FAYETTE, JOHN SYKES (1810? - 27 Feb 1876) was an educator, minister, abolitionist, and the first-known AFRICAN-AMERICAN graduate of WESTERN RESERVE COLLEGE (now CWRU). Born some time around 1810, his background is unclear; he was later described as a “well educated mulatto”, but whether this referred to biracial parentage, or the older ‘mixed’ ancestry common within African Americans, is not clarified. In either case, by 1832, he was studying at a PRESBYTERIAN church in New York City, under the Reverend James H. Cox. That year, Cox recommended Fayette, a “young man (of colour) whose principles appear fixed” to Western Reserve College; he was accepted. He graduated in the class of 1836, making him the first-known African American graduate from the institution, and one of the known African American college graduates.
After finishing his degree, Fayette moved to Hudson, Ohio, where he studied theology until 1837. He married Emily Preston, a White woman, and befriended radical abolitionists John and Owen Brown. In 1839, Fayette moved to what is now Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, and tried to found a school the next year. The Wellington Institute, as it was called, was a private establishment charging $2 per student plus a personal fee for heating (a ‘moderate’ fee for the time). Though it was the first in the area to give formal grammar lessons, it did not last for more than two years, and Fayette went into debt. The school’s fees were too expensive for most working-class locals, especially with an available public option. Fayette left his creditors unpaid and began traveling to other parts of Canada. He worked in Hamilton, Ontario, as a minister and school superintendent, and died in London, Ontario, in 1876.
During Fayette’s sojourn at Western Reserve College, Black and NATIVE AMERICAN education were controversial issues. At the core of this were White fears of race-mixing – particularly when involving non-White men and White women. Fayette’s admission as a Black student was in contradiction with Western Reserve College’s racially-exclusive policy, in place since the school was founded in 1826. But Western Reserve professors were considered radicals for their support of Black education and abolitionism. In fact, when the school finally opened its doors to African American students, Fayette might not have been the only one it took. A White graduate, Reverend Edward Brown, reported that he lived by three others: Richard W. Miller, Samuel Nelson, and Samuel Harris. Western Reserve College’s annual records report none of these as graduates, indicating that if they were students, they either did not pursue or did not achieve full degrees, but this was very common, even among White students of the time; during the 19th century, most did not go beyond the 8th grade, and high school alone was considered ‘higher education’.