From the Archives: Black Firsts at Albion College

Second row and second from left, James Welton is pictured with his graduating class and is widely accepted to be the first Black student to graduate from Albion College. While recognition has been paid to Welton, much of Albion's Black history remains undiscovered (Photo courtesy of Albion College Archives and Special Collections).

In Albion’s nearly 187 year history since being founded as a seminary in 1835, much of the school’s history has been documented and preserved. Though plenty about Albion’s past is known, there is plenty left to be uncovered. This is particularly true of Albion’s history involving Black students, staff and faculty. 

Some Black figures in Albion’s history are well-documented and known, while others are still just being rediscovered over a century later. This largely comes down to who is keeping track of that history, according to Archivist and Special Collections Librarian Elizabeth Palmer. 

“Archives, and museums, and history in general is who was responsible for documenting that history,” said Palmer. “And that is why there are gaps in knowledge and gaps in information.”

These gaps in knowledge and information come from a lack of intention to preserve certain aspects of Albion’s history. 

“While there are a lot of things from that time period, without someone actively doing that job, who’s choosing what stays and what doesn’t,” said Palmer. “That can often lead to white washed history.”

Though there are still gaps in Albion’s known Black history, students, staff and faculty today are doing the work to uncover much of what is lost. That includes preserving the legacy of Black history at Albion. 

James A. Welton

James A. Welton, pictured above, is the first Black student to graduate from Albion College (Photo courtesy of Albion College Archives and Special Collections).

Born in Mt. Meigs, Ala., James A. Welton began attending Albion College in 1900 and graduated in 1904. He was the first Black student to graduate from Albion and up until earlier this year, was considered to be the first Black student to attend Albion College. 

While on Albion’s campus, Welton was known for his abilities in public speaking. This led to him being voted class orator and speaking at many events during his time at Albion. Additionally, Welton was a member of the Electric and Antoniades Literary Society, Sigma Nu fraternity and the debate team. 

Following his education at Albion, Welton returned to his home state of Alabama. He then went on to become a teacher and later a manager at an insurance company. 

Welton’s life ended prematurely in 1929, and it was believed Welton was lynched for seeking a college education, according to a plaque posted inside the Welton House on Albion’s campus. 

Following the departure of the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority from campus after their national office forbade a Black student from joining in 1967, the house was given to Albion’s Black Student Alliance in 1985. Later, in 2002, the house was officially dedicated as the James A. Welton House. 

The house remains known on campus as the Welton House and contains information posted on a plaque inside that details Welton’s life and the history of the house. 

Ernestine Brown

Ernestine Brown, pictured here in the 1951 Albionian, is believed to be the first Black woman to graduate from Albion College (Photo courtesy of Albion College Archive and Special Collections).

While Welton was readily known as the first Black man to graduate from Albion, information surrounding the first Black woman to graduate has remained shrouded in mystery. 

According to Palmer, information known about the races of students at Albion, especially historically, is hard to come by. Often this information comes from pictures of students that are preserved. Many of these pictures are found in Albion’s yearbook, the Albionian

 That is where Akaiia Ridley, Albion senior, found Ernestine Brown, who is the first Black woman to graduate from Albion that there is a known record of. Ridley discovered Brown while doing research for her digital exhibit, “The Beginning of Belonging: Exploring the Black history of Albion College.” 

Not much is currently known about Brown, except for the facts that she graduated in 1951 and that, like Welton, she went on to become a teacher following Albion. Research surrounding Brown is still ongoing. 

Unknown & Changing History

The extensive known history surrounding Welton and the recent rediscovery of Brown provides more perspective to the Black history of Albion, but also highlights all that is left to be rediscovered.

Many Black firsts at Albion College remain unknown and are currently being researched. The first Black member of faculty is not currently known, and is difficult to discover as many students and faculty are not pictured in the Albionian on any given year. 

The narrative surrounding the Black firsts at Albion College also continues to change. Welton was commonly accepted to be the first Black student at Albion as well as the first Black graduate. Ridley found in her research, however, a reference to a Black student earlier than Welton. 

In an 1890 edition of the Pleiad, Isaiah Washington, “a colored student” from Lansing, was noted as joining the freshmen class. Washington’s future following this mention in the Pleiad is currently unknown and it is believed he did not graduate from Albion.

This article is the fourth in a series of four published today in honor of Black History Month. To view the other articles from this series, click here

About Sam Semerau 45 Articles
Sam Semerau is an Albion alum from Oakland Twp., Mich. She double majored in English and History. She worked for the Pleiad from spring 2020 to spring 2022 and served as editor-in-chief for the 2021-2022 school year. She began Pace University's MS in Publishing program during fall 2022.

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