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Brown’s first Black female graduate: Ethel Robinson’s legacy on College Hill

Robinson graduated with honors in 1905, elected to Phi Beta Kappa despite facing racism, sexism

Life at Brown had been changing rapidly at the turn of the 20th century. 

A decade before, in 1891, University President Elisha Benjamin Andrews, class of 1870, began his quest to admit women to Brown for the first time. He recruited six women to begin attending classes taught by Brown professors at a nearby grammar school. By 1892, the Corporation voted to open all degrees to women. 

Over the next several years, the University set up separate facilities for women at Pembroke Hall and found houses for them to reside in during the academic year. They attended the same classes as their male counterparts and had to fulfill the same requirements in order to graduate. 

Though the men were not particularly happy about the presence of the “Pembrokers,” Andrews continued to advocate for them. These women lived in Slater Homestead or with families in Providence, and if they were from nearby, they would commute to classes each day. They would study in buildings without electric light until the sun went down. They formed clubs and sororities, and they shared yearbooks and publications with the men. 

By the early 1900s, more and more women began attending Brown. And in 1901, Ethel Tremaine Robinson became the first Black woman to be admitted to the University. 

From Classical High School to Pembroke: Robinson paves her way at Brown

Robinson was born in Washington, D.C. in July 1878. Her parents, Julia Ann Freeman and Edward Robinson, were both natives of Virginia. By 1900, Robinson lived in Providence with her mother and sister, where they ran a boarding house at 27 Beacon Ave. 

Robinson attended Providence’s Classical High School and graduated in 1901. Her graduation was announced in a July 1901 issue of The Colored American, which proclaimed “she intends to enter upon a college course next fall.”

She then began her education at Brown University Women’s College, where she is listed among the Pembroke Hall freshmen in a 1901 article in The Herald. 

During her time in college, she continued to