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The complex history of Alexander Twilight, nation's first African American to earn a bachelor's degree

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Tucked away on Franklin Street at Vermont’s Middlebury College sits a modest, red-bricked building bearing the name of Twilight Hall.  

It pays homage to the first student of African descent who graduated from Middlebury in 1823. Alexander Twilight was also the first Black person to obtain a bachelor’s degree across America – a piece of history Middlebury is proud to represent.

At Northern Vermont University, there is Alexander Twilight Theater and in Boston, there is Alexander Twilight Academy, which offers year-round academic programming for middle school students from under-resourced backgrounds to prepare them for high school and college. 

Though not widely know, Twilight is celebrated as an accomplished African American man whose achievements paved the way for others like him. 

But consider this: Though Twilight is lauded today as an African American scholar, preacher and educator, for much of his life he was marked as white on census records.

Does that erase the accomplishments he worked hard for that students of color today can be inspired by? Does the notion of “passing” – being fair-skinned enough to be able to convincingly present as white – play a role in Twilight’s success and his legacy? 

All of these questions and more are now being explored by historians and scholars at Middlebury and the Old Stone House Museum, which was formerly Twilight’s home and where he taught grammar school. 

2020 marked the 225 anniversary of Twilight’s birth, and the museum hosted a celebration to both commemorate his achievements, as well as the path he paved for African Americans.

“Twilight’s history is very emblematic of the type of work we want to do in terms of uncovering complex histories at the college, but also locally within Vermont concerning people of color, marginalized identities and the uncomfortable histories that institutions like Middlebury have had in relation to systems of oppression,” said Daniel Silva, director of the Black studies program and director of the Twilight Project at Middlebury College. 

Silva, in conjunction with Twilight scholar and professor emeritus of history Bill Hart, began The Twilight Project in 2020, which will look at race relations at Middlebury past and present.

The group’s first project looks at the historical figures tied to the college, like Twilight, and their contributions. This analysis, which hopes to complicate the shine often placed on historical figures, aims to take a more critical look at who buildings are named for and what statues on campus represent. In doing so, the group hopes people can have more thoughtful conversations about who the college community celebrates. 

The project also seeks to highlight the stories of students of color and how these figures and cultures at the college impact their journey at the school and beyond.

And it all started with Hart, who looked at census data in 2013 and found that Twilight also had a complicated relation with his race.

Before he became a symbol of achievement for African Americans, Alexander Twilight was born on September 23, 1795 – the third of six children to Ichabod and Mary Twilight in Corinth, Vermont (Bradford, on some records). 

His father, Ichabod, was believed to be mixed race and his mother, Mary, was believed to be white, making Twilight himself about a quarter African American. 

“People didn’t see him as Black,” said Hart, who is working on a biography of Twilight. “Some of his students did make some judgments about his complexion. They called him, kind of like a swarthy color or a man of darker complexion.”

One of the few portraits of Alexander Twilight, the first person of African descent to earn a Bachelor's Degree in the United States, at Middlebury College.

One of the few portraits of Alexander Twilight, the first person of African descent to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in the United States, at Middlebury College.
Courtesy of Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village.

From the age of 8, Twilight worked on a farm for a neighbor while also learning reading, writing and math, according to his biography at the Old Stone House Museum where records of his life and his later sermons are kept. 

At the age of 20, he enrolled at Randolph’s Orange County Grammar School in 1815. There, he completed six years of secondary education and two years of college level work. He was then admitted to Middlebury College in 1821 as a junior and graduated two years later with a bachelor’s degree.

Although Middlebury claims him today to be their first African American graduate, there is no record that the college knew he was Black at the time of his admittance. The college was only open to white men at the time. 

Twilight’s outside appearance may have played a role in this. As Hart saw when he was looking into the Twilight family’s history, they were seen as white for many years.  

According to the the 1800 census, the Twilight family marked as “All other free persons” meaning while Black, they were free. Hart speculates that a census taker in 1800 showed up at the Twilight house in Corinth, Vermont, and saw Ichabod, who was clearly a racially mixed person, and assumed they were Black. 

“In the United States, then as now – with the exception of some regions and some decades – people with some African ancestry are Black,” Hart said. 

Anthropologists call this the descent law, which has two parts, he said. One rule, hypo-descent, says that your racial identity comes from that race that is furthest removed from whiteness. Common in the United States, it says that if a person has any Native American ancestry, they are Native American, or if they have any Mexican ancestry, even mixed, they are Mexican. 

Other parts of the world, like Latin America, however, subscribe to the idea of hyper-descent. This says that for those who have any kind of percentage of whiteness, the closer you phenotypically or physically appear to be white, you’re white, Hart said.

Knowing this, Twilight’s story becomes interesting. That’s because when a census taker came back to their home in 1810, Twilight’s father had died and the only people at the house were his white mother and the six children.

From then on, the family was marked as white. This remained Twilight’s racial identity, according to the census, until his death. 


Bill Hart, Twilight scholar and professor emeritus of history
During his lifetime, he did not identify as Black nor was he identified as Black.

“During his lifetime, he did not identify as Black nor was he identified as Black,” Hart said. “He’s clearly a man of some racial mixture, African descent. But he either avoided that during his lifetime, or just didn’t think it was important to acknowledge it and there’s no evidence that Middlebury College knew or thought he was Black.” 

Hart speculates that this could have been due to a number of reasons and doesn’t necessarily believe it was a calculated move on Twilight’s part. One could have been The American Colonization Society, which was created in January 1817 and sought to end slavery by helping enslaved persons move to Liberia.

Hart said Twilight, whose entire family was in America, could have seen overtly claiming his Black race as making him vulnerable to people potentially trying to persuade him to go to Liberia, which was seen as a space for free Black people to live out their lives. 

