free Missionary Society. Simpson primarily worked at churches strongly associated with abolitionism. Simpson then acted as president of the American Baptist Consolidated Missionary Convention, which was a national African American church organization, intended to promote missionary work, from 1869 to 1871. He died in Savannah, Ga., on March 8, 1881.
Notes & Sources
Clipping from The Independent Congregationalist, September 8, 1853, Colgate University Commencement collection, A1011, Special Collections and University Archives, Colgate University
Members of the Bogart family were servants of the Sewards.
William Henry Seward Papers, A.S51, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester Libraries
Biography file, Special Collections and University Archives, Colgate University
Colgate University Commencement collection, A1011, Special Collections and University Archives, Colgate University
Colgate University. The First Half Century of Madison University (1819–1869): Or, The Jubilee Volume. New York: Sheldon & Co, 1872