Michigan's Story: The History of Race at U-M

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The Firsts

Early Campus View from State St.

Early Campus View from State St.

Samuel Codes Watson
In 1853, Samuel Codes Watson was the first African American student admitted to the University. Born in South Carolina in 1832, Watson was mixed race and passed for white while attending Michigan. In 1857 he received his M.D. from Cleveland Medical College, as one of the first African Americans to do so. He later became Detroit’s first elected African American city official, and was declared the city’s richest black property owner in 1867.

Saiske Tagai
Saiske Tagai was the first Asian student (Japanese) to attend the University of Michigan, attending from 1872-1874. 

Mary Henrietta Graham

Mary Henrietta Graham

Mary Henrietta Graham
Mary Henrietta Graham was the first African American woman admitted to the University of Michigan (1876).

José Celso Barbosa

José Celso Barbosa

José Celso Barbosa
In 1877, José Celso Barbosa was the first Puerto Rican student to enroll at the University of Michigan.  He was enrolled in the Department of Medicine and Surgery.

MLK-Kahn-Stone

Mary Stone (l) and Ida Kahn (r)

Mary Stone and Ida Kahn
Mary Stone and Ida Kahn were the first Chinese students to enroll at the University of Michigan (1892).  Both graduated from the Medical School in 1896 and returned to China as medical missionaries.  While in China, Levi Lewis Barbour met them and was so impressed he vowed to start a scholarship specifically for Asian women that would allow them to come to the U.S. to study.

Orval Wardell Johnson
Orval Wardell Johnson was the first non-white student to be elected as Senior Class President of the College of Literature, Science, and Art (1949). His opponent was Pete R. Elliott, a popular (white) football player. The final voting margin was 2 to 1. Johnson was from Detroit and had graduated as the president of his Northwestern High School senior class magna cum laude. While at U-M, he enrolled in Latin-American studies and picked that degree because he believed that "colored college students should prepare themselves to invade new fields."