This designation as white and his lack of acknowledgement of his racial identity could have played a role in how Twilight was able to advance throughout his accomplished life, Silva said.

Although he may not have acknowledged it overtly, the argument can be made that it helped him to be “white passing” or racially ambiguous enough that during an era of slavery, his race was assumed, he said. 

Twilight never ended up in Liberia.

After he graduated from Middlebury, he became a teacher in Peru, New York. It was there that he met and married Mercy Ladd Merrill. During his four years as a teacher there, he focused a lot of his time studying theology and even became a licensed preacher. 

Twilight was ordained to be the acting pastor of the Brownington Congregational Church, and in 1829, he was asked to become principal of Orleans County Grammar School in Brownington, Vermont.

Next to the school, the Twilights lived in a small three-room house. The couple also built a house in front of the smaller building to accommodate boarding students, as enrollment rose due to a push by Twilight when he first got to the school.

Twilight resigned as pastor in 1834 and worked on getting a bigger school and boarding house erected, which he achieved by 1836. The building, called Athenian Hall, included four floors with a kitchen, dining room and 14 student dorm rooms. This is now the Old Stone House Museum. 

Brownington Church where Alexander Twilight preached.

Brownington Church where Alexander Twilight preached.
Courtesy of Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village.

Twilight was also elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 1836, the first African American to do so. 

Ten years later, Twilight resumed his services to the Congregational Church as acting pastor.

At one point, he and the board of the school got into disputes – there aren’t records explicitly stating what they were about – but it led Twilight to sell Athenian Hall to the school’s trustees. He and his wife moved to Shipton, Quebec (now Richmond) and later to Hatley, Quebec, according to the Old Stone House Museum. 

After he left, however, enrollment and direction of the school worsened and he was eventually convinced to come back to take up the mantle of pastor and school leader once again. He only lasted a year preaching before he again resigned, but he led the grammar school until 1855. 

That year he suffered a major stroke and was left paralyzed. He died two years later in 1857 and was buried in a cemetery at Brownington Congregational Church. 

The Twilight Project, which launched in 2020 and Silva directs, sees Middlebury students looking at people like Twilight and other celebrated figures and the complicated stories they bring to the college. Silva hopes that it will spark conversations about social mobility across structures of racial oppression today. 

Middlebury is not the only one engaging in this work, especially after a year where the country erupted in protests – some becoming violent – following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in May 2020. 

Although Twilight was a man of African descent in a position of power at the pulpit and then, as the leader of a school, he was not an abolitionist. Hart said that while Twilight preached a few times that slavery was bad, he himself was not an anti-slavery activist. 

The Twilight Project’s first task is looking at historical figures associated with Middlebury by students participating in the project. Silva hopes that unearthing some of these complicated histories, like Hart did with Twilight, will lead not only thoughtful discussion among those on campus, but also possibly make the college reconsider who they name buildings after or celebrate around campus. 

“Our students of color past and present have done a lot of important work to bring like real diversity, equity and inclusion efforts to campus,” he said. “It’s been through student activism that we’ve made the progress that we’ve made and there’s still so much left to do.”

Before the semester even started, Mia Pangasnan could feel the tension and anger radiating from her fellow Middlebury students. The sophomore said seeing someone like Breonna Taylor being mistreated and die made her angry personally, but she knew there was a subset of people who didn’t see it the same way.  

“When you hear the other side’s arguments it’s like ‘Really? That’s what you value?’ I think there’s just massive disconnect and that makes me angry,” she said. 

Pangasnan is one of the Twilight Project’s fellows and is working on a project about student activism past and present and the college. She wants this to spark real discussions that could lead to a cultural shift and better understanding that others involved in the Twilight project are also hoping for. 

“Cultural shift is really, really difficult to do, but it’s not impossible,” Roni Lezama said. “A big part of that is trying to invoke empathy.”

Lezama, a junior, is one of the student commissioners for the Twilight Project – a position that helps oversee the approval of various project proposals. He said it has been really good working with the college because they have been receptive to a lot of suggestions, but he knows that the school doesn’t feel like home for every single student.


Roni Lezama, student commissioner for the Twilight Project
Cultural shift is really, really difficult to do, but it’s not impossible. A big part of that is trying to invoke empathy.

By complicating and understanding the history of the people and traditions at the college, Lezama said he hopes that not only will students of color feel more at home, but everyone can also have a better understanding of marginalization.

Using stories, history and having frank discussions about marginalization – who has historically had a seat at the table and who hasn’t – will propel the college to make more of these changes, he said. Twilight’s complicated history and how people interact with race is just one of the many stories at Middlebury that can open up those discussions, he added. 

But Middlebury is not the only site of Twilight’s legacy. 

The Old Stone House Museum celebrated his 225th birthday with virtual events talking about Twilight’s history and creating spaces for people to talk about his complex past and what that might mean for race relations today. 

The museum also sparked a concurrent resolution from Vermont politicians acknowledging his birthday as at a state day. There is now a painted portrait of Twilight that will be hung in the Vermont state legislature, something that normally takes years to happen. 

Deeply invested in their sense of place, the museum also helps to focus people on the idea of disconnecting to learn. Twilight was a big lover of math and science and spent a bulk of his time teaching his young students about the wonders of these subjects, along with the basics of reading and writing.

The museum provides a space to learn about Twilight but they also give educational lessons around race equity and identity for pre-k students all the way up to senior citizens. 

Molly Veysey, executive director of the Old Stone House Museum, is hoping these conversations will have an impact on the greater Vermont community, which is predominantly white and may not understand the necessity of a conversation like it. 

“It has become more a complicated conversation but I think one that we are really well poised to maybe take on to facilitate at least,” Veysey said.

Contact Marina Affo at 302-353-0375 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @marina_affo. 

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