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Kalamazoo History

Black History Month: A Look at K’s First Black Students

Pauline Byrd Johnson (Kalamazoo College Archives) Pauline Byrd Johnson (Kalamazoo College Archives)

While many consider Kalamazoo College to be a progressive institution, we too have a history of systemic racial exclusivity. The following students of color are just a few whose presence began the process of racial inclusion at K, which extends into our current reality.


Rufus Lewis Perry, 1859

It was a freed slave who pioneered African American enrollment at Kalamazoo College. After his escape from slavery to freedom in Canada, Rufus Lewis Perry experienced a call to the ministry. He began at K in the Preparatory Department, providing an equivalent to a high school education, according to the 1859-1860 academic catalogue. The following year Perry took classes at the Theological Seminary, which was a part of the college at the time. He was later ordained as a pastor in 1861 at a Second Baptist Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The admission of a freed slave was highly irregular for the period, but the K president at the time, James Stone, was an avid abolitionist along with his wife, Lucinda. Perry only attended the institution for two years, and did not obtain an undergraduate degree.


Charles Lewis Williams, 1907

The first known African-American graduate from Kalamazoo College was Charles Lewis Williams, Class of 1907. Williams’ name, however, was lost to the pages of history until quite recently. As there are few photographs and no mention of race in old academic catalogues, it is difficult to track the history of students of color at the college, said K College archivist Lisa Murphy.

During the summer of 2016, Murphy received a call from Williams’ relative, Lorinda Jeter, inquiring about her ancestor’s record at the college. After a thorough investigation, Murphy ascertained that Williams was, in fact, the first known African American student to graduate from K. Through her investigation, Murphy also learned that Williams played on the football team and was the vice-president of the College Oratorical Association. He planned to study at the University of Chicago after graduation.

Charles Lewis Williams (Courtesy of Lorinda Jeter)

Charles Lewis Williams (Courtesy of Lorinda Jeter)

Pauline Byrd Johnson, 1926

Pauline Byrd Johnson, Class of 1926, was thought to be the first African American graduate before the discovery of Williams. She stands today as the college’s first female African-American graduate. During her time at the college, Johnson was a gifted writer for The Index and a member of a women’s literary society, although she was often excluded from more social collegiate events, according to her biography in the book Emancipated Spirits. Johnson went on to be the first black teacher in the Kalamazoo Public School system, teaching at Lincoln Elementary School in 1949.

Pauline Byrd Johnson (Kalamazoo College Archives)

Pauline Byrd Johnson (Kalamazoo College Archives)

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Black History Month: A Look at K’s First Black Students