BMCR 2020.01.24

William Sanders Scarborough’s ‘First Lessons in Greek’: A Facsimile of the 1881 First Edition. Foreword by Ward W. Briggs, Jr.; introduction by Michele Valerie Ronnick

W. S. Scarborough, Edited by Donald E. Sprague, William Sanders Scarborough’s 'First Lessons in Greek': A Facsimile of the 1881 First Edition. Foreword by Ward W. Briggs, Jr.; introduction by Michele Valerie Ronnick. Chicago: Bolchazi-Carducci, 2019. 187. ISBN 9780865168633 $24.00.

First Lessons is an important document in many ways. It is the first Greek textbook ever written by an African American and a landmark document as it invalidates prejudices against people of African descent, who were frequently considered to be lacking the intellectual abilities to master ancient Greek and Latin. First Lessons thus remains a testimony to the intellect of a pioneer classicist and serves to substantiate––if it should ever have to be demonstrated––the humanity and the intellect of people of African descent. William S. Scarborough (1852–1926), who was born a slave in Macon, Georgia, was the first African-American professional scholar of classical studies, having earned his BA in classics from Oberlin College in 1875.

The book was published when Scarborough was a professor of ancient languages at Wilberforce University, one of the most prominent black learning centers of its era. The reissue of this text, alongside the very helpful foreword and introduction, has several merits. The foreword situates the book within the historical context of textbook publications, especially Greek and Latin grammars, in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century. The ability to read Greek works in the original was, as Professor Briggs mentions, “not only the mark of a truly cultured (and privileged) person, but also a passport to social advancement” (xii). Although Scarborough was not from a privileged social class, he proved himself a first-rate classicist and used his knowledge to be a critical voice for others, helping to advance socially marginalized members of his ethnic group.

Second, to study Scarborough’s work is to have access to a vignette of American history. His contribution, as highlighted by Briggs, “is a long neglected highlight of this period and it offers us an important window into the history of classical studies in America” (xiii). In the Introduction, Michele V. Ronnick presents a helpful synopsis of Scarborough’s life and times. She also places the textbook in the intellectual context of a flurry of textbooks on Greek and Latin, alongside a wide array of other academic subjects, during the nineteenth century. Scarborough’s First Lessons, then, is part and parcel of a wider interest and endeavor to teach university students the core subjects of a Humanities degree.

Scarborough’s First Lessons was both favorably received in scholarly circles and celebrated by proud friends, Oberlin alumni, and the public at large. It was widely publicized and used in many schools. Scarborough shares some of the congratulatory words he received in his Autobiography: “From Northwestern University it is no small praise to say that ‘Professor Scarborough had done just what he undertook.’ ‘Amid the books of this class there is none better. The model is an excellent one and the author had admirably executed his task,’ says the professor of Greek at Adelphi. Others added their appreciation. Oberlin College [sent] praise and congratulations from President Fairchild, Professor Frost, and others all showing pride in my achievement. Close friends were particularly jubilant.”1 The favorable reception of this work and the pride of the author and his students learning from their own professor’s book is also mentioned in the Autobiography (p. 78). The publication of this book placed him as an authority in classical education in the United States and helped him to advance his own philological career, admitting him as a full professional member of the guild.

Scarborough’s book has, however, a few typographical errors, which may have been due to the incongruity of Greek types and fonts not well mastered by most publishers of the time. Scarborough was well aware of these minor shortcomings and a list of errata is added by Professor Ronnick to this reprinting. Corrections to Scarborough’s text were made at a distance, and items may have been lost in transit. The publisher in fact did not know that Scarborough was of African descent until the book came out. At the end of her introduction, Professor Ronnick notes how the love for books, the teaching of Greek and Latin, and advocating for others were important to Scarborough. She notes, “Thus we have an improbable story of our nation’s first professional philologist of African descent, a boy born in slavery who made himself into a scholar, became president of one of the leading black universities, and allied himself by marriage to a like-minded spirit who believed in the uplifting effect of education for everyone, white, black, male, or female” (25–26).

On reading the textbook one is indeed impressed by its qualities and its pedagogical reasoning. In the preface, Scarborough clarifies that “as an introductory book, [it] is sufficient for most purposes in preparatory instruction” (29). He briefly situates his textbook in the context of other Greek grammars. He also shows openness to criticism of his work so that he may make any necessary corrections in the future. The preface reads as a standard one for an academic university textbook. The book is divided into two parts. The first is the introductory grammatical elements suitable for a first-year Greek class. It includes short lists of vocabulary, drills in Greek grammar, and Greek to English and English to Greek exercises. The second contains small excerpts of Greek texts from Xenophon’s Anabasis and selections from Xenophon’s Memorabilia. The author provides supplementary notes to aid the student in translating these texts. In the first part, this reviewer notices Scarborough’s pedagogical sensitivities in the quizzing questions he asks the students and in some of the translations he provides. However, there are also instances where he introduces words in a text without providing any translation. Also, some of the grammatical constructions or renderings he proposes are too vague, wooden, and/or unnatural.

Notwithstanding these few critical remarks, when it is judged solely on the merits of a first-year textbook, First Lessons remains a good introduction to ancient Greek. But, as previously stated, Scarborough’s Greek textbook has a value that goes beyond filling a void in texts devoted to the learning of ancient languages. It is a pioneering work, written by a first-rate African classicist of the nineteenth century. This reviewer, who is also of African descent, could not help but feel pride in the accomplishments of such a towering figure such as Professor Scarborough. First Lessons, reprinted with the present foreword and introduction, is an important document in the history of American education in general and in classical studies in particular. It is a document to be celebrated and shared widely.


1. William Sanders Scarborough, The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough (1852–1926): An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship, foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., edited and introduced by Michele Valerie Ronnick (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 76.