On commencement day 1866, one year after the end of the Civil War, William D. Johnson addressed his classmates, the newest graduates of Lincoln University. Located in Chester County, Pennsylvania, Lincoln was the first historically Black degree-granting university in the United States.[1] “The labors of the past year have made this institution like a shining sun,” Johnson said, “whose light cheers the dark minds of hundreds just liberated from slavery.”[2]

At that 1866 commencement, university president Isaac Rendall watched Johnson from the audience. The six-foot minister had attended Princeton University, and so would his successors.[3] For the next eighty years—between 1865 and 1945—Lincoln’s presidents would all be Princeton graduates. In that time, Lincoln University established itself as one of the nation’s most influential historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), graduating Civil Rights leaders like Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes. Lincoln came to be known as “the Black Princeton.”

Lincoln University C 1866

An 1866 fundraising appeal for Lincoln University, endorsed by professors from the Princeton Theological Seminary and The College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).

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Colonizationist Beginnings

The historical ties between Princeton and Lincoln reach back to 1854, when Reverend John Miller Dickey founded the Ashmun Institute. Dickey belonged to the American Colonization Society, which led the movement to send former slaves to Liberia. Princeton University (then the College of New Jersey) and the Princeton Theological Seminary, Dickey’s alma mater, were at the epicenter of ACS activity. Founded by four Princeton graduates in 1816, the ACS promoted colonization as a means to end slavery without requiring the United States to become racially integrated. The movement took hold in Princeton in part due to its conservative political climate, influenced by the college’s large number of students from the slaveholding South.

Dickey studied at the Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1820s under leading colonizationists Archibald Alexander and Samuel Miller.[4] Three decades later, when he founded the Ashmun Institute, Dickey’s mission for the organization reflected the colonizationist ideology he’d been introduced to in Princeton. Dickey aimed to train Black missionaries who, upon graduation, would emigrate to Liberia, spread Christianity, and “elevate” native Africans.

“Providence is declaring that the black and white races cannot advantageously live together as equals in this country,” Reverend Cortlandt Van Rensselaer wrote in his address for the campus dedication in 1856. Ashmun, he continued, would actualize “the wonderful plan of colonization, whose pathway is across the ocean, and whose end is the elevation of the African race on its renovated and expectant continent.”[5]

The Civil War, however, forced the Ashmun Institute to rethink its ideology. Rather than solely preparing students for missionary work abroad, HBCUs shifted to prepare students for life and work in American society.[6] The Ashmun Institute became Lincoln University in 1866.

Transformation After the Civil War

As increasing numbers of African Americans sought an education after the Civil War, HBCUs proliferated. Lincoln’s student body grew, as did its faculty. As in Ashmun’s early days, many professors came from Princeton, strengthening ties between the two universities. At Lincoln, these professors replicated the classical Princeton curriculum, teaching classes such as Latin, geography, and arithmetic. Princeton President James McCosh, at an 1879 forum on African American education, called Lincoln “Princeton’s little sister.”[7]

Princeton-affiliated donors also took an interest in Lincoln. Susan Brown—wife of David Brown and sister of Albert Dod, the namesakes of two Princeton dormitories—endowed Lincoln’s red-brick Mary Dod Brown Chapel, named after her daughter.[8]

Brown Chapel Lincoln University

Lincoln University's Mary Dod Brown Chapel, endowed by the sister of Princeton professor Albert Dod.

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Over his four-decade tenure at Lincoln University, President Isaac Rendall embraced Princeton’s influence over Lincoln. Rendall believed every student required a Bible, an English dictionary, and spectacles.[9] A patriarchal figure, he set high academic and disciplinary standards that aligned with his expectations for students. “He taught his students to respect themselves,” wrote one of his successors, “and these were students in a culture where few were willing to give them unqualified respect, as thinking, reflective human beings.”[10]

However, Black students and alumni challenged the president on his refusal to hire Black faculty. Rendall argued that white professors made the best instructors, as African Americans had long been denied academic training. Students argued the lack of representation undermined Lincoln’s mission. As alumni wrote to the Board of Trustees in 1875:

The purpose for which the University was founded, the elevation of the negro race, by means of Christian and liberal education, will be defeated and instead of accomplishing this desirable end, each year is adding to the number of those students who are educated, consciously or unconsciously, in the dangerous fallacy of their incapacity.[11]

Rendall’s term ended in 1906. His nephew, John Ballard Rendall, served as Lincoln’s president until 1924. It wasn’t until 1932, during the administration of William Hallock Johnson, a Princeton-educated professor of Greek, that Lincoln hired its first African-American professor, Joseph Newton Hill.[12]

More than a decade later, in 1945, Lincoln inaugurated its first Black president, Horace Mann Bond. His presidency ended the tradition of Princeton leadership and began a new tradition of Black leadership at Lincoln. Bond, who had graduated from Lincoln in 1923, was a prominent advocate for desegregation in education. A social scientist by training, he contributed research to the NAACP’s work on the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954.

During Bond’s administration, the academic and professional achievements of Lincoln graduates were evident. Through the mid-1900s, about 20 percent of African American physicians and 10 percent of African American doctors in the United States had attended Lincoln.[13] At that time, eight Lincoln graduates were serving as university presidents and nine had founded universities.[14] As alumni like Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall emerged as leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement, others became important figures in Africa—just not as Lincoln’s founders had intended. Kwame Nkrumah (class of 1939) became the first prime minister of an independent Ghana in 1957, and Nnamdi Azikiwe (class of 1930) became the first president of an independent Nigeria in 1963.

In 1854, Lincoln’s founder Rev. John Miller Dickey envisioned Lincoln graduates contributing to the colonization movement in Africa. Ultimately, they led the movement for its liberation.

BibliographyPanel Toggle

An earlier version of this story was published in the Daily Princetonian as "Revisiting Princeton's ties to Lincoln University, one of the nation's early HBCUs" on 10 November 2023.

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"Our History,” Lincoln University, Accessed April 15, 2024.


“Princeton Seminary, Slavery, and Colonization,” Princeon Seminary and Slavery, Princeton Theological Seminary, Accessed 22 April 2024.


Horace Mann Bond, Education for Freedom: A History of Lincoln University, Pennsylvania (Lincoln University, PA: 1976), 284.


Bond, Education for Freedom: A History of Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, 109.


Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, “God glorified by Africa: An address delivered on December 31, 1856, at the opening of the Ashmun institute, near Oxford, Pennsylvania,” (Philadelphia: Joseph M. Wilson, 1859), 14.


Andrew E. Murray, “The Founding of Lincoln University.” Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985) 51, no. 4 (1973): 392–410.


James McCosh, The Negro Problem : Decision by the Court of Public Opinion (1879).


“The History of Mary Dod Brown,” The Lincolnian, 15 April 1977.


Bond, Education for Freedom: A History of Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, 299.


Bond, Education for Freedom: A History of Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, 302.


Bond, Education for Freedom: A History of Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, 335.


“Prof. Hill Leaves for African Post,” The Lincolnian, 16 January 1961.


"Our History,” Lincoln University, Accessed 15 April 2024.


“Lincoln Celebrates Founder’s Day,” The Lincolnian, 4 March 1952.

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