Product Code: 8636
ISBN: 978-0-86516-863-3
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Ward W. Briggs, Jr., in his foreword, and Michele Valerie Ronnick, in her introduction, provide the historical and intellectual context for this pioneering work written by a nineteenth-century African American classicist. The introductory text includes Greek to English and English to Greek exercises that drill Greek grammar and vocabulary as well as readings from Xenophon’s Anabasis and Memorabilia.


  • Foreword by Ward W. Briggs, Jr., PhD
  • Introduction by Michele Valerie Ronnick, PhD
  • Five illustrations
  • Complete facsimile of the 1881 First Edition


Media buzz: Remembering the Work of Early Black Classicists, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education


After decades of tireless scholarly advocacy, Michele Valerie Ronnick has succeeded in returning Scarborough to the limelight and to the minds of forgetful contemporary scholars and thoughtful people of all kinds.

Eric Ashley Hairston, Associate Professor of English and of Law and Humanities, Director, Center for Law and Humanities, Elon University


The publication of William S. Scarborough's Greek textbook chronicles a scholarly first for an African American classicist. He believed that mastery of a language foundational to black intellectual distinction and relevant to a serious study of the New Testament, a text that informed black religious belief, required the trained eye of an African American scholar. The re-publication of the Scarborough book is a scholarly benchmark that resonates into disciplines beyond the classics.

Dennis C. Dickerson, James M. Lawson, Jr. Professor of History, Vanderbilt University


It is not only an honor but a delight for me to join in celebrating the work of William S. Scarborough, a true pioneer in promoting the study of Hellenism in troubled times that sadly remain troubled even today. The world owes him a permanent place in the history of humanistic ventures.

Gregory Nagy, Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature, Director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University


William Sanders Scarborough is a towering figure in the history of American education. To see his First Lessons in Greek is like entering his classroom—where he used the newfangled 'blackboard' and praised it highly—and so recovering a moment in America's ascent to justice through education.

James J. O’Donnell, University Librarian, Arizona State University


When William S. Scarborough—a man born into slavery—embarked on the "daring" act of publishing the first classics textbook by an African American, he hoped to make Greek a “living language” for his students at Wilberforce University. He endeavored to fortify church-sponsored higher education with the intellectual tools that would foster student engagement with a broad array of ideas. In reintroducing his text, Michele Valerie Ronnick has enabled us to engage a pivotal resource in nineteenth-century African American education that shaped both the history of Black classicism in particular and of American philological studies in general.

Joan L. Bryant, Associate Professor and Undergraduate Studies Director, African American Studies, Syracuse University


When published in 1881, First Lessons in Greek was just as much a political broadside as an introductory textbook. Determined to put to rest a notorious dictum attributed to John C. Calhoun in which he posited that blacks could not grasp Greek syntax, Scarborough produced an impeccable two-semester vade mecum to the ancient language. We all owe a debt of thanks to Michele Valerie Ronnick for bringing this exquisitely rare volume, crucial in the intellectual and civil rights history of America, back to the light of day.

T. Corey Brennan, Professor of Classics, Rutgers University


We have here not only a useful textbook of Greek grammar and important passages for beginning students (Anabasis, Memorabilia), but a publication that preserves an important moment in American letters for present day learners. Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, and William Scarborough, as curious anomalies to the onlooker, be they Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, or Bishop H.M. Turner, are not that far away in our collective past. First Lessons in Greek benefits all of us in the twenty-first century and deals another blow to white supremacy.

Patrice Rankine, Dean, School of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Classics, University of Richmond


First Lessons in Greek, published in 1881, was a landmark in scholarship, and was used by students, both white and black, for more than a generation. Scarborough was among the foremost American intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his presence was felt not only in classical studies but also in the worlds of politics and religion. Professor Ronnick's introduction places both the work and the man in historical perspective and rescues him from an ill-deserved obscurity.

Randall K. Burkett, Research Curator for African American Collections, Emory University

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Review by: Ronald Charles, St. Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia - January 24, 2020

First Lessons is an important document in many ways. It is the first Greek textbook ever written by an African American and a landmark document as it invalidates prejudices against people of African descent, who are frequently considered to be lacking the intellectual abilities to master ancient Greek and Latin. First Lessons thus remains a testimony to the intellect of a pioneer classicist and serves to substantiate––if it should ever have to be demonstrated––the humanity and the intellect of people of African descent. William S. Scarborough (1852–1926), who was born a slave in Macon, Georgia, was the first African-American professional scholar of classical studies, having earned his BA in classics from Oberlin College in 1875.


