Alexander Crummell was an African-American Episcopalian minister, scholar, and educator, and was the first known Black person to get a degree from Cambridge University.
Crummell was a key figure in the struggle for Black people’s rights in the United States, Great Britain, and the African continent. Alexander created the idea of pan-Africanism by drawing on his Christian faith. and urged individuals of African origin to unite in solidarity.
On March 3, 1819, Crummell was born in New York City. His mother, Charity Hicks, was a free Black woman, and his father, Boston Crummell, was a former enslaved person. Although his parents received no formal education, Crummell attended an interracial school in Canaan, New Hampshire, and an abolitionist-run institute in Whitesboro, New York, which mixed manual labor and the classical curriculum.
At the age of 25, he received his ministry ordination. Unfortunately, Crummell’s skin color prevented him from securing the same opportunities as the white clergy. In 1839, the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church refused to admit him because he was Black. Instead, Crummell completed his theological studies privately and was finally ordained as an Episcopalian minister in 1844.
Crummell traveled to England around 1848 to raise funds to establish a church for economically disadvantaged Black people. He met politicians, religious leaders, and authors and was received everywhere, in his own words, ‘with favor and courtesy’. He was invited to preach in various locations and raised the equivalent of more than $8,000 for his new church. However, Crummell’s efforts were hampered by sickness.
Upon advice from his friends, Crummell matriculated in the Michaelmas term of 1849 at Queens College, Cambridge University, and earned his Bachelor of Arts in 1853 (the BA course took nearly 4 years at that time). The exact reasons that motivated Crummell to choose Queens’ is unknown. Personal connections were crucial for admissions back then because there was no official process.
A number of Crummell’s friends and supporters were from the Church of England’s evangelical branch. Although evangelicals in the 19th century were mostly Tory supporters and opposed legislative and theological changes, the movement had backed William Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery. For the majority of the nineteenth century, Queens’ was renowned for its distinctly evangelical nature, which might have been Crummell’s motivating factor.
Colleges have a tendency to take credit for the accomplishments of their well-known graduates, but Crummell, like almost two-thirds of his fellow students at the time, read for a pass degree only, which was not a very demanding course. Therefore, it was not just his Cambridge education that led to his eventual prominence as one of the best Black American writers before the 20th century.
Very little is known about Crummell’s Cambridge experience. In his own account, Crummell stated that due to his illness, he often “fell into a state of discouragement and despair… Now and then my studies were interrupted.” Only another anecdote remains from the very end of his time at Cambridge when he was graduating from the Senate House:
The person who defended Crummell was E.W. Benson, who went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Following his graduation from Cambridge, Crummell worked as a Protestant Episcopal missionary in Liberia, where he acquired citizenship and combined pastoral work with the leadership of schools in Maryland county and Monrovia. As a preacher, prophet, social analyst, and educator, Crummell had an impact on Liberian intellectual and religious life.
He believed that Africa, with its God-given moral and religious potential, had a special place in the history of redemption. He wanted Liberia to be defined by democratic institutions, a vibrant tradition of literature, arts, commerce, and the rule of law. Crummell advocated for women’s education, public libraries, agricultural growth, and increased trade. He also assisted in transforming the Protestant Episcopal Mission into a church for Liberians.
However, Crummell embraced the contentious idea that African Americans should return to Africa to colonize Liberia. Crummell attempted to civilize Africans by introducing Christianity to replace traditional beliefs and practices. In doing so, Crummell found himself in a thorny situation: in Liberia, he supported the idea that Africans were inferior, the same racially prejudiced belief which had made his life so difficult in the United States. Nevertheless, as a “pure black” (which Crummell frequently asserted), he tried to advocate for the interests of the indigenous people too and often opposed government actions to consolidate authority and resources in the mulatto community.
Crummell left for the United States in 1873 because of fear that the mulatto ascendancy would endanger his life. He served as the rector of St. Luke’s Church in Washington, D.C., until 1894. From 1895 to 1897, he was a professor at Howard University. He continued to fight for African American Christian scholarship and African redemption and established the American Negro Academy in 1897, one year before his passing.
Renowned sociology, W. E. B. Du Bois, described an encounter with Crummell in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), writing “I spoke to him [Crummell] politely, then curiously, then eagerly, as I began to feel the fineness of his character, his calm courtesy, the sweetness of his strength, and his fair blending of the hope and truth of life. Instinctively I bowed before this man, as one bows before the prophets of the world.”
As Du Bois’ words testify, Crummell was an unforgettable figure who left behind an incredible legacy. Yet, set against the story of his entry into the exclusive halls of learning at Cambridge, are the untold narratives of many deserving Black individuals who were denied access to the university, both in Crummell’s time and today. Only 137 Black undergraduate students from the UK were admitted to Cambridge University in the 2020–2021 academic year, which is a record number in the institution’s history but represents a mere 4.6% of the total student intake. The underrepresentation of Black students in Cambridge as well as more general structural concerns of racial inequality that exist inside the University has drawn significant criticism.
Honoring Crummell’s legacy requires a firm commitment to not only remembering him but also taking tangible steps to promote real inclusion in the university space. As Crummel once said, “We read the future by reading the past.” Therefore, reflections on the brilliance of our first Black Cantab and the causes to which he devoted his life should guide our efforts to make Cambridge more accessible to deserving Black students worldwide.