Illustration by Yaz Serrano
By Hannah McGurk
Jesse Ewing Glasgow Jr. was an exceptional African American intellectual who attended the University of Edinburgh 1858-60. After attending elite institutions for African Americans in US, Glasgow was admitted to the University and was praised and received prizes in every subject. In a time in which many presumed racial inferiority to be a biological and necessary fact, Glasgow was held up as defiant proof of the opposite.
Glasgow had humble beginnings in Philadelphia, where he was born circa 1837. His father, Jesse Glasgow, was a whitewasher by trade and active amongst local African American radicals. For example, his signature can be seen alongside other prominent African American activists’ at the end of the famous ‘Men of Color, To Arms! Now or Never!’ broadside published during the Civil War (Villanova University, 2015). Being born into a prominent African American family, Glasgow’s prodigious ability was highlighted at a young age and led to his admittance to the prestigious Institute for Colored Youth, an elite preparatory school for black men (Villanova University, 2015).
The Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia was founded in 1837, meaning many consider it to be the oldest historically black institution of higher education (it still exists to this day as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania) (Villanova University, 2015). The school was an act of defiance against racist ideology which perpetuated stereotypes of black men being intellectually inferior, unclean and criminally inclined. Thus, the school had a three-pronged approach which provided rigorous moral as well as academic training, and even had a strong focus on hygiene and presentation (White, 1973).
Glasgow stood out at the school, even amongst his peers of the black intellectual elite. Frances Jackson-Coppin recounted an incident when the principal had invited a famous phrenologist to the school, in order to challenge his notion of black intellectual inferiority.
‘He brought a friend with him, better versed in algebra than himself, and asked Mr. Bassett to bring out his highest class. There was in the class at that time Jesse Glasgow, a very black boy. All he asked was a chance. Just as fast as they gave the problems, Jesse put them on the board with the greatest ease.’(Jackson-Coppin, 1913)
Glasgow went on to become the very first academic graduate of the Institute and gained a place at the University of Edinburgh. Due to his ability and reputation, managers and peers fought to pay for his tuition and travel across the Atlantic. He matriculated in 1858 and excelled in all of his classes, winning several academic prizes in subjects from Greek to English to Mathematics (Caledonian Mercury, 1858 and 1859).
Using his influence in Scotland
In Philadelphia Glasgow was also a member of the elite African American library and literary society the Banneker Institute, one of Philadelphia’s most important black institutions (Stephens, 1998). They were an influential group of writers, thinkers and abolitionists who often wrote in support of the Underground Railroad. While in Scotland, Glasgow maintained a correspondence with the Banneker Institute. In 1859 following John Brown’s attempted raid on Harpers Ferry in Virginia, Glasgow wrote a 47-page pamphlet in support entitled ‘The Harpers Ferry Insurrection: Being an Account of the Late Outbreak in Virginia, and of the Trial and Execution of Captain John Brown, Its Hero’ (Villanova, 2015). This was distributed amongst a predominantly Scottish audience, encouraging them to support abolitionist efforts, which would later prove to be in keeping with a tradition of black students garnering Pan-African-esque support while away from home.
Glasgow sadly died of tuberculosis aged 23 on 20th December 1860 in his Newington home. His death was commemorated in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in a memorial meeting by the Banneker Institute (Glasgow Daily Herald, 1860; Caledonian Mercury, 1860). He was remembered extremely fondly, for both his abilities and character. Today his life is upheld for being an example of black excellence in a time when racist ideologies presumed no such thing could be possible.
Caledonian Mercury 1858, Tuesday, May 4, Issue 21405.
Caledonian Mercury 1859, Saturday, May 7, Issue 21720.
Caledonian Mercury 1860, Saturday, December 22, Issue 22227.
Glasgow Daily Herald, 1860, Obituary, 25 December
Jackson-Coppin, F, 1913, Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching
Stephens, G, 1998, Getting at the Throat of Treason and Slavery in, A Voice of Thunder: A Black Soldier’s Civil War, ed. Donald Yacovone, Illinois.
Villanova University, 2015, A Great Thing for our People: The Institute for Colored Youth in the Civil War Era, available online [https://exhibits.library.villanova.edu/institute-colored-youth/graduates/jesse-ewing-glasgow-jr/] accessed 13/09/18.
White, J.C, 1973, Philadelphia Negro Educator, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 97, No. 1, p. 79.