This year marks the 130th anniversary of the first Black student to graduate from Ohio State University. His name was Sherman Hamlin Guss and he graduated in 1892.
Binaebi Calkins wrote to WOSU’s Curious Cbus to ask: What do we know about the first African American graduate of The Ohio State University?
Very little has been written about Guss’ life, and after examining government records, periodicals, and two university archives, WOSU is finally able to tell his story.
Guss was part of the first generation of African Americans born after the Civil War. Many of them had opportunities for education that their parents didn’t enjoy. Guss took full advantage of those opportunities to become a pioneer in the field of education.
He started life in Middleport, Ohio, a small town on the banks of the Ohio River in Meigs County. Records offer conflicting dates for his birth but he was likely born around 1870.
Middleport was founded by white settlers from New England with strong abolitionist convictions. For decades before Emancipation, the town was a stop on the Underground Railroad and a haven for people fleeing slavery. After the Civil War, the area became home to a community of working-class Black families drawn in by the salt and coal mining industry.
According to the 1880 U.S Census, Guss’ father William was born in Virginia and worked as a carpenter. His mother Mary—who was born in Kentucky—took care of the household with their eldest child, Augusta. The census record also shows that Sherman and his younger brother Marcellus could read and write while their parents and older sister could not.
While Meigs County had Black primary schools that Guss likely attended, he graduated with honors from a white school, Middleport High School. He and another Black student were the first non-white students to graduate.
Guss taught elementary school in nearby Pomeroy, Ohio for two years before heading off to Ohio State University in 1888.
Today, Ohio State University is a mammoth institution with over 60,000 students in dozens of programs on multiple campuses. When Sherman Guss arrived on campus, Ohio State was a quaint land-grant university with a few buildings on the outskirts of Columbus.
Guss was one of 70 freshman undergraduates admitted in 1888. For comparison, the freshman class of 2021 was 8,350 on the main campus.
On such a small campus, everybody knew everybody. While Guss likely faced many challenges due to his race, the available archival evidence shows that he had a positive experience on campus.
As a student in the bachelor of arts program, Guss took courses in Latin, Greek, English, math and chemistry. Outside of class, he was a member of Alcyone, one of three competing literary societies at the university.
The student newspaper, the Lantern, reported that Guss was elected by his peers to give a speech representing his class at “University Day” in 1891. Although he made a good effort in his presentation on “The Tendencies of Democracy,” his memory failed him. That year’s Makio yearbook amiably recalled the incident stating “Of course Guss forgot his oration on that day, but what matters that?”
The student directory indicates that Guss lived in the historically African-American neighborhood that would come to be known as Bronzeville and today is called King-Lincoln Bronzeville.
One might assume that Guss was forced to live off-campus because of his race, but that does not appear to be the case. Frederick Douglass Patterson—another Black student and the first Black Ohio State football player—is listed as living on campus in the Northern Dormitory at the same time.
In later years as segregation became normalized, Ohio State was not immune to institutional bigotry. OSU track star and Olympic gold medal winner Jesse Owens was barred from living on campus in the 1930s, for example.
In 1892, Guss was one of six students to receive their B.A. degree. After graduation, he was an active alumnus who kept in touch with his alma mater and visited campus on numerous occasions.
Historian and retired OSU professor Kenneth Goings studies the history of African Americans and higher education. His research shows that Guss’s story is quite exceptional for this period. The 1890s were a low point in African American history filled with intense racial violence and political oppression.
“It’s the time of the lynchings. It’s the time of the racial massacres,” Goings said. “So to find a black student at a white college who apparently was very popular, a member of clubs, and someone who kept in contact with his institution even after graduating, that really is very extraordinary.”
The much more typical story was for African Americans to face animosity from faculty and students. According to Goings, even at progressive colleges that actively recruited Black students, it was common to find incidences of name-calling, exclusion, and occasional violence.
It is hard to know if Guss encountered racism while attending OSU, but if he did, it did not sour him on the institution. He joined the alumni association and attended several class reunions over the years.
Another exceptional part of Guss’ story is the fact that he graduated at all. It is important to remember that very few Black students attended college at all at this time, let alone earned a degree.
“Any formal education, particularly for Black students, was such a leg up that they were often able to secure very good jobs with just a partial college education and they didn’t need the college degree then,” Goings said. “In fact, the college degree was really very, very rare at the time.”
Prof. Goings said that what happened to Guss after graduation was more typical. As an African American with a college education, he went into education himself.
“There was such a desperate need for teachers at the time and such a thirst for education on the part of the Black community…that anyone with even a partial education was recruited into the teaching profession,” Goings said.
The Principal’s Office
After graduation, Guss headed to Clarksburg, West Virginia to become the principal of the town’s Black school, a one-story brick building that taught students up to the eighth grade. Guss oversaw the first high school class which graduated in 1895.
When he left 12 years later, the school had moved to a larger three-story building to meet the increasing demand. The school had five teachers, including Guss himself, and about 200 students. Guss’ next opportunity took him to a new school dedicated to the education of African Americans.
The 1890 Morrill Act set up additional funding to create land-grant institutions for Black students. Essentially, states that had segregated public universities and refused to admit students based on race had to create a separate school for African Americans.
So while this historical period was a deeply oppressive time for Black people in America, paradoxically, it was also a golden age for education as more than a dozen new colleges and universities were created across the Southern and border states.
One of those new schools was the West Virginia Colored Institute. Established in 1891, the institute’s first class began in 1892. At first, the school offered the equivalent of a high school education along with vocational courses. But an increasing demand for teachers across the state shifted the school’s focus to teacher training. Creating more educators became the mission of what were called “normal schools.”
Guss was one of many educated African Americans from Ohio who settled in West Virginia to become teachers and school administrators because the need there was so great.
Over these decades, Guss helped found the State Teachers Association and served on its board. He edited the school’s magazine The Institute Monthly. He was a member of several fraternal orders including the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, the Elks and Sigma Phi Alpha, a Greek-letter professional organization for African Americans.
Guss retired from his principal role in 1934 and continued as an instructor until 1941.
In a brief biographical sketch from the West Virginia State University archives, Guss stated that he felt “his greatest contribution came through his efforts to create an interest in high schools throughout the state in the years when these were few in number, small and weak.”
Once A Buckeye, Always A Buckeye
Throughout his career, Guss stayed in contact with OSU, keeping the alumni magazine up to date on his life and professional progress.
In 1912, the Lantern reported that Guss visited campus to make a “special investigation” on Black progress at the university and spent his time interviewing students.
He wrote the alumni office in 1925 that he was very proud to be the first Black graduate of the university. In 1927, he wrote that classmates could find him on “the front in West Virginia, ‘the land overlooked,’ where the fight for human uplift is the thickest.”
Sherman Hamlin Guss passed away in 1943 after nearly 40 years as part of the community in Institute, W.V.
Prof. Goings believes it is important to remember these early pioneers and what they went through.
“They really did test the boundaries of freedom. They really began to grow up with the notion that they were free and equal citizens,” Goings said. “And one way they wanted to prove that was by their education.”