1856 - 1857

Daughter of a Slave Attends Wheaton

For the academic year of 1856-57, a multiracial student named Mary E. Stafford of Cumberland Island, Georgia attended Wheaton. She was the daughter of an Elizabeth Stafford, one of the more than 160 slaves owned by Robert Stafford. According to a deed of gift dated December 28, 1841, Elizabeth and Mary were given to Robert as a gift by Margaret Bernardey. Mrs. Bernardey stipulated that Elizabeth was to remain her property until Bernardey’s death. No such claim was made for Mary. Mary, who at one point married, then divorced, a Frederick Palmer of Groton, Connecticut, attended for just one year.

Other students of color may have attended Wheaton in the 19th century, but it is difficult to discern how atypical Mary Stafford’s Wheaton experience was. The informal yet rigid racial codes of the time created obvious barriers to admission and attendance. In order to attend, a student of color had to “pass” for white, so Mary Stafford’s case is doubly unusual in that she was able to attend and that evidence that later surfaced raised the possibility that she may have been Wheaton’s first student of color.

A decade prior to Mary’s enrollment, another student of color, Zerviah Mitchell, of North Abington, MA, applied for admission to Wheaton but indicated in her letter that she preferred to enroll at Abbot Academy. Wheaton’s trustees agreed, and denied her admission in a brief rejection letter.

General Files: 1856-1857: J. Ehrenhard and M. Bullard, “Stafford Plantations, Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia,” p. 16.