Yale Celebrates 150th Anniversary of First African American Graduate
Yale will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the graduation of Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed, M.D., the first African American student to graduate from Yale, on June 1 and 2, beginning with a reception at the New Haven Lawn Club, 193 Whitney Avenue.
In 1857, Creed became the first African American to be awarded any degree by Yale when he received an M.D. from the School of Medicine.
Forty-five descendants of Creed’s family will join alumni of the School of Medicine and its Department of Epidemiology and Public Health (EPH) to honor his historic achievement during the School’s reunion weekend.
The weekend will include a reception at the New Haven Lawn Club, tours of campus for members of the Creed family, unveiling of the Creed Monument in the Grove Street Cemetery on Saturday, June 2 at 11 a.m., a presentation commemorating the alumnus’ legacy, an exhibition of historical items relating to Creed, a dinner for the family and invited guests, and a service at the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, which was co-founded by Creed’s uncle.
“The Creed family legacy extends far into the American mainstream and includes the first African American mayor of a city west of the Mississippi, a Tuskegee airman, a well-known civil rights activist, a Stanford-educated professor, and, most recently, two medical school graduates,” notes Professor of Medicine and Assistant Dean of Multicultural Affairs Forrester “Woody” Lee, M.D., whose office is coordinating the sesquicentennial celebration with Curtis Patton, professor emeritus in EPH.
Creed’s mother, Vashti Duplex, was New Haven’s first African American schoolteacher and the daughter of Prince Duplex, a Revolutionary War soldier who gained freedom from slavery upon service to the Continental Army. The alumnus’ father, John William Creed, possibly a native of Santa Cruz, West Indies, was a Yale College janitor and for over 20 years a successful caterer for Yale. The two were married by the Reverend Leonard Bacon, who taught theology at Yale and was well known for his anti-slavery views and advocacy of education for people of African descent.
Named for Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, 1827 A.B., the son of a wealthy New York family, the young Creed graduated from the New Haven Lancasterian School, a forerunner of James Hillhouse High School. John Creed is said to have inquired about his own chances for admission to Yale College in the 1830s. Receiving no reply, he would wait another 20 years before promoting the admission of his son. Cortlandt Creed applied and was accepted to the Medical Department of Yale College in 1854.
In 1855, Cortlandt Creed wrote a letter to Frederick Douglass noting the unequal access to established medical resources in his community, describing his ambition to complete medical studies and outlining his plans to practice in Liberia or in western Africa.
After receiving his medical degree in 1857, Creed developed a successful and racially mixed medical practice in both New Haven and Brooklyn, New York. He requested permission to serve in the Civil War as a surgeon in the Connecticut Volunteers, but was refused because of his race. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln authorized the recruitment of African American troops, and Creed was appointed acting surgeon of the 30th Regiment U.S.C. Infantry and served to the war’s end.
Creed wrote, “On every side we behold colored sons rallying to the sound of Liberty and Union.”
During his career, Creed was cited frequently in local news and The New York Times for his surgical and forensic skills, and was consulted for a medical opinion at the time of President James Garfield’s assassination. He served as medical officer in the Connecticut National Guard and was admitted to membership in the Connecticut Medical Society. Creed married twice and had three living sons at the time of his death on Aug. 8, 1900. He was laid to rest in the family burial plot at Grove Street Cemetery.
“When Creed graduated from Yale in 1857, no more than a handful of African Americans had previously received medical degrees from U.S. institutions, and none from the Ivy League schools,” notes Lee. “Yale continued to admit African Americans sporadically during the late 19th century, graduating another 10 students by 1903. However, for the next 45 years, admission of African-American students to Yale’s medical program virtually halted as the American society intensified divisions across racial and ethnic boundaries.”
The exceptions to this trend during this time included a few public health students and Beatrix McCleary Hamburg, who became the first African-American woman to graduate from Yale School of Medicine in 1948. In the 1970s, spurred by Yale President Kingman Brewster’s leadership, African-American enrollment expanded in all University academic and professional programs. Today, more than 350 African Americans hold Yale medical degrees.
“Given Dr. Creed’s vision of a post-Civil War society reunited in its commitment to fundamental human rights, he surely would be delighted to know that his alma mater now remembers and honors his pioneering role in integrating higher education in the United Sates,” says Lee, noting that the alumnus’ legacy has been carried forward at Yale through named scholarships and awards.
At EPH, the Creed/Patton/Steele Scholarship supports outstanding underrepresented minority students. Both EPH and the School of Medicine award an annual Commencement Day prize, the Creed Award, to an underrepresented minority student for academic achievement and commitment to community service. The Community Foundation of Greater New Haven now awards a Creed Medal for outstanding civic service. Recipients have included Dikembe Mutombo and Connecticut State Senator Toni Harp. In February 2001, the Creed Community Health Conference highlighted Yale-New Haven-Connecticut collaborations and current research impacting health inequities.