In 1883, Philadelphia native William Adger became the first African-American graduate of the College at Penn. The son of a former slave from South Carolina, Adger was the second-youngest child—and one of 13 children—in his family.
His father, Robert, and mother, Mary Morong, arrived in Pennsylvania around 1848, and by 1850, lived in Philadelphia, where Robert worked as a baker. Throughout the years, Robert kept a china store and worked as a furniture dealer, and eventually built a successful life for his family in Philadelphia.
William’s mother was apparently illiterate, but his father could read and write, and they made sure all of their children were educated. The daughters in the family became dressmakers and milliners after they finished school, and at least three of William’s brothers followed their father into the furniture business, as a cabinetmaker, an upholsterer, and a furniture salesman. Two other sons worked in the post office; William was the only one to attend college.
William graduated in 1875 from the Institute for Colored Youth—a forerunner of Cheyney University—where he served as the secretary. In 1879, he enrolled in the College and was awarded his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1883.
While a Penn student, William lived in his parents’ home at 833 South St., along with two unmarried sisters and an unmarried brother. His married brother Robert Jr. also lived in the house with his wife and four young children.
After Penn, William planned a career in the ministry and was a student in the Divinity School of the Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, but died from what was reported as a hip disease before he could reach his goal. He lived to be just 30 years old.
For more information on this or other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives website.