Russwurm, Class of 1826, first African American at Bowdoin
by Nick Day, The Bowdoin Orient
In September of 1826, senior John Brown Russwurm’s graduation from Bowdoin not only signaled a significant personal achievement.
It was also a milestone for the College.
Russwurm, who walked with a graduating class of 33 students, was the first African American to graduate from Bowdoin, and at that time, only the third African American to earn a college degree in the United States.
Russwurm spoke at Commencement, offering prophetic remarks to his classmates and their families. The topic was the Revolution in Haiti, although he prefaced his speech with broader strokes:
“It is the irresistible course of events that all men, who have been deprived of their liberty, shall recover this previous portion of their indefeasible inheritance,” he declared some 35 years before the Civil War. “It is in vain to stem the current; degraded man will rise in his native majesty, and claim his rights. They may be withheld from him now, but the day will arrive, when they must be surrendered.”
It was a series of unexpected twists and turns that brought Russwurm to Bowdoin. After all, Russwurm grew up in a community—and climate—vastly different from Brunswick: Jamaica. Born there in 1799, Russwurm was the son of a wealthy white slaveholder named John Russwurm, and an African-American concubine named Eliza Brown. When the two had a son, the elder Russwurm was so proud of the baby that he named the infant after himself, while also giving him the middle name “Brown” after the child’s mother.
In 1807, Russwurm and his father moved to Quebec, although Eliza Brown stayed behind in Jamaica. There, John Brown Russwurm took classes with a tutor, studying Greek, Latin, arithmetic, writing, and grammar.
After living in Quebec for five years, the two moved again, this time to Portland, Maine. Russwurm eventually enrolled in Hebron Academy—approximately an hour northwest of Brunswick—and graduated in 1819.
Instead of directly enrolling in college, however, Russwurm spent five years in Boston, where he taught at Primus Hall, one of the separate schools in Massachusetts established for African Americans.
In 1824, Russwurm traveled back up the Maine coast, and, at the seasoned age of 25, enrolled at Bowdoin as a junior (since his prior education had been sufficient enough for junior standing).
Russwurm lived off campus during his time at the College. He resided in town with a carpenter, despite College regulations at the time that required students to live in the dormitory. It is unclear exactly why he chose to do this, although his decision may have been shaped either by the age discrepancy between him and his classmates (half of the students in his class were under the age of 16), or because he was uncomfortable as the only African-American student on campus.
There is no record to suggest that Russwurm was discriminated against by students or faculty during his time at Bowdoin. And despite Russwurm’s decision to live off-campus, he was actively involved with campus life; he was invited to join the Athenaean Society, which he accepted with “alacrity,” according to his letter of acceptance. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Class of 1825, was also a member of this society, and the two became friends. Hawthorne wrote that Russwurm was “dignified, easy in his manner, [but] too sensitive because of his color to return visits.”
After graduating from Bowdoin, Russwurm moved to New York, where he co-founded the first African-American newspaper in the United States, The Freedom Journal. However, the newspaper ran into financial difficulties, and after weighing his options, Russwurm decided to leave the paper and move to Liberia in 1829.
Dr. Robert Johnson, Jr. ’71, a professor of Africana studies at UMass-Boston who gave a talk at the College on John Brown Russwurm last week, said that this move by Russwurm was not that surprising, considering Russwurm’s own views on the issues of race and oppression.
Russwurm had an Afro-centric perspective on its history and believed that “Africa was the beginning,” Johnson said.
“Russwurm believed that the Africans should go back home to Africa, and rebuild Africa and control Africa,” Johnson added.
In Liberia, Russwurm became editor of the Liberia Herald and assumed a leadership post in the government. Russwurm lived in Africa for the remainder of his life, and in 1851, succumbed to a battle with rheumatic fever.
He was buried in Liberia, although his Bowdoin roots remain at the College; the John Brown Russwurm House, located in the center of campus and formally dedicated in 1978, is the center of Africana studies at Bowdoin and houses more than 2000 volumes pertaining to the discipline. In addition, a scholarship named for Russwurm was established in 1960.
For Johnson, John Brown Russwurm’s accomplishments at Bowdoin and beyond were significant.
“These were real achievements in the 19th century, because more than any other century, the 19th century was a century where race was really polarized in this country,” he said.