Much of the information in this article was taken from the writings of David E. Swift, Professor of Religion at Wesleyan from 1955 to 1982. Swift helped establish the Center for African American Studies and wrote about Charles Ray in several articles for the Wesleyan Alumnus and in his book, “Black Prophets of Justice: Activist Clergy Before the Civil War.” Swift marched at Selma in 1965 alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and was arrested while participating in a 1961 Freedom Ride.
“SCANDALOUS AFFAIR. See how submissively the white slaves of New England cringe, even upon their own soil, to southern upstarts. This is insufferable.”
William Lloyd Garrison, the famed abolitionist, thus condemned Wesleyan in an 1833 issue of The Liberator. At the time, Wesleyan was no bastion of liberalism. Garrison was referring to Charles B. Ray, the first African American student at Wesleyan, who left after only seven weeks due to the racism he encountered from white students in the fall of 1832.
After the incident the trustees passed a resolution on Oct. 10, 1832, declaring: “None but white male persons shall be admitted as students at this institution.” The resolution was repealed three years later, but the University did not embrace racial diversity for decades.
Ray grew up in Massachusetts, where he worked on his grandfather’s farm and trained as a boot-maker. At the age of 23 a religious conversion inspired him to pursue the Methodist ministry. Then in 1830, Ray entered Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. The president of the academy, a well-respected Methodist educator named Willbur Fisk, left the following year when he was chosen to serve as president for the newly established college in Middletown.
In 1832, Ray entered Wesleyan University, only to encounter prejudice.
“The connection of Mr. R with the Institution occasioned discontent from the first,” The Liberator reported at the time. “It prevailed, however, chiefly among the students from the South. There were, however, some few exceptions to this—exceptions, too, that reflect no honor upon the character of New England. This disaffection gradually increased, until Mr. R came to board in the college buildings. That step brought matters immediately to a crisis. The gentlemen, above mentioned, became suddenly very much excited. It became the general subject of conversation, and was the occasion of much wrangling and debate. Several of the disaffected students called upon the President, and told him that if Mr. R was not removed, they should immediately return home.”
This strong Southern presence stemmed largely from Wesleyan’s association with Methodism, a denomination popular in the South.
“There were some Southerners from the beginning because this was among the first Methodist colleges founded,” said Assistant University Archivist Val Gillispie. “If you wanted your son to have a Methodist education, this is where you would come in the early years. They came from all over the country and had different political leanings because of that.”
Although there was geographic diversity at universities at this time, there were very few African Americans in higher education. Middlebury, Amherst, and Bowdoin each had one African American graduate in the 1820s. Swift noted that these schools were Congregationalist, a denomination limited to the Northeast and therefore slightly more progressive than Methodism.
Before accepting Ray, Fisk considered input from donors and wealthy parents. For example, Fisk wrote to Josiah Flournoy, a Georgia plantation owner and Wesleyan parent, for advice. Flournoy responded on Oct. 10, 1832.
“I am ashamed that I have taken so long to answer your letter…after the best reflection I have been able to give the subject you propose I can see no objection to Educating the Coloured young man of whom you spake in your letter more especially if he be really humble and pious and have something of the Missionary Spirit,” Flournoy wrote. “I have about 140 slaves for whose religious instructions I have about the same care as for that of my white family.”
According to The Liberator, Fisk defended Ray, trying to show the students the “inconsistency and illiberality of their views.” Fisk was no champion of African American rights, however—he was a strong proponent of colonialism, advocating that African Americans should collectively return to Africa. Additionally, he argued against the openly abolitionist Methodist movement, fearing disunity, according to David B. Potts in “Wesleyan University, 1831-1910: Collegiate Enterprise in New England.” Fisk also denied student requests to found an abolitionist society at Wesleyan, according to a letter written by Fisk’s wife in the late 1830s.
The students were undeterred and campaigned at a trustee meeting to have Ray removed. A resolution was passed, calling Ray’s connection to Wesleyan “inexpedient.” The students, eager for Ray’s departure, offered to pay for any costs incurred during his time at Wesleyan and his exit. Ray had a few supporters, but he chose to leave, disgusted by the opposition.
“I don’t know if there was physical harassment, but I suspect it, and maybe other types of bullying,” Gillispie said. “Considering how desirable a college education was at that time, it had to be pretty bad for him to leave.”
Ray’s departure and the subsequent ban on students of color made Wesleyan the brunt of many abolitionist’ attacks—Garrison called Wesleyan “one of the strongholds of Southern despotism” in 1835. Ray spoke about his experience in 1836 in New York at the Anti-Slavery Society, decrying the prejudice from his “Christian brethren.”
The University’s racial conservatism was typical for Connecticut at the time. White and African American abolitionists were threatened and attacked in the 1830s throughout Connecticut, and in 1831, plans for an all-male African American vocational college in New Haven were canceled after angry demonstrations. Connecticut was the last state in New England to fully outlaw slavery in 1848.
Middletown had its own abolitionists as well as slavery sympathizers. The first site in Connecticut of the Colonialist Society—which shared Fisk’s vision of returning African Americans to Africa—was located in Middletown. The town had a small African American population (in 1828, African Americans made up three percent), with many living on Vine Street. Jehial C. Beman, the son of a slave, was the first minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which he founded in 1829. The church moved to Cross Street in 1831, where Neon Deli now stands. In 1833, one year after Ray’s departure, Beman’s son, Amos, visited a Wesleyan abolitionist student three times a week for tutoring. He was harassed and threatened by other students.
After his experience at Wesleyan, Ray made it his life mission to fight for African American rights. Ray went on to become a Methodist minister, the editor of the newspaper The Colored American, and an activist leader in New York City. He gave shelter to fugitive slaves, argued for fair trials, and advocated equal suffrage and access to education. During the Draft Riots of 1863, in which African Americans were beaten and murdered, Ray opened his home as a refuge and hospital, coordinating relief funds with other African American clergy. At the end of his life, he established an agency to help freedmen find work.
His children all received the college education that he was denied—his daughters Florence and Charlotte were lawyers, and his daughter Henrietta was a poet. Ironically, though the University now considers public service an important part of its mission, it was Ray’s rejection from Wesleyan that compelled him to fight injustices. The University has since established a scholarship in his name for students of color, which is now open to any student in financial need.