Principal Cyrus S. Richards, a teacher of music, a scholar and professor of Greek and Latin, a trained preacher and instrumental in establishing the Ladies Department at Kimball Union in 1839-40, was also a keen supporter of the early abolitionist movement.
Three distinguished African Americans studied at KUA during Richards’ tenure: Augustus Washington, class of 1843, Jonathan Gibbs, Class of 1848 and James D. Lynch, class of 1855. Washington, the son of a freed slave, had received some early education in a school for white children and later taught in schools for African Americans. He wanted to further his own education at Dartmouth College, but was told that he wouldn’t be accepted there without more preparatory work. With the help of his abolitionist friends, he entered KUA in 1841 and after two years of study, was accepted at Dartmouth. While looking for a way to earn money to pay his college debts, he learned the art of daguerreotype photography but still only had the means to complete one year. After leaving Hanover, he opened a successful photography business in Hartford, CT, before eventually immigrating to Liberia.
The Charter Oak, an abolitionist newspaper in Hartford, CT, printed a letter Washington wrote in 1846 describing his journey to Meriden.
“A month or two elapsed before we could hear of an Academy where they would receive and prepare for College, a colored student, without distinction on account of color. An application was made to Kimball Union Academy, at Meriden, N.H., one of the most wealthy and flourishing preparatory institutions in New-England, where several teachers are the advocates of sound learning, and would be an ornament to any enlightened community. In reply, the Principal stated that, ‘after considerable deliberation and consultation with the teachers and Trustees, they had decided to receive me; but would not commit themselves in regard to party questions regarding abolitionism.’ But, said he, ‘we receive him simply as we would receive any gentleman of like character and purposes, without regard to any public questions or excitements.’ He also expressed the opinion, that if there was a difference of treatment, it would probably be in my favor. This proved to be true, for I could not have been better treated in London or Paris, than I was during the two years spent at that Institution. I mention these facts because they tend to confirm what I have always believed and maintained, almost alone – that no class of men in the world have fewer prejudices themselves, than the professors of our Colleges and teachers of Academies. – But, in most cases, they yield to a corrupt public sentiment.
“I completed my course of preparation, reading nine Orations in Cicero, Sallust, Virgil, Xenophon’s Anabasis, two books of Homer, and some Mathematics. For my standing as a scholar, and character as a gentleman while there, I must appeal to the teachers and my classmates, who are now in Yale, Amherst, Burlington, Middlebury, Dartmouth and other Colleges. Besides in these studies, and those of my College terms, I am willing to submit to an examination at any time, by any person. In 1843, I received from the Academy my recommendation, sustained my examination by the Faculty of the College [Dartmouth], and entered it with a good number of my former classmates.”
This photograph of John Brown, the abolitionist, was taken c. 1856 by Augustus Washington, an African American daguerreotypist. It was featured on the catalogue cover for an exhibition of Washington’s work at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington, DC, in 2000.
Next: Principal Richards’ tenure cont.