Scholarship Honors James R. Priest, Columbia’s First Black Graduate

Oct 26 2020 | By Jesse Adams | Photo Credit: Randolph Linsly Simpson, Bogardus Galleries, Beinecke Library, Yale University

Support the James R. Priest Scholarship

"I give to the James R. Priest Scholarship to support Black engineers who are in the same place I was years ago. As a Black engineering student at Columbia, you don't often see many classmates that look like you or who can fully empathize with the increased challenge of navigating new academic, financial, and familial obligations concurrently. I am proud that the Engineering School has taken a direct stance to support the Black community and future generations of Black engineers and am proud to ensure this continues with my donation."

Deborah Owolabi '16SEAS

Class of 1877. James R. Priest is in the middle of the bottom row.

Over the first 123 years of its existence, Columbia University graduated nearly 10,000 white male students.

It took until 1873 for Columbia's recently established School of Mines to make a rare exception, enrolling the son of an African-American born into slavery who resettled in Liberia; he quickly rose to the top of his class. His name was James R. Priest, and he was Columbia University's first Black graduate.

To honor his singular experience and address a long legacy of injustice, Columbia Engineering launched a major scholarship initiative empowering this generation of Black talent. In recognition of James R. Priest's legacy, the Scholarship will support undergraduate students at the Columbia Engineering School who have demonstrated leadership in and support of the Black community.

James R. Priest.

Priest was born to a family that became prominent in Liberia. His father, the Reverend James M. Priest, a formerly enslaved man in Kentucky, returned to Liberia where he served as the vice president and later joined its Supreme Court. Following undergraduate study at Liberia College in Monrovia, the younger Priest set sail for America to continue his education. After a stint at Howard University's new medical school in Washington, D.C., he headed north to New York. In 1873 he enrolled at the forerunner of the Engineering School, the Columbia's School of Mines, in a four-year program in civil and mining engineering.

History has recorded little about Priest's experience on campus or how he navigated a deeply segregated society. However, it indicates he was a very talented student: as of late 1874, he was ranked second in his class of fifty. A classmate recalled him being well-liked but lonely, one of just a few international students among others from Japan, Brazil, and Peru; someone with immense pride in his heritage and a passion for sharing Liberian culture and goods. Upon graduation, Priest returned home, where he became a much-respected professor of mathematics before tragically dying young in 1880. His story still resonates today. Nearly 150 years later, students of color are still broadly underrepresented, particularly in STEM.

This scholarship initiative is shared across the University, and supported by Columbia's Black Alumni Council (BAC). Bringing together generations of Black alumni from all schools and affiliates, BAC is devoted to education, scholarship, outreach, and mentoring to support Black communities in Morningside and beyond.

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