William S. Scarborough was born a slave in Georgia, but went on to become one of the nation’s leading scholars in Greek and Latin literature.
In fact, many consider Scarborough to be the first African-American classical scholar. Born in February 16, 1852, in Macon, Georgia, Scarborough’s father was a freed slave but his mother was still enslaved, thus he inherited her status. Although educating slaves was against the law, Scarborough was secretly taught how to read and write in the classical languages.
He later went on to serve as an apprentice shoemaker, and then worked as a secretary at a well-known Black association because of his studies. Scarborough attended college at Atlanta University before heading to Oberlin where he graduated with honors in 1875.
The following year, he returned to Macon to teach the classical languages at his former high school. Despite his gifts, many were against Scarborough teaching at the school. At the time, both Black and White figures in society believed that the liberal arts were wasted on Black people. Booker T. Washington and other prominent Blacks thought that vocational education was more beneficial to Blacks than learning the classics.
Arsonists set the school where Scarborough worked on fire, and Macon officials allowed it to burn to the ground. After that, Scarborough moved to South Carolina where he encountered even worse treatment and eventually returned to Oberlin.
There, he obtained his Master’s and became a professor at Wilberforce University, then one of the premiere Black colleges. Scarborough published a popular college textbook titled First Lessons In Greek and in 1881, he married Sarah Bierce, a white principal he met while working at the school in Macon.
Scarborough was one of the first Black members to join national academic groups, including the American Philological Association (APA), and was the very first to join the Modern Languages Association (MLA). The MLA has since created a first-book prize bearing Scarborough’s name. While prestigious academic bodies recognized Scarborough, he was constantly bombarded by racism and suffered financially because of it. One of Scarborough’s lowest moments occurred during an APA meeting in Baltimore in 1909.
Archaeologist Francis W. Kelsey rescinded Scarborough’s invitation because the hotel where the event was held would not serve dinner if the Black professor were present. Scarborough remained at Wilberforce until he was appointed to serve in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he worked until his death in 1926.
Before his death, he was working on his autobiography, which was later discovered by Wayne State University professor Michelle Ronnick. Ronnick helped to edit the book The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey From Slavery to Scholarship, which was released in 2005 and featured a foreword from Henry Louis Gates.