The book was published when Scarborough was a professor of ancient languages at Wilberforce University, one of the most prominent black learning centers of its era. The reissue of this text, alongside the very helpful foreword and introduction, has several merits. The foreword situates the book within the historical context of textbook publications, especially Greek and Latin grammars, in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century. The ability to read Greek works in the original was, as Professor Briggs mentions, “not only the mark of a truly cultured (and privileged) person, but also a passport to social advancement” (xii). Although Scarborough was not from a privileged social class, he proved himself a first-rate classicist and used his knowledge to be a critical voice for others, helping to advance socially marginalized members of his ethnic group.


Second, to study Scarborough’s work is to have access to a vignette of American history. His contribution, as highlighted by Briggs, “is a long neglected highlight of this period and it offers us an important window into the history of classical studies in America” (xiii). In the Introduction, Michele V. Ronnick presents a helpful synopsis of Scarborough’s life and times. She also places the textbook in the intellectual context of a flurry of textbooks on Greek and Latin, alongside a wide array of other academic subjects, during the nineteenth century. Scarborough’s First Lessons, then, is part and parcel of a wider interest and endeavor to teach university students the core subjects of a Humanities degree.


Scarborough’s First Lessons was both favorably received in scholarly circles and celebrated by proud friends, Oberlin alumni, and the public at large. It was widely publicized and used in many schools. Scarborough shares some of the congratulatory words he received in his Autobiography: “From Northwestern University it is no small praise to say that ‘Professor Scarborough had done just what he undertook.’ ‘Amid the books of this class there is none better. The model is an excellent one and the author had admirably executed his task,’ says the professor of Greek at Adelphi. Others added their appreciation. Oberlin College [sent] praise and congratulations from President Fairchild, Professor Frost, and others all showing pride in my achievement. Close friends were particularly jubilant.”1 The favorable reception of this work and the pride of the author and his students learning from their own professor’s book is also mentioned in the Autobiography (p. 78). The publication of this book placed him as an authority in classical education in the United States and helped him to advance his own philological career, admitting him as a full professional member of the guild.


Scarborough’s book has, however, a few typographical errors, which may have been due to the incongruity of Greek types and fonts not well mastered by most publishers of the time. Scarborough was well aware of these minor shortcomings and a list of errata is added by Professor Ronnick to this reprinting. Corrections to Scarborough’s text were made at a distance, and items may have been lost in transit. The publisher in fact did not know that Scarborough was of African descent until the book came out. At the end of her introduction, Professor Ronnick notes how the love for books, the teaching of Greek and Latin, and advocating for others were important to Scarborough. She notes, “Thus we have an improbable story of our nation’s first professional philologist of African descent, a boy born in slavery who made himself into a scholar, became president of one of the leading black universities, and allied himself by marriage to a like-minded spirit who believed in the uplifting effect of education for everyone, white, black, male, or female” (25–26).


On reading the textbook one is indeed impressed by its qualities and its pedagogical reasoning. In the preface, Scarborough clarifies that “as an introductory book, [it] is sufficient for most purposes in preparatory instruction” (29). He briefly situates his textbook in the context of other Greek grammars. He also shows openness to criticism of his work so that he may make any necessary corrections in the future. The preface reads as a standard one for an academic university textbook. The book is divided into two parts. The first is the introductory grammatical elements suitable for a first-year Greek class. It includes short lists of vocabulary, drills in Greek grammar, and Greek to English and English to Greek exercises. The second contains small excerpts of Greek texts from Xenophon’s Anabasis and selections from Xenophon’s Memorabilia. The author provides supplementary notes to aid the student in translating these texts. In the first part, this reviewer notices Scarborough’s pedagogical sensitivities in the quizzing questions he asks the students and in some of the translations he provides. However, there are also instances where he introduces words in a text without providing any translation. Also, some of the grammatical constructions or renderings he proposes are too vague, wooden, and/or unnatural.


Notwithstanding these few critical remarks, when it is judged solely on the merits of a first-year textbook, First Lessons remains a good introduction to ancient Greek. But, as previously stated, Scarborough’s Greek textbook has a value that goes beyond filling a void in texts devoted to the learning of ancient languages. It is a pioneering work, written by a first-rate African classicist of the nineteenth century. This reviewer, who is also of African descent, could not help but feel pride in the accomplishments of such a towering figure such as Professor Scarborough. First Lessons, reprinted with the present foreword and introduction, is an important document in the history of American education in general and in classical studies in particular. It is a document to be celebrated and shared widely.


________________________________________ Notes:

1. William Sanders Scarborough, The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough (1852–1926): An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship, foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., edited and introduced by Michele Valerie Ronnick (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 76.


Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2020.01.24

Review by: Timothy Joseph, College of the Holy Cross - October 1, 2019

The publication of a facsimile of William Sanders Scarborough’s textbook First Lessons in Greek stands as a major event in the field of Classics. Scarborough, who was born in slavery in 1852 and learned to read and write in secret, went on to become the United States’ first professional philologist of African descent, a widely published scholar, and, from 1908 to 1920, the president of Wilberforce University. His career thus stood, as Scarborough himself understood it, as a response to the infamous remark attributed to John C. Calhoun that “if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man.”


A crowning achievement of Scarborough’s career was the publication in 1881 of First Lessons in Greek. However, as Michele Valerie Ronnick explains in her excellent introduction to the text, the book is extremely rare, with copies available at only a handful of libraries around the United States. The publication of this facsimile has truly, as Ronnick puts it, “saved from oblivion” (25) this invaluable text.


The arrival of this text comes on the heels of two other important restorations of work by Scarborough, both edited by Ronnick: The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship (Detroit, 2005) and The Works of William Sanders Scarborough: Black Classicist and Race Leader (Oxford, 2006). Thanks to Ronnick’s efforts, we now have access to a significant amount of the work of this important figure in the history of Classical studies and in American intellectual history.


The text begins with a brief contextualizing foreword by Ward Briggs, and then Ronnick’s Introduction (1–25), which offers a biography of Scarborough, along with overviews of the trends in nineteenth-century Greek and Latin textbook publishing and African-American book culture. This introduction prepares the reader well to appreciate the endeavor that Scarborough undertook, at the very beginning of his career, in authoring First Lessons in Greek.


Scarborough explains in his Preface (29–31) that the book is to be used alongside a Greek grammar that contains all morphology. The grammars that he references throughout are those by Goodwin (Boston, 1879) and Hadley (New York, 1860). What follows over most of the book (39–130), then, are 75 lessons on the fundamental elements of Greek morphology and syntax. Each lesson includes a healthy number of exercises for parsing and translation, from Greek to English and vice versa. Scarborough helpfully includes Greek-English and English-Greek glossaries at the back of the book. Following the lessons are selections from Xenophon’s Anabasis (from Book 1, chapters 1 and 6) and his Memorabilia (from Book 2, chapter 1, the “The Choice of Hercules,” on Hercules as an exemplar of virtue), with notes appended to the selections (133–145).


Scarborough’s notes, both on the lessons and on the selections from Xenophon, are explanatory but also peppered with questions for the student. For example, amid exercises on the first declension, he asks, “When is a retained throughout the singular?” (41, n. 1); and of ἡσθένει in Anabasis 1.1 he asks, “ἡσθένει has what kind of augment? where made? what does the imperfect denote?” (141). The effect of this conversational style is that the reader – now nearly 140 years after the book was penned – can have the experience of being taught by William Sanders Scarborough. In his Autobiography Scarborough wrote that he set out to write his own Greek textbook as part of his efforts to make “the ancient tongues living languages” for his students (Autobiography, p. 75). This is a goal shared by all teachers of Classical languages, and a particular delight of Scarborough’s lively, engaging text is that it gives readers the opportunity to transcend the difference in time and embark with him on that other time-traveling journey of learning Ancient Greek.


This text, then, would make for an excellent addition to an introductory or intermediate Greek course, at the high school or collegiate level. Instructors would need to use the text alongside a textbook that provides all forms, just as Scarborough imagined. The 75 lessons of exercises are perfect for those drilling and refining their Greek; and the selections from Xenophon, though brief, are well chosen and make for a fitting “target text” at the end of a sequence of study. Moreover, the inclusion of this text in an introductory or intermediate Greek curriculum could expand the course in productive ways, providing students with the opportunity to think about the history of the study of the Classics in the United States. With the help of Ronnick’s Introduction, students can be led to ask important questions such as: What broader conclusions can we draw from the remarkable story of Scarborough’s life and career? Who, over time, has been included and excluded from the study of the Classics? What societal consequences follow from that inclusion and exclusion? What in higher education has and has not changed from Scarborough’s time to our own?


Michele Ronnick, the volume’s editor Donald E. Sprague, and Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers are to be thanked for making available once again Scarborough’s First Lessons in Greek. This re-publication is an important event, and the text will prove to be helpful and healthy – in a great variety of ways – in Ancient Greek classrooms.


New England Classical Journal, vol. 46, Fall 2019


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