Belated Honors to Yale's First Black Alumnus
10/09/98: Belated Honors to Yale’s First Black Alumnus
New Haven, Conn. – Edward Alexander Bouchet (1852-1918) was the first African American to graduate from Yale College, the second African American in the nation to be nominated to Phi Beta Kappa, and the first to earn a Ph.D. degree. In fact, he was the sixth person of any race in the Western Hemisphere to earn a doctorate in physics.
But when he died, he was buried without a tombstone.
That omission is about to be corrected. Edward A. Bouchet will receive belated honors on Saturday, Oct. 17, at 11 a.m. when a black granite tombstone is unveiled at Evergreen Cemetary, 92 Winthrop Ave., above his grave. The public is welcome to attend.
Participating in the ceremony from Yale will be Curtis Patton, professor of epidemiology and public health at the School of Medicine, who spearheaded this effort; Joseph Gordon, associate dean of Yale College and vice president of the Phi Beta Kappa national association; and Susan Hockfield, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. New Haven dignitaries will include Mayor John DeStefano Jr.; Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo; Thomas Rodd, headmaster of Hopkins School; and the Rev. Victor Rogers, pastor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Shades, an a capella Yale student ensemble, will sing a medley of spirituals, and a Yale brass quartet will perform. Sponsoring organizations are Yale University, Evergreen Cemetery Association, Hopkins School, New Haven Public Schools, New Haven Savings Bank, St. Luke’s Church and Beta Tau Boul , an African American professional fraternity.
Bouchet’s father, William Francis Bouchet, was born into slavery in 1817. He came to New Haven in the 1840s as the personal servant of John B. Robertson, a Yale student from Charleston, South Carolina, and after obtaining his freedom, worked as a porter at the College.
Edward was the youngest of four children and the only boy in the family. Before coming to Yale, he attended Sally Wilson’s Artisan Street Colored School and Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven, where he was valedictorian of his class, graduating in 1870 – just five years after the Civil War.
Bouchet’s mother, Susan, is believed to have laundered clothes for her son’s classmates, and his father worked for a time as a janitor at Yale. They lived on Bradley Street in a black neighborhood.
Despite his isolated social situation and the challenges of his background, Bouchet earned a bachelor’s degree with highest honors from Yale in 1874 and a Ph.D. degree two years later, in 1876, with a dissertation titled “Measuring Refractive Indices.”
And then no university would hire him. With his excellent credentials and extraordinary gifts, he could not find work at any research facility, and accepted an offer to teach at the School for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. He had no library, no laboratory, no graduate students and no colleagues in his field. He remained there for 26 years and then moved to Summer High School in St. Louis, Missouri. For a time, he was business manager for a hospital in St. Louis. He later moved to Virginia, where he was director of academics at the St. Paul Normal and Industrial School, before becoming principal of the Lincoln High School at Gallipolis, Ohio. He never married and left no children.
Bouchet returned to New Haven on his retirement and became active in St. Luke’s Church. When he died in 1918 at the age of 66, he was buried in the family plot at Evergreen Cemetary. Without a tombstone.