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Hortense Parker - Pioneer of an Era
The First Known African-American Graduate of Mt. Holyoke Seminary

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Hortense Parker - the first known African-American student to graduate from Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, Class of 1883. Courtesy MHC Archives. (1)

The struggle of the African-American in the 19th century to be allowed the same privileges of any other citizen of the United States is a long and well known one. This struggle occurred in the field of education as it did in every other sphere of life.

First among schools - Mt. Holyoke College bears the honorable distinction of being the first among the Seven Sisters (Mt. Holyoke,Vassar, Wellesley, Smith, Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr and Barnard) to have an African-American graduate. (Click here for list of the 1st African-American graduate from each of the Seven Sisters). In 1883, the college conducted its first tabulation of students by race (2). In the graduating class of that year was Hortense Parker, an African-American who was therefore given the distinction of being the first known African-American to graduate from the seminary.

Pioneer among Women - Hortense Parker was the daughter of John Parker, an active abolitionist and former slave who bought his freedom in 1845. In 1848 he married Miranda Boulden and they subsequently had six children, two of whom attended the preparatory school at Oberlin. Hortense, the eldest daughter, attended Mt. Holyoke Seminary. All three of the Parker daughters, Hortense, Bianca and Portia, studied music. Hortense spent her first year of tertiary education attending a college in Ohio. She was, however, unhappy there and her mother suggested that she attend Mt. Holyoke Seminary instead. She started at the Seminary in 1878 and was one of seventeen girls who entered that year. She was unable to attend school each year consecutively, spent a total of 2 years at Mt. Holyoke, and graduated in 1883. The exact year of her birth is not known but she died on December 9th, 1938 as a result of tripping in her home.

Her Life at Mt. Holyoke (3)

  • Housing - Hortense lived in campus housing during her stay at Mt. Holyoke, residing in the Seminary building with the other 250 students here at that time. Unlike a great number of schools at that time, Mt. Holyoke did not require its black students to live off campus. The original seminary building accommodations were also much too crowded for blacks to be given their own room as they were in the new dorms after the 1896 fire.
  • Music - Hortense was remember by her classmates as "a quiet, ladylike girl, noted especially for her musical ability." She was frequently asked to favor the faculty and students by playing the piano in the Seminary. One friend wrote: "In all these years I have never heard 'Home, Sweet Home' played with such beauty and pathos as Hortense played it." She hoped to study music in Europe upon her graduation from Mt. Holyoke but unfortunately, her patron died during her senior year. She married soon after graduation and taught music at several schools in Missouri, New York and Indiana.
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This page was created by Alana Belcon FP'04 in History 283, Fall Semester 2003 -