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."
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."
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.
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