First black slaves to graduate from Lafayette honored

Robert Young ‘14, curator of the “Tales of Our Brothers” exhibit, speaks at the opening ceremony outside Pardee Hall.

Robert Young ‘14, curator of the “Tales of Our Brothers” exhibit, speaks at the opening ceremony outside Pardee Hall.

Photo by Matt Mitterhoff ‘16| The Lafayette

After graduation, some Lafayette students go on to study medicine. But David McDonogh was the first slave to do it.

With the exhibit “Tales of Our Brothers” in Pardee Hall, Lafayette honored David, its first black graduate, and possibly the first American slave to graduate from college. He graduated Lafayette College in 1844, 19 years before slavery was abolished. David’s brother, Washington Watts McDonough, also studied for two year at Lafayette.

Curator Robert Young ‘14 said that he hopes the exhibit will “provoke intellectual curiosity among the student body.” Among multiple reasons, the exhibit was given its name to recognize the relationship of the McDonogh brothers as the first black students among Lafayette’s all male institution and to represent “the brothers for [him] within the African-American community.” Young hopes the exhibit will inspire pride in the community.

“This is Lafayette’s history and we should no longer put things on the back burner.”

But the slave lives of David and Washington were atypical.

David and Washington were enslaved to John McDonogh, a businessman from New Orleans. John was a member of the American Colonization Society and he designed a plan to have his slaves buy their freedom and go to Liberia.

John believed that proper training was necessary before any freed slave could go to Africa and he helped to provide slaves with basic education. He thought that the brothers had potential and recommended that they be further educated before going to Liberia.

While at Lafayette, the McDonogh brothers were housed in a separate building from the other students and ate their meals separately. They were required to attend all oral presentations by their fellow classmates, despite receiving instruction separately. They were even expected to sit apart from other students.

David McDonogh studied a classical curriculum, but was most interested in medicine. He worked as an apprentice for a local doctor and pharmacist while at Lafayette. Because of his passion for medicine, David did not follow the plan set forth for him by his owner to go to Liberia after Lafayette. Instead, he pursued a medical education and worked at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. When he passed away in 1893, he listed his brother and Lafayette College as beneficiaries. The McDonogh Memorial Hospital was also named in his honor, and was New York City’s first hospital to admit physicians and patients without regard to race.

Washington moved on to Liberia as a helper in the Presbyterian mission, according to an October 31, 1893 article in the Easton Dailey Free Press. He was eventually elected to the Liberian legislature.

For Young, the exhibit has given him “pride and a sense of identity in the Lafayette community” and has helped him to “understand [his] purpose here at Lafayette in terms of the people before him and the growth of the College.”

David was honored in 2008 with a statue on the north side of Skillman Library.