May 1, 1867 – Howard University Holds its First Classes

After the American Civil War ended, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau) was set up to help the four million newly liberated slaves with relief and social reconstruction. As the National Archives explains:

It issued food and clothing, operated hospitals and temporary camps, helped locate family members, promoted education, helped freedmen legalize marriages, provided employment, supervised labor contracts, provided legal representation, investigated racial confrontations, settled freedmen on abandoned or confiscated lands, and worked with African American soldiers and sailors and their heirs to secure back pay, bounty payments, and pensions.”

Former Union General Oliver Otis Howard, a Civil War hero, was Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau. He helped found several institutions for the education of freedmen, including the college named after him, Howard University. It was originally intended as a theological seminary but the project expanded to include education for liberal arts and medicine. The U.S. Congress chartered Howard on March 2, 1867, and much of its early funding came from endowment, private benefaction, and tuition.

Portrait of Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, Officer of the Federal Army. Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries, photographer, between 1860-65. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division

On May 1, 1867, this day in history, Howard University began holding classes for five white female students, the daughters of the school’s founders. But by the end of its first five years of operation, Howard University educated over 150,000 freed slaves.

Howard established the first black law school in the nation only two years after its founding and in 1872, Charlotte Ray, a white student, was one of its first graduates.  Ray was the first woman graduate from the school and the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia Bar. 

Law Graduating Class at Howard University, Washington, D.C.. ca. 1900. African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exhibition. Prints & Photographs Division

General Oliver Howard served as president from 1869 to 1872. It was not until 1926 that Howard University welcomed its first black president, Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, who served in that capacity for 34 years. By the time he retired, Howard University had 6,000 students, a budget of $8 million dollars, and more than doubled the number of buildings and facilities.

Today, Howard University can boast of a number of distinguished alumni, including former U.S. Senator from Massachusetts Edward William Brooke, the first African-American governor L. Douglas Wilder, Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, and the first female Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris. Charles Hamilton Houston, vice-dean of the Howard University School of Law from 1929-35, was a key architect of the legal strategy that ultimately overturned the separate but equal standard adopted by the Supreme Court in 1894, bringing an end to the segregation of public facilities in the South, and argued by his former student at Howard, Thurgood Marshall.

Howard University, Washington, D.C.. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, 2010. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive. Prints & Photographs Division

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