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Published: Friday, 2/4/2005

Scarborough: An American hero of the mind

DETROIT - This is the story of one of black history's amazing unknown pioneers, a slave who, against all odds, rose to become the foremost black classical scholar, a major voice in the debate over the future of black America and, finally, president of Wilberforce University.

And it is the story of a young white woman, born long after he died, who found his fascinating autobiography tucked away and forgotten, and who has just given William Sanders Scarborough's incredible life back to the nation after it was somehow tragically lost for decades.

"He was an American hero of the mind," Michelle Valerie Ronnick said. "His story remains living proof that if you work hard, aim high, and dream big dreams, you can overcome tremendous obstacles."

Thanks to her own hard work, Wayne State University Press has just published his book. The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey From Slavery to Scholarship (425 pages; $29.95).

Scarborough: A true scholar Scarborough: A true scholar

Her achievement, like that of her subject, has been hailed as nothing short of brilliant by Henry Louis Gates, the famous scholar and critic.

Though they are separated by race, gender, and more than a century, the black pioneer and the young scholar have something in common. No one would have expected either to become experts in ancient tongues.

Growing up in Florida in the 1970s, Michele Ronnick took Latin as a senior in high school mainly because her brother liked the teacher. It started her on a lifelong passion for the classics.

Nobody would ever have expected Scarborough to become a scholar - let alone a leading expert on Greek and Latin. When he was growing up, it was illegal to teach blacks to read or write. U.S. Sen. John C. Calhoun, the famous fire-eating defender of slavery, once said that if he "could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe the Negro was a human being."

Scarborough, who surreptitiously was taught to read, ended up not just knowing that ancient language fluently, he became the author of a Greek college textbook widely used in the late 19th century.

He rose to become an amazing example who fought hardship all his life; never took no for an answer, and who wasn't content to be a trailblazer in merely academic circles.

He dabbled in Ohio politics and fought Booker T. Washington's idea that African-Americans should be content to learn industrial arts and not worry about cultivating the life of the mind.

And William Scarborough was witness to some of the greatest moments of his time. He was a 12-year-old boy in Atlanta when the city was sacked by William Tecumseh Sherman. (When blacks were allowed to do some looting, he tellingly went after, he says, "pencils, envelopes, and paper.")

He saw Jefferson Davis dragged away as a prisoner of war; met Richard Wright and Frederick Douglass; knew Warren G. Harding, and attended Booker T. Washington's funeral.

He fell in love with a white divorcee when that was social suicide; they married in 1881, and lived happily ever after for 45 years.

Then, in the fall of 1926, he died, after struggling into his library for one last look at his beloved books. Shortly before he had finished writing an autobiography, to which his heartbroken wife added a few pages. But it was never published, and it and he were finally forgotten.

Meanwhile, Michelle Ronnick had gone on to become an expert on Roman literature, and ended up as part of the tiny classics department at this sprawling urban school.

Eight years ago, doing research, she came across a reference to one William Scarborough. It said he was African-American, a former slave, and was the author of a textbook of ancient Greek.

What amazed her was that she had never heard of him. Her interest was piqued. Then, after a lot of digging, she discovered a treasure trove: A copy of his autobiography, forgotten, in the Ohio Historical Society archives. For some reason, it had never been published. As she began to read, she was hooked.

Wayne State University Press has just published the manuscript. It reveals a black man who was a straight-laced Victorian; who was always proper, but whose remarkable life puts most of us to shame.

"I have never been ashamed of my birth conditions," he says succinctly. "I have left that to the slaveholders."

Shortly before he died nearly a century ago, Professor William Sanders Scarborough finished his memoir, writing, "I look ahead into years to come, when the melting pot - America - will have melted away racial lines, hates, and prejudices a thing this country owes to its honor."

We can only guess what he would have thought today. But I think it might be something like what I heard a minister say once during a service in the African Methodist Episcopal Church to which the old professor belonged.

"Lord, we're not what we should be. We're not what we could be and we're not what we are going to be. But at least we're not what we were."

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