Happy Birthday to Lucy Sessions, a Legendary Abolitionist and Educator

0 Posted by - October 16, 2020 - Birthdays

Photo credits: Ellen Lawson and Marlene D. Merrill, Oberlin College Archives

Educator and abolitionist Lucy Stanton Day Sessions (pictured) is believed to be the first African American woman to graduate from college.

She completed a Ladies Literary Course from Oberlin College in 1850. For over a century, the Ohio college has recognized its early Literary Course program as equivalent to a degree program even though it did not award graduates with a bachelor’s degree. In 1862, Oberlin College formally awarded the first bachelor’s degree to an African American woman when Mary Jane Patterson graduated with a B.A.

Lucy Stanton was born as a freed inhabitant of Cleveland, Ohio on October 16, 1831. Her father, Samuel, was a free-born black barber who died before Lucy was two years old. Her mother, Margaret, later remarried John Brown, a wealthy black businessman, and abolitionist who was active in the Underground Railroad. Brown’s family members often harbored runaway slaves in their home. At the time, blacks were not allowed to attend public schools in Cleveland, so Brown organized the city’s first school for African Americans.

In 1846, Stanton enrolled in Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College), a progressive abolitionist institution. In 1849, she was elected president of the school’s Ladies Literary Society. Her commencement speech was a moving appeal for anti-slavery reforms.

Upon graduation in 1850, Stanton moved to Columbus, Ohio to become the principal of a school. However, two years later, she returned to Cleveland where she married Oberlin classmate William Howard Day, a librarian who edited an abolitionist newspaper, the Alienated American. In 1854, Mrs. Day became the first African American to have a fictional story published when she wrote a short story on slavery for her husband’s newspaper.

Two years later, the couple moved to Buxton, Canada to teach fugitive slaves. In 1858, the Days had a daughter named Florence. However, the following year William Day left on business for England, abandoning his family. He also requested a divorce. Lucy returned to Cleveland, finding work as a seamstress to support her daughter but remained active as an abolitionist. In 1866 she was sponsored by the Cleveland Freedman’s Association to teach in Georgia and later Mississippi, where she met and married her second husband, Levi Sessions, in 1878.

The couple moved to Tennessee where Lucy Sessions continued her philanthropic work, including serving as president of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She and her husband later moved to Los Angeles, California

Mrs. Lucy Stanton Day Sessions died in Los Angeles in 1910.

Reference: Garner, C. (2010, November 08) Lucy Stanton Day Sessions (1831-1910). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/sessions-lucy-stanton-day-1831-1910/

Research Source: Jessie Carney Smith, Notable Black American Women: Book II (Detroit:
Gale Research, 1996); Allison Keller, “Sessions, Lucy Stanton Day,” Oxford African American Studies Center (Oxford University Press:
2006); Ellen N. Lawson,: “Lucy Stanton: Life on the Cutting Edge,”
Western Reserve Magazine 10(1983): 9-10.

*BlackThen.com writer and historian Victor Trammell edited and contributed to this report.

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