It was Gregor Hileman, a researcher and editor of the Middlebury College News Letter, who in 1974 documented that Middlebury alum Alexander Lucius Twilight, Class of 1823, was the first man of Black descent to earn a baccalaureate degree from an American college or university.
Anecdotal evidence exists within and outside the College as to Twilight’s race, including a 1919 memo by College President John M. Thomas asserting that Twilight “was a negro.” It was Hileman’s discovery of the Federal census of 1800 that provided conclusive evidence: Alexander and his parents and siblings are identified as non-white and non-Indian, “leaving the strong presumption that [the Twilights]…were among the 557 black American citizens then resident in Vermont.”1
When Twilight entered Middlebury College as a junior in 1821, he was 26 years old. In the six years prior to enrollment he completed both secondary school courses and two years of college level curriculum, entirely self-supported. The College Archives holds documentation of the classes he took, the library books he borrowed, and where he lived: off-campus in “Mrs. Deming’s” home when he first arrived and Room 37 in West College (now Painter Hall) his senior year. No official record in the College Archives documents his race.
There is a single image of Twilight – a daguerreotype – preserved in the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, Vermont. Twilight devoted 21 years to the Brownington Academy and Brownington Congregational Church before he died in 1857 at age 62. Twilight and his wife, Mercy, are buried near the church in which he preached and the stone academy in which he taught.
On September 23, 2020, we celebrate the 225th anniversary of Alexander Twilight’s birth and the inaugural Alexander Twilight Day, designated by Vermont lawmakers to be celebrated every year on this day.
1. Gregor Hileman, in “Was Alexander Twilight, in fact, black?” Middlebury College News Letter, Spring 1974.