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Clement Garnett Morgan: From slavery to Harvard

Anthony W. Neal | 7/3/2012, 8:33 a.m.

Clement Garnett Morgan was born to slave parents in Stafford County, Va., in January  1859. After he and his parents were freed on Jan. 1, 1863, the effective date of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, they moved to Washington, D.C., where he attended the racially segregated M Street High School and learned the barber’s trade.

After completing high school, he traveled to St. Louis and for four years taught in an all-black school in that city. But neither Washington, D.C. nor St. Louis offered the quality of education Morgan desired. Determined to be his best, and an example for young black men, he set out for Boston between 1883 and 1884.

He attended the prestigious Boys Latin School for two years and graduated with honors in 1886, earning the Franklin Medal and winning the 1st and 3rd Lawrence Prizes for declamation and reading. During his last year at that school, he held the post of adjutant in its battalion.

Morgan was the first African American to obtain degrees from both Harvard’s college and its law school. By working as a barber and obtaining scholarships, he was able to pay for his education. He won the Boylston Prize for oratory in May 1889.

Later that same year, Boston Globe sources described him as “a bright fellow of pleasing address, easy and interesting in conversation, a diligent student” and an “eloquent speaker.” Indeed, on June 20, 1890 he became the first African American to deliver Harvard’s senior class oration — a speech that was received favorably by the local print media. 

Morgan was admitted to the Suffolk bar on Aug. 8, 1893. At first, he did not believe he was a strong enough a candidate for political office and had opposed having his name brought before the public for elective office of any kind. But his friends eventually convinced him to run for councilman.     

Cambridge residents, most of them white, cast 1,290 votes in his favor, electing him to the city’s Common Council from Ward 2 in December 1894. He served two one-year terms.

Morgan became the first African American to be elected to the Cambridge Board of Aldermen in December 1896, and the first black alderman elected in any city north of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi.

On Jan. 21, 1897, shortly after his inauguration, a reception and banquet was held in his honor at Odd Fellows Hall in Cambridgeport. Attended by 175 prominent business and political figures from Boston, Cambridge and vicinity, the event was a tribute to Morgan’s “faithfulness and integrity” in “his efforts to advance the people of his race.”

At the reception, he told his guests that the great secret of success is to be ready when opportunity presents itself. He served on the Cambridge Board of Aldermen in 1897 and 1898.

On the night of July 8, 1890, a large gathering of African Americans met at the Charles St. A.M.E. Church to hear him speak. They listened enthusiastically as he delivered an address calling for race unity. Morgan said, “Be true to yourselves” and “each other,” for “we cannot advance a single inch without this.”