Edward Mitchell, an immigrant from the French slave colony of Martinique, graduated from Dartmouth College in 1828, the first student of African descent to graduate from any school now in the Ivy League and the third self-identified man of color to graduate from an American college. Emigrating to Canada in 1833 as a Baptist minister, he became the first Canadian resident of African descent to hold a college or university degree and the first ordained minister of color in the country to serve predominantly white congregations. But to chronicle Mitchell’s life as a series of ‘firsts’ misses the larger context of a man of color who traveled a path of transnational migration across the slave-bound Atlantic World of the early nineteenth century, a turbulent time of revolution and religious revival. To earn the joys of freedom, Mitchell would make strategic choices and forge partnerships across social, racial, and linguistic boundaries.
There are few handwritten, personally authored accounts from college-educated men or women of African descent from the early nineteenth century. Mitchell’s writings are likely among the earliest. From them, we hoped to learn more about Mitchell’s origins, his strivings, and his reactions to his initial rejection by Dartmouth’s trustees. How did he gain the unified support of fellow students, who rallied in support of his admission? Did his early life in a French slave colony shape his actions in the face of American racism?
Mitchell left Martinique to pursue a mariner’s life. Within a few years, he abandoned the sea, migrated to Philadelphia, and found low-wage work as a porter in the employ of a socially prominent businessman. He established tentative roots in the world of Philadelphia’s black community life of religious uplift and counted among his colleagues Philadelphia’s most prominent white and black clergymen. A series of tragedies followed. Set adrift, he came to Hanover, New Hampshire, where he established affiliations that supported his preparation for successful admission to Dartmouth. After graduating from Dartmouth with no family roots in the United States, Mitchell chose to remain in the near-monoethnic world of northern New England and Lower Canada, where he found family, community, and social affiliations. He became known as ‘smart preacher,’ an ‘indefatigable’ Baptist missionary, and a ‘profound theologian.’