This Day In History: April 29

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On April 29, 1854, Lincoln University becomes the nation’s first historically Black degree-granting institution of higher education.

Located in Pennsylvania and originally founded as the Ashmun Institute, the university was renamed in 1866 in honor of President Abraham Lincoln, revered among African Americans for his 1863 decree to emancipate the nation’s millions of enslaved people. Founder John Miller Dickey, who was white, had long been involved in the ministry, and with the help of his wife Sarah Emlen Cressen, provided philanthropic services to African Americans in the community. Dickey made efforts to enroll a freedman, James Amos, into other schools to prepare him for ministry, but when no one would admit him due to his race, Dickey trained Amos himself.

In 1853, Dickey’s plans for a university to train young Black men in classical, scientific and theological education gained approval from the Presbytery of Newcastle, Pennsylvania. Because of its status and success as a school, as well as its deep ties to Princeton University, it soon earned the nickname ‘the Black Princeton.’ In addition to Dickey, who had studied at Princeton Theological Seminary, many of Lincoln’s first presidents and faculty members came from the Ivy League school and perpetuated its classical curriculum.

Like many Princetonians of the time, Dickey belonged to the American Colonization Society, which led the U.S. movement to send Black Americans back to Africa. Part of his original goal in founding the university was to train Black missionaries who would cross the ocean and spread Christianity on the African continent. But after the war—and Emancipation—the colonization movement faded, and the school shifted to preparing its students to be professionals and leaders in America. In its early decades, students challenged the school for its all-white faculty. Lincoln hired its first Black professor in 1933 and its first Black president in 1945. In 1953, it began admitting women.

Lincoln University has produced many notable alumni, including civil rights lawyer and Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, and Harlem Renaissance poet and activist Langston Hughes, to name a few. Its graduates also include Kwame Nkrumah, first prime minister of independent Ghana, and Nnamdi Azikiwe, first president of independent Nigeria. They returned to Africa to preach a different gospel than one the school's founder intended—one of Black self-rule.