Talk Recounts Experience of Yale’s First Black Graduates

A young black man with the grades and the desire to attend the Yale School of Medicine in the 1800s faced seemingly insurmountable odds, but the power of relationships is what made it possible for Courtlandt Van Rensselaer Creed to beat those odds, said Yale professor emeritus Curtis Patton, recounting Creed’s path to Yale in a recent talk at the Yale University School of Nursing.

The talk, titled “Leadership and Race at Yale, 1854-1954,” explored the University’s past policies on race from the 19th century to its implementation of an “unwritten policy” in the early 20th century.

Patton maintains that relationships can sometimes transcend race. Creed might not have been born with the “right” skin color, but the relationships that existed between his parents and his namesake (a Yale alumnus) created a colorblind path for him to follow.

“At the time, there were those who were deserving and those who were not,” said Patton. “It had less to do with accomplishment and more to do with birth. New Haven in the 1800s was a very hierarchical society that was not too far removed from Victorian society and, in some ways, still is.”

Patton pointed out that there was slavery in New Haven and that, in fact, more people owned slaves in New England than in the South. In the minds of its citizens at the time, he said, there were only two kinds of black people, “good” ones and “bad” ones. This narrow view kept many from realizing that genius was all around them, Patton added.

Creed’s father, John, an immigrant from the Caribbean, became a janitor at Yale and a steward of the Calliopean society, mainly comprised of Southern students. The most powerful black family in New Haven at the time, the Duplexes, befriended John Creed, and he joined the Center Church and married their daughter, Vashti Duplex. The elder Creed catered commencement dinners attended by Yale alumni. It was at one of these gatherings that he and Courtlandt Van Rensselaer, a white student at Yale from a powerful family, met and became close friends. This relationship was so special that John Creed named his son after Van Rensselaer.

The relationships that preceded his birth helped smooth the way for Courtlandt Van Rensselaer Creed, Patton told his audience. He attended Hillhouse High School in New Haven, and wrote to Frederick Douglass while he was a medical student and had his letter published.

Many people in power in New Haven at the time were abolitionists or had abolitionist leanings, Patton noted.

“To illustrate the power of relationships at the time, when Creed was admitted to the Yale School of Medicine in 1854 none of the faculty revolted and no students walked out of the classrooms,” said Patton. In 1857, Creed became the first black person to graduate from Yale School of Medicine.

Creed grew a successful integrated medical practice and became an officer and a surgeon of the 13th Connecticut Volunteers in the Civil War. The U.S. government asked for his assistance in analyzing the trajectory of the bullet that assassinated President Garfield, Patton noted.

It took several more decades for another black person to graduate from Yale. In 1870, Edward Alexander Bouchet became the first black person to enroll in Yale College. Also the son of a Yale employee, Bouchet was the valedictorian of the Hopkins School in New Haven. He was the first African American in the country elected to Phi Beta Kappa and ranked sixth in the Yale Class of 1874. When he received his doctorate in physics in 1876, he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from an American university.

At the time that these two men made history at Yale, most black people would have given life and limb to learn just how to read and write, Patton told his audience. It might have seemed like the beginning of a new era, he said, but history did not repeat itself for a long time.

In 1936, a woman named Virginia Alexander was admitted to the Yale School of Public Health. She became the first black woman to walk the medical campus. She did her thesis on health disparities and tried to integrate medicine. At a time when not many people were getting M.D.s, she got additional degrees.

In 1933, a black student was admitted to Yale University School of Nursing, but was forced to resign after one year. Her unhappy experience, Patton said, proved that the “experiment” had failed. This was how it was explained to a black student who had been turned down for admission and wanted an explanation. The admissions director had innocently revealed this “unwritten policy” of not admitting students if they were black.

The NAACP wrote letters to the school threatening to expose the unwritten policy, Patton recounted. This led to Yale’s School of Nursing becoming integrated.

Because race was not recorded at Yale in the past, it is difficult to identify early black students at the University, Patton commented. The first known black person to study at Yale was fugitive slave James Pennington. The University did not permit him to matriculate or earn a degree. The most he could do was audit classes at the Divinity School from 1834 to 1839.

Creed and Bouchet’s legacy illustrates the power of relationships to overcome even the institution of slavery, Patton said. He added that Creed’s ascent into Yale, and the subsequent successes of black students, is an example of what leadership at Yale is capable of doing.

“Leadership from the top down makes all the difference in the world,” he said.

— By Karen Peart

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Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326