Honoring Yale’s pioneering African-American alumni
As part of its celebration of February as Black History Month, the Yale Black Alumni Association has been featuring profiles of some of the University’s pioneering African American alumni on its Facebook. The following are brief descriptions of those individuals. For the complete biographies, visit the BAA Facebook page.
Nimrod Booker Allen
Nimrod Booker Allen, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from Yale Divinity School in 1915, was head of the Columbus (Ohio) Urban League for nearly 40 years, leading the organization through the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, the economic collapse of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the growth of the black population during World War II, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s. Through all of these years, Allen always advocated a non-confrontational approach to race relations.
John H. Lewis
John H. Lewis, who earned a Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School in 1913, was a pastor and educator who served for two terms as president of Morris Brown College in Georgia (1920–1928 and 1951–1958). During his career, he also served as pastor of First AME Church in Pasadena, California; principal of Dunbar High School and Junior College in Little Rock, Arkansas; president of the AME-supported Shorter College of North Little Rock; and dean of Payne Theological Seminary at Wilberforce University.
Harry G. Tolliver
Harry G. Tolliver, who graduated from Yale Law School in 1908, was a practicing attorney in New Haven and the city’s first African-American alderman, representing the 19th ward for two terms. His election marked a new era in political circles for African Americans as this was the first office of any consequence to which an African American had been elected in the history of Connecticut politics.
Charles H. Wesley
Charles H. Wesley earned a Master of Arts degree from Yale, with special interests in history and education, in 1913. He later became the fourth African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard (1925). During his career, he served as dean of liberal arts and graduate studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C.; president of Wilberforce University, Ohio; founding president of Ohio’s Central State University; and director of the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Washington, D.C.
Jane Matilda Bolin
Jane Matilda Bolin was the first African-American woman to graduate from Yale Law School (1931) and the first in the United States to become a judge. As judge of the Family Court of New York, where she served for 40 years, Bolin was an activist for children’s rights and education. She was awarded the Yale Law School Association’s Medal of Merit in 1994. Her portrait hangs in the Law School.
John Wesley Anderson
John Wesley Anderson came to Yale Divinity School after earning his B.A. in 1912 from Wilberforce University in Ohio. He earned his Yale degree in 1915. While at the University, he joined Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity’s Zeta chapter, and became an integral member of the local AME church. Anderson subsequently became a professor of math at St. Paul Norm and Industrial School in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Jefferson Gatherford Ish Jr.
Jefferson Gatherford Ish Jr., a member of the Yale College Class of 1909, was the second in his family to attend Yale: His older brother was in the Yale Class of 1905. In addition to a career in the insurance industry, Ish served as president of the State Agricultural Mechanical and Normal College (currently University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) and of State AM&N College of Arkansas. He was also the national general agent of the Mosaic Templars of America, a fraternal organization offering mutual aid to the black community.
Dr. Isaac Napoleon Porter
Dr. Isaac Napoleon Porter matriculated at Yale School of Medicine, graduating in 1903. The dean of the Yale medical school is reported to have said, upon awarding Porter his sheepskin, that he was the best prepared of any of his class to practice medicine. Porter practiced medicine in New Haven for his entire medical career. He was a member of the New Haven Historical Society, Chamber of Commerce, New Haven Medical Society, the American Medical Society, and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
Beatrix Ann (McCleary) Hamburg
Beatrix Ann (McCleary) Hamburg was the first self-identified African American to graduate from Vassar College (1944) and the first black woman to earn an M.D. at Yale School of Medicine. She has had a distinguished career in child psychiatry, holding professorships at Stanford, Harvard and Mt. Sinai Schools of Medicine, and has received numerous distinctions and honorary awards. She is currently the DeWitt Wallace Distinguished Scholar in the Department of Psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
Dr. William Porter Norcom
Dr. William Porter Norcom, a native of New Haven, graduated from Yale University in 1911 and in 1917 earned a medical degree from Howard University. He was a Mason (Prince Hall Affiliation) and served as grand master of Connecticut 1923–1926. From 1930 until the 1940s Norcom was the medical director of the Brooklyn Lodge 32, I.B.P.O.E. of W., and in 1931 he received the 33rd Degree (Scottish Rite). He became captain in the Medical Corps of the New York National Guard’s 3rd Separate Battalion, Infantry.
William Pickens, the son of liberated slaves, came to Yale having already earned a B.A.in 1898 at Talladega College, Alabama. He graduated from Yale with a second B.A. degree in classics in 1904. He helped organize the Louisville branch of the NAACP, and after a career in academia, became NAACP field secretary. During his tenure (1920–1942) the number of NAACP branches grew to more than 350. Pickens later became an employee of the U.S. Treasury Department, traveling across the United States in, urging the sale of U.S. Savings Bonds.
Dr. Van Rensselaer Creed
Dr. Van Rensselaer Creed (no picture found), was the first African American to be awarded any degree by Yale when he received an M.D. from the School of Medicine. His mother was New Haven’s first African-American schoolteacher, and his father was a Yale College janitor and a caterer for the University. Creed developed a racially mixed medical practice in both New Haven and Brooklyn, New York. Originally denied permission to serve in the Civil War because of his race, he was appointed acting surgeon of the 30th Regiment U.S.C. Infantry after President Lincoln authorized the recruitment of African-American troops; he served to the war’s end.