Bittinger: From Alexander to Michelle

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(HOST) Commentator Cyndy Bittinger has been thinking about graduation dreams, challenges and reflections.

(BITTINGER) As First Lady Michelle Obama speaks at graduations across the land, she seeks to inspire students, especially minority students, in their search for the American dream.  Her life story of study and hard work coming from the inner city of Chicago is one they could emulate.  She and her brother were the first in their family to graduate from college!

She recently spoke to graduates at  UC Merced California college, imploring them to ".reach back and pull someone up.  You must bend down and let someone else stand on your shoulders so that they can see a brighter future."

Alexander Twilight predates Michelle Obama by almost two centuries but he would have understood the advice. Twilight, enrolled at Middlebury College as a junior in 1821 and received a BA in 1823. He was the first African American in our nation to graduate from an American college or university – this at a time when most Blacks were enslaved and could not read or write.

From the age of 11, Alexander worked on a neighbor’s farm in Corinth, attending the West Corinth Schoolhouse, and then moving to Randolph to attend the Orange County Grammar School at the age of 20.  Grammar schools in Vermont, with instruction in English, algebra, geometry, the natural sciences, Greek and Latin, were of a higher level than the small village school pupils were required to attend. His participation and leadership in the First Congregational Church of Corinth gave him an introduction to the President of Middlebury College.

Alexander Twilight graduated into a world we can only imagine. He found work as a teacher, probably in the Congregational community of Peru, New York. In those days work for women and Blacks would mean doing something menial or teaching, on a lower salary scale than their white male peers. Alexander, earning a license by the Champlain Presbytery in Plattsburgh, NY, could teach during the week and preach on weekends, fulfilling his goal  to be a minister and doubling his income. His students called him a "tough disciplinarian" with a "lively sense of humor," but most of all an "outstanding teacher." In 1829, he arrived in Brownington to become principal of the Orleans County Grammar School and was appointed the "Acting Pastor" of the Brownington Congregational Church.  In 1836, when the state of Vermont proposed to reduce funding for his school, he ran for the state legislature to fight the budget cuts and won. He then became the first African American ever to serve in a state legislature in our country!

When Twilight wanted a new school, he convinced a local man to donate land, then designed and built a massive four story granite building that still stands today.  As author Howard Frank Mosher once wrote, the building is "a tribute to the faith of its creator, the Reverend Alexander Twilight: scholar, husband, teacher, preacher, legislator, father-away-from-home to nearly 3,000 boys and girls, an African American and a Vermonter of great vision."

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