William Sanders Scarborough, ca. 1903–1905. Photo from the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, C. M. Bell Studio Collection.

The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology is excited to announce the opening of a display honoring William Sanders Scarborough (1852–1926), the first African American to hold a professional position as a classics scholar in the United States. Developed by T. G. Wilfong, the Kelsey Museum’s curator of Graeco-Roman Egyptian collections, and based on research conducted by Professor Michele Valerie Ronnick of Wayne State University, the display will spotlight the life and work of Scarborough while shedding light on his connections to museum founder Francis W. Kelsey, the world of academia and classical studies during the late 19th century, and African American history. The installation, open to the public now, will be on display through Black History Month in February.

The Scarborough display is a new installment of the “Kelsey in Focus” program, a rotating space dedicated to showcasing seldom-seen objects in the museum’s collection and highlighting faculty, staff, and student research. The centerpiece for the display is a 19th-century watercolor depicting a reconstruction of the Doric Temple in the so-called Triangular Forum at Pompeii. Donated in 2021 by Professor Ronnick in honor of Scarborough, the painting provides an avenue through which Scarborough’s life as a classics scholar—along with his ties to both Francis Kelsey and the site of Pompeii—can be explored. 

William Sanders Scarborough was born enslaved in Macon, Georgia, in 1852. Following the American Civil War and emancipation, Scarborough—interested in the ancient world and classical languages—attended Atlanta University then Oberlin College. He became a professor of classics at Ohio’s Wilberforce University in 1877, earning wide recognition upon publication of the textbook First Lessons in Greek four years later. A scholar, an activist, and a prolific writer, Scarborough also penned essays on politics, travel, art, books, and the place of classical studies in the education of African Americans. 

As contemporaneous classicists, Scarborough and Francis Kelsey’s professional circles overlapped; Kelsey’s support for Scarborough’s career and the denunciation of discriminatory practices that the Black scholar faced in academia are documented in Scarborough’s autobiography. Beyond that, however, lay a keen shared interest in the remains of ancient Roman Pompeii, as represented by the painting of the Doric Temple—a connection that likely underpinned their shared discussions and meetings. 

The Kelsey Museum welcomes the public to view this unique installation, which serves as a reminder of the contributions of African American scholars such as Scarborough to the United States’ intellectual and cultural history.

This Kelsey in Focus installation can be viewed on the first floor, near the ancient glass display.