Introducing the Constellations Project: Early Black Lives at Yale, 1830-1940

April 16, 2024

By Hope McGrath

Photograph of John Wesley Manning, Yale College Class of 1881.

The names of some of the first Black students at Yale—Richard Henry Greene, Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed, Edward Bouchet—are now familiar to many at Yale. Beyond the “firsts,” however, are other questions: How many Black students came to Yale in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? What did they study, where did they live, and what were their lives like before Yale? What were their experiences as students and after graduation?

The Constellations Project: Early Black Lives at Yale, 1830-1940 is a Beinecke project dedicated to researching, understanding, and uplifting the stories of early Black pathfinders at the university. It seeks to answer these and many other questions, while connecting scholars and members of the public to resources to pursue their own inquiries.  

What we know so far

To date, we have identified over 220 Black students who attended Yale from the late 1830s to 1940—a far larger number than previously imagined. Quite a number of these early students grew up in New Haven and had deep roots in the city; many stayed here after graduation, building careers and becoming community and civic leaders. Others came from hometowns across the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa.

Early Black students were represented in Yale College, Sheffield Scientific School, the graduate school, and the divinity, law, medical, art, drama, and music schools. After completing their studies, they pursued careers in education, business, religion, law, medicine, the arts, and other fields; were active in political, religious, and community organizations; and cared for family members and loved ones. Their stories range widely across geography, time period, profession, and more. We have compiled biographies of these early students, but we know there is much more to discover.

A principal aim of Constellations is to catalyze continued research, inquiry, and analysis. Aside from a few exceptional figures, the lives of these alumni—their accomplishments as well as the distinctive challenges they faced in slavery, under Jim Crow, and throughout the long civil rights movement—are not widely known. Some left behind a deep record of struggle and achievement, while others have been harder to locate in the historical record.

By harnessing the vast resources of Yale Library, the Constellations Project seeks to help researchers, scholars, and interested members of the public learn more and undertake their own research projects. Current initiatives include:

  • sharing our research by highlighting student biographies on the Beinecke website and social media channels;
  • creating a digital platform, currently in development, which will allow scholars and members of the public to access and explore our findings;
  • working with Yale Library colleagues to increase access and discoverability of items within collections that relate to early Black students;
  • creating a guide to published works authored by early Black students and archival sources;
  • presenting ongoing research via Mondays at Beinecke, print and online publications, and other forums.

About the name

Astronomical constellations are patterns or groupings of stars. In this project, we aim to highlight not only the achievements of individual students but also surface the rich connections they share with each other, the Yale and New Haven communities, historically Black institutions including colleges and churches, and other familial, social, academic, political, and professional networks. By focusing not only on individual “stars” but the various “constellations” of which they are a part, we gain a better understanding of their lives in the context of time, place, and community.

Constellations are also “a matter of perspective,” according to one scientific organization. Over time, people have named constellations depending on their position on earth, cultural practices, and other factors. This project invites researchers from a variety of fields, disciplines, and interests to bring their own questions and frameworks to understanding and interpreting the information and sources we are bringing together.

We hope this name evokes ideas of connection, interpretation, and perspective while honoring luminaries from Yale’s past.

To learn more

This project builds on the work of generations of memory keepers, past and present. We are indebted to archivists, family members, church and community organizations, scholars, alumni registrars, and many others who have preserved documents, photographs, and stories. Much work for this project was done as part of the Yale and Slavery Research Project and in preparation for Shining Light on Truth: New Haven, Yale, and Slavery, an exhibition at the New Haven Museum. The 1831 College Library at the exhibition features a selection of photographs of Black students along with written biographies. We are particularly grateful to Charles Warner, Jr., Beinecke Research Fellow, for his ongoing contributions to this project.

The Constellations Project is an initiative of the Community Engagement Team at the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, with leadership provided by Jennifer Coggins, Community Engagement Archivist, and Hope McGrath, Research Coordinator for Yale, New Haven, and Connecticut History. If you have questions or would like to share information about a Black student who attended Yale before 1940, please email