U’s first black graduate and 1880s race relations

by Emma Carew

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the second in a four-part series that details prominent black figures of the University’s past and present. The articles will appear Wednesdays during February.

In 1882, just 17 years after the Civil War, the University granted a degree to its first black student, Andrew Hilyer.

More than 200 students attended the two-building University with Hilyer. Evidence shows that Hilyer might have been more embraced as a black student than those to follow him in the 1920s and ’30s.

“During the time that (Hilyer) was in college there was never any discrimination against him on account of his color,” said Elmer Ellsworth Adams, a classmate of Hilyer’s, in “Recollections of Early University Days.” “He mingled with his classmates on almost perfect equality.”

Born in 1858 as a Georgia slave, Hilyer was educated in Omaha, Neb., after the end of the Civil War and eventually settled in Minnesota.

“There was a very progressive black community of professionals here,” University professor John Wright said. “You had a tradition of African American civic activism that I think spilled over into the University in those early years.”

One of the students following Hilyer was Frank Wheaton, who graduated in 1894. Wheaton used his law degree, the first to be earned by a black student at the University, to become the first black legislator in Minnesota.

“There were a lot of illustrious people that matriculated, to the University’s credit,” said David Taylor, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Morehouse College in Atlanta and former General College dean.

During his time at the University, Hilyer worked as an associate editor at the St. Paul Review.

After his landmark graduation, at which he gave the salutatory address in Latin, Hilyer moved to Washington, D.C., to study law.

In Washington he helped found the Union League and worked at the Treasury

Department. Hilyer was an advocate for economic development and political power of black people, according to a Tim Brady article featured in “Minnesota,” an alumni publication.

Hilyer’s son, Gale, also attended the University and graduated in 1912 with a bachelor’s degree and in 1915 with his law degree.

Gale Hilyer was one of the founding members of Pi Alpha Tau, a social group of 12 black students on campus in 1911, which later evolved into the Mu chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha.

Today’s black University students have many more advantages than students had at the end of the 19th century, Taylor said.

They should “understand that the things we have access to have come at a cost, in terms of other people’s sacrifices, their integrity and inclusion in order to stand up for a principle,” he said.

Aurelius Butler II, Black Student Union vice president, said he tries to draw a parallel between Hilyer’s time at the University and today.

“I think if he saw us today, I think he’d be proud to see how many of us are attending college now,” Butler said.