Mary Barker

Mary Barker is the first African-american known to have enrolled. Raised in Hardin County, one of the southernmost Illinois counties on the Ohio River, she came to the Illinois Institute (later renamed Wheaton College) in 1857. She was from far-southern Illinois’ Cave-in-Rock, where her parents were free-blacks–having earned their freedom by purchasing their freedom. Based on state land sale records, the section in which her family’s farm was located can actually be pinpointed to this day. As the census data indicates, Moses Barker, Mary’s father, was a farmer who had a real estate value of $3,000, which made him one of the wealthiest men in the county. This status was quite unusual for an African-American individual in this time period. The Barkers were the only blacks in their immediate vicinity and the entries in the census record indicate that neither of Mary’s parents could read or write.

In 1857, Mary H. Barker became the first-known African-American student to attend Wheaton College. She left her home at the age of nineteen to accomplish what was almost unheard of for a woman, let alone an African-American woman: obtain an education. From 1857 to 1860 (except for the 1858-1859 school year), Mary Barker was enrolled in the Academic Department of the Illinois Institute (Wheaton College’s predecessor). When the Illinois Institute changed leadership as Jonathan Blanchard became its fifth president, Mary continued her studies until 1864 in the Academic Department of the new Wheaton College, which was an English-course suited to those seeking a teaching career. She never enrolled in the Collegiate Department.

While a student expressed an interest in becoming a missionary to the southern states. In a letter from Mrs. Mary Blanchard to her husband Jonathan that “by the way Selima told me last Sabbath after Mr. Markham’s sermon (which was pretty good) that she has always wished to be a missionary and she should love to go and teach the contrabands [freed slaves]…Miss Mary Barker now in school (colored) wants to go with her. I am inclined to think they would do well together and magnify their office among black people.” Instead of moving to the South, Mary stayed in Wheaton and in 1867 married George T. Morgan, a Civil War veteran. Shortly thereafter, George and Mary moved southwest to Quincy, Illinois in Adams County. She became a school teacher, and they stayed in the area for the remainder of their lives.

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