This semester, I’ve done my best to be as attentive as possible when examining Penn culture, and researching black history at Penn has truly strengthened that attentiveness. As I researched the unsung black heroes of Penn, a serious question struck me: Whom do we remember and why?
One person who comes to mind is a woman by the name of Ida Elizabeth (Bowser) Asbury, who was a distinguished African American woman who worked as both a teacher and a musician in the 19th century. She was raised in Philadelphia, the daughter of renowned painter David Bustill Bowser and his wife Elizabeth Harriet Stevens Gray, who was a member of the Ladies’ Union Association of Philadelphia. Her great-grandfather was one of the founders of Philadelphia’s Free African Society and her ancestry can be traced to various ethnicities as it includes African American, English, Indian and Scottish forebearers.
Nonetheless, she began her course work at the University of Pennsylvania in 1887. She went on to earn a Certificate of Proficiency in Music in 1890, which marked her as the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania.
Later in life, she joined the board of the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons (later renamed the Stephen Smith Home) on 45th and Belmont Avenue. She went on to work as a violinist and teacher of music, eventually marrying John Cornelius Asbury, a politician, businessman, successful attorney and member of the Pennsylvania State Assembly among other organizations.
When reading her story, what shocked me most was not just how hard it was to find an extensive biography of her life, but also how much the work of her husband hid, and continues to hide, her own legacy and accomplishments. While reading about her life in the Almanac this past week, I was shocked to see that her husband’s biography overpowered hers in a section that was designed to solely honor her legacy.
“John Asbury was a successful attorney, business man, and politician; there was no need for Ida to work after their marriage,” reads the first sentence written in the Penn Archives. Such a quote sparked my interest in the work of overshadowed figures in Penn’s history, particularly those of African American descent.
So, whom do we remember and why? Ida Elizabeth (Bowser) Asbury is in the Penn archives because she was the first black woman to graduate from the University. But is that where our remembrance of her stops? I firmly believe Bowser’s history is often undermined by her husband because of Penn’s culture, which functions as a microcosm of American culture. As Penn culture has a narrow definition of success that doesn’t always extend itself to those who are otherwise deserving of it; who we define as successful is who we remember.
If we are to examine the history of blacks at the University of Pennsylvania, we must extend our research beyond just black successful people at Penn. While I am guilty of this as well, our definition of “success” more than often undermines what someone has accomplished due to our obsession with quantifiable achievements.
I want to remember the first black woman that graduated from the school of music, even though her work and the racism she experienced getting that degree was overshadowed by her husband’s success. I want to remember the first black student at Penn that stood up to racism on campus, whether or not he or she graduated. I want to remember the first black faculty member that snuck food to black students from the “white-only” cafeterias they served. I want to remember every unsuccessful black student in the history of this campus because our experiences deserve recognition and we can all learn from them.
While it saddens me that the accomplishments of Asbury are overlooked because of her ongoing encounters with racism and sexism, I am also disheartened by just how much of her story is left untold because it is not triumphant enough to match the criteria set by notable alumni at Penn.
Asbury’s experience as the first black woman to graduate from Penn briefly 30 years after the Civil War is a triumph in and of itself that deserves to be celebrated. Now more than ever it is imperative for us to understand that black history at Penn excels beyond our standards, from Ida Elizabeth (Bowser) Asbury to Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander.
CALVARY ROGERS is a College sophomore from Rochester, N.Y., studying political science. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Cal’s Corner” usually appears every Wednesday.
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