First African American University Opens

The creation of the Ashmun Institute—which later became Lincoln University—provided the first major institution of higher education for African Americans.

Summary of Event

The institution of higher learning now known as Lincoln University first opened its doors as Ashmun Institute, on January 1, 1857, in Chester County, Oxford, Pennsylvania. Its original purpose was to give African American youths an opportunity to receive sound, well-balanced educations. Although many people through many decades helped to create the idea of a school devoted to the higher education of African Americans, John Miller Dickey was the man who put the idea to work. Education;African American
Ashmun Institute
Pennsylvania;Lincoln University
[kw]First African American University Opens (Jan. 1, 1857)
[kw]African American University Opens, First (Jan. 1, 1857)
[kw]University Opens, First African American (Jan. 1, 1857)
Education;African American
Ashmun Institute
Pennsylvania;Lincoln University
[g]United States;Jan. 1, 1857: First African American University Opens[3140]
[c]Education;Jan. 1, 1857: First African American University Opens[3140]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Jan. 1, 1857: First African American University Opens[3140]
Ashmun, Jehudi
Dickey, John Miller
Dickey, Sarah Emlen Cresson
Carter, John Pym

The son of a minister and of Scotch-Irish descent, Dickey attended Dickinson College in Milton, Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1824. He then entered the Princeton Theological Seminary to become a Presbyterian minister, following in the footsteps of his many relatives who also were ministers. In 1827, he graduated from the seminary and received his first assignment, at the Presbytery of New Castle in Newark, Delaware. Two years later, he received a new assignment in Georgia from the Board of Missions. Finding that the slaves in that area listened ardently to his sermons, he was impressed by their desire to learn.

In 1834, Dickey Dickey, John Miller
Dickey, Sarah Emlen Cresson married Sarah Emlen Cresson, the daughter of a wealthy Quaker family. The marriage was frowned upon by the Quakers because Dickey was a Presbyterian, a religion whose beliefs clashed with theirs. Although Sarah was rejected from Quaker meetings, the Quaker religion had helped her to develop and continue her support and concern for African Americans, which she took with her into her marriage to John Dickey.

Many circumstances led to the founding of Ashmun Institute, including the past experiences of both Dickey and his wife. John Miller, Dickey’s grandfather, had given money for the education of African American youth in earlier years, and Miller’s acquaintance, Benjamin Franklin, also saw the need for an African American school. Both Dickey Dickey, Sarah Emlen Cresson
Dickey, John Miller and his wife had many relatives who were ardently opposed to slavery. Another reason that Dickey himself cited for his interest in African American education was the kidnapping of two young African American girls, Rachel and Elizabeth Parker. Although both girls were returned to their home, the incident helped Dickey to realize the inherent inequalities in the lives of the African American youths and the difficulties they experienced because they were not given the same opportunities that other young people enjoyed. The death of Dickey’s own child was another factor in his decision to create the institute.

Sometime in 1853, Sarah selected the land on which they would establish an educational institute for black youths that would teach science, the arts, and theology. During the same year, John Miller Dickey Dickey, John Miller announced his plans for an African American university, which would be called Ashmun Institute. In order to bring the institute into being, a committee was set up to gather funds and secure the Ashmun Institute’s charter through the Pennsylvania legislature. By April 29, 1854, the Ashmun Institute Bill was signed by Governor William Bigler, allowing for the construction of the new school. Because the project had insufficient funds to construct buildings, Dickey used his own money (for which he would later be reimbursed) to finance construction of the president’s house and a schoolroom with attached dormitories. By the fall of 1856, the school was nearly ready to open, and the Reverend John Pym Carter Carter, John Pym was selected as its first president.

The institute was named after Jehudi Ashmun Ashmun, Jehudi , who had been born in Champlain, New York, in 1794. In 1820, four years after graduating from the University of Vermont, he took the editorship of The African Intelligencer, a magazine devoted to the movement to send freed slaves to Liberia Liberia promoted by the American Colonization Society. American Colonization Society
West Africa;African American settlers Through his involvement in the magazine, Ashmun learned that a conductor was needed for a trip to Liberia to help take slaves back to their ancestral homeland. After working for repatriation of African Americans, he died in 1828 from the effects of a long illness. In naming their school after Ashmun, the Dickeys Dickey, Sarah Emlen Cresson
Dickey, John Miller memorialized the man for his work in behalf of freed slaves. The first building of Ashmun Institute was dedicated on December 31, 1856, the fifth anniversary of the kidnapping of Rachel Parker.

Classes at Ashmun Institute began on January 1, 1857, with only two students, James Ralston Amos and his brother Thomas. The first decades of the institution’s operation proved difficult—funding continued to be a challenge, and the outbreak of the Civil War (1861-1865) Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Ashmun Institute[Ashmun Institute] emptied the institute’s classroom for a short time. Moreover, there was some concern that the institute would be raided after the war began, but no such instances were reported. After the war ended and the Thirteen Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery, Ashmun Institute experienced a surge in enrollment, and the school began to expand.

Students at the four-year institute received instruction in geography, history, grammar, composition, elocution, and mathematics. They also received instruction in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. In addition, they studied church theology and history, as well as prayer and pulpit exercises. Although scholarship was important, each term the students were also evaluated on their other qualities, including piety, talents, diligence, eloquence, prudence, economy, zeal, health, and influence. Over time, the curriculum evolved and became more diversified as the school became more firmly established.

On February 7, 1866, the board of the institute began the process to change the name of the institute to Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Lincoln University[Lincoln University] University in honor of Abraham Lincoln, who was credited with championing emancipation of the slaves. The Pennsylvania legislature approved the change of name, and after April 4, 1866, Ashmun Institute was known as Lincoln University.


There were many notable presidents of the university as it continued to grow and become a respected institution. Isaac Norton Rendall Rendall, Isaac Norton , who was among the great contributors, served as president from 1865 until 1905. In 1945, Horace Mann Bond Bond, Horace Mann became the first alumnus of Lincoln University to become its president, as well as the first African American to hold the position. He held the position until 1957.

Lincoln University has remained a predominantly African American school and is proudly recognized as the oldest institution of higher learning dedicated to educating African American youths. Among its graduates are such notable persons as the poet Langston Hughes Hughes, Langston ; Thurgood Marshall Marshall, Thurgood , the first African American Supreme Court justice; Nnamdi Azikiwe Azikiwe, Nnamdi , the first president of Nigeria; and Kwame Nkrumah Nkrumah, Kwame , the first prime minister and president of Ghana. During the first century of its existence, it graduated more than 20 percent the African American doctors in the United States and more than 10 percent of the country’s black lawyers.

Further Reading

  • Blassingame, John W., and John R. McKivigan, eds. The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One. Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. Vol. 4, 1864-1880. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Includes a speech in which Douglass discusses Lincoln University and compares it to other African American institutions.
  • Bond, Horace Mann. Education for Freedom: A History of Lincoln University. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. Major primary source that gives details of the university’s beginning and growth. Written by a former president of Lincoln University.
  • Hill, Leven, ed. Black American Colleges and Universities. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. Includes a brief university history, current statistics, and enrollment information.
  • Hornsby, Alton, Jr. Chronology of African-American History. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991. Includes a short but descriptive history of Ashmun Institute at its beginning and as it changed to Lincoln University.
  • Jackson, Cynthia L., and Eleanor F. Nunn. Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003. General reference work on modern black colleges and universities.
  • Ploski, Harry A., and James Williams, eds. The African American Almanac: A Reference Work on the African American. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. Places the founding of the institute among other African American advances.
  • Roebuck, Julian B., and Komanduri S. Murty. Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Their Place in American Higher Education. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993. This analysis of the modern relevance of historically black colleges and universities is the first comprehensive historical and sociological overview of the subject.
  • Williams, Juan, Dwayne Ashley, and Shawn Rhea. I’ll Find a Way or Make One: A Tribute to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. New York: Amistad, 2004. Guidebook for students seeking colleges. Contains substantial entries on more than one hundred institutions, with a considerable amount of historical information on many of the colleges and universities.

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National Council of Colored People Is Founded

Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau

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Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Frederick Douglass; Abraham Lincoln; Booker T. Washington. Education;African American
Ashmun Institute
Pennsylvania;Lincoln University