Prof. John W.I. Lee kicked off the Classics Department’s annual lecture series with “African Americans and Xenophon, c. 1800–1910.” A noted historian of ancient West Asia and of early African American scholarship, Prof. Lee teaches at the University of California at Santa Barbara and is known for such works as The First Black Archaeologist: A Life of John Wesley Gilbert (Oxford, 2022) and his lectures in the Great Courses series.
Prof. Lee’s lecture argued that “although Xenophon gets less attention today than Herodotus and Thucydides, his work played a vital role in early African American education.” Analyzing the early curricula of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, he moreover found that Xenophon’s Anabasis—a tale of mercenaries in hostile territory whose escape to freedom was often compared to the plight of runaway slaves—was joined only by the Greek New Testament as the primary text for their courses in ancient Greek.
In presenting his research, Lee included case studies of several Black scholars of Xenophon throughout American history, from the Grimké brothers to W.E.B. Du Bois. These included John Chavis, a free Black educator, minister, and Revolutionary War veteran who studied Greek at Princeton in the 1790s; Fanny Jackson Coppin, another educator and among the first Black alumnae of Oberlin College, who wrote in her memoirs of her joy teaching Xenophon; and William Sanders Scarborough, a president of Wilberforce University whose extremely popular First Lessons in Greek—likely the first textbook by an African American—was written specifically for the Anabasis.
Overall, Lee’s story charted the course of Black education in America during the late nineteenth century, when African Americans’ studying of Greek was a deeply political act. In reading Xenophon, Lee argued, Black Americans were at once declaring their personhood, disproving racist beliefs regarding their intelligence, and asserting their belonging in a society where a classical education carried great prestige. For those interested in the history of African American education, Lee concluded, it is important to recognize “Xenophon’s underappreciated but crucial role.”