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Out of the Past

Details of the life of Emanuel Sullavou, one of PEA's first African-American graduates, emerge more than 130 years later from archives in Exeter and Massachusetts.


There is a story, one might even call it a legend, that has been preserved and told with understandable pride among Exonians for more than a century. It was first recorded in 1864 in the Academy's Official Register of Students, but the story began taking on the quality of lore in 1883 when Frank H. Cunningham, class of 1882, wrote a history for the Academy's centennial called Familiar Sketches of the Phillips Exeter Academy. In his book Cunningham recalls, "During the troubles of the rebellion [The Civil War], a worthy colored student was a member of the Academy. Exeter knew no color line. Four [white] students after talking the matter over with themselves, called upon Principal Gideon Lane Soule in his study and said, 'Doctor, we see that you have a colored student in the Academy, and we have called to say that if he stays we must leave.' Said the Doctor, 'The colored student will stay, you can do as you please.' "

Occasionally, this story has gone beyond the Exeter community, as in 1999 when The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education told it under the heading "Despite the objections of southern students, the welcome mat was out for black students at Phillips Exeter." While the story has been known, what has not been known, until very recently, is the identity of the "colored student"-the name of the young man about whom Principal Soule is credited with writing, "I wish they [Exeter students] could all be publicly examined in company with him."

Emanuel Sullavou, class of 1867, entered Phillips Exeter Academy at the close of the Civil War, and became the subject of Academy lore when four white students called for his dismissal-only to be rebuffed by Principal Gideon Soule. Only recently has more been learned about Sullavou's life and considerable accomplishments, a project that began when archivist Edouard Desrochers came across this student photo while researching another project.

The student's name was Emanuel Sullavou. To be able, finally, to give a name and a face to such a significant alumnus has been the Academy's good luck-literally. Academy Archivist Edouard Desrochers discovered Sullavou's identity by chance, while sifting through period photos for another project. With Sullavou's name in hand, Desrochers began researching him in earnest, beginning with the Academy's own records. The scant information gleaned from these-Sullavou came to PEA at age 19 from New Bedford, MA; his father was Francis Sullavou; and like all other students he studied math, Latin and Greek-led Desrochers to contact a fellow archivist at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, who was able to provide him with some specifics about Sullavou's post-Exeter life.

From Success to Success

Some of what Desrochers has learned about Sullavou's life comes from its conclusion: his 1912 obituary, which ran in the New Bedford Standard under the heading "Death of City's Most Prominent Colored Man." After graduating from Exeter, Sullavou went on to Harvard, where his classmates included Henry Cabot Lodge, as well as Sullavou's fellow New Bedfordians and PEA alumni Morgan Rotch and Walter Clifford. He then studied law with a New Bedford firm and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1875. Initially, Sullavou went to Virginia and South Carolina, where he had a distinguished career teaching school and was clerk of the Trial Justice Court in Chester, SC. Later, he returned to New Bedford and began a very successful law practice which, his obituary noted, "was by no means confined to people of any one race, and was general in its nature-criminal, civil suits and probate work."

A hand-written note in an Academy ledger suggests the high regard Principal Soule (above) had for Sullavou's abilities. "I wish," Soule wrote, the students who called for Sullavou's dismissal "could all be publicly examined in company with him."

Sullavou served as New Bedford's first African-American clerk of the District Court and as the city's bail commissioner. In 1877, he married Susan May Thompson, and the couple had three children; their daughter, Lena, was the only child who survived beyond infancy into adulthood. In 1878, he became the first African American elected to the New Bedford Common Council (City Council). In 1886, Sullavou's PEA classmate, New Bedford Mayor Morgan Rotch, appointed him to the board of registrar of voters; he was later reappointed by Mayor Walter Clifford, also a classmate, and served as the board's chairman for many years. An "ardent Republican," Sullavou was active in local, state and national politics. He was, according to the New Bedford Standard, even a candidate for an ambassadorship: President William McKinley was "poised to appoint him minister of Haiti if Frederick Douglass had declined the position."

In addition to breaking numerous color barriers himself, Sullavou was president of the Union League, the first civil rights organization in New Bedford. He was also well respected in Masonic circles, rising to the highest honors of the local Prince Hall Grand Lodge-the first African-American Masonic Lodge in the United States.


East Meets Exeter
In the 1870s, a program brought groups of Chinese students to American universities and schools, including Exeter.

The Academy Archives are filled with remarkable stories, not the least of which are the accounts of Exeter's early international students. One of the most fascinating is the chronicle of seven Chinese students who lived in Exeter and studied at the Academy between 1877 and 1881. Yellowed clips from the Exeter News-Letter, pages from old Yale Reunion Books and, best of all, letters from the scholars themselves, tell of young men a long way from home who became part of the Academy and the local community, if only for a short time.

Kwoh On Tong was one of seven Chinese students who attended Exeter during the 1870s, until Chinese government officials became concerned about such corrupting Western influences as baseball.

In a letter he sent to the family of Reverend Jacob Chapman, with whom he stayed during his time at Exeter, student Kin Ta Ting declared, "I love New England as much as any 'Yankee.' " Unfortunately, such pro-Western sentiments may have led to the end of this early experiment in cross-cultural education.

The experiment had its roots in New Haven: in the mid-19th century, Yung Wing, a native of China, attended Yale and in 1854 became the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university. He undertook a lifelong crusade to provide young men from his country with a chance to experience Western education. He was aided by Christian churches in the United States and American missionaries in China. In 1872 he founded what came to be known as the Chinese Educational Mission, headquartered in Hartford, CT.

Beginning in the 1870s, boys and young men sponsored by the Chinese government began arriving in this country to be educated not only in universities, but in grammar and secondary schools as well. But even from its earliest days, the movement was viewed warily by some Chinese officials, who worried students were neglecting their Chinese heritage, dress and manners. Officials cited athletics as a concern, singling out baseball as an especially pernicious example of the activities in which the young scholars were engaged. (It is interesting to note that a map of the Academy dating from that time shows a much smaller campus, but one containing a large baseball field.)

Finally, in 1881, the Chinese government withdrew its support from the program. Young men in the United States were recalled; others were denied the means to return to this country. Letters in the Academy archives reflect the disappointment of the Exeter scholars and trace the outcomes of some of their lives. Kin Ta Ting, the young man who lived with the Chapman family, went on to become a doctor. Two of his fellow students became officers on ironclad gunboats. Kwoh On Tong went on to Yale University and, upon his return to China, began a career with the railroad and as an English secretary to high-level diplomats.

In the mid-1980s, almost a century after Shang-chow New attended the Academy, his grandson, Peter K. New, a professor of sociology at the University of South Florida, contacted the Academy requesting information on his grandfather. Professor New reported that Shang-chow New returned to Shanghai and became a successful businessman. At the time of his death, Shang-chow subscribed to a number of English language publications, among them New York Base Ball.

—Julie Quinn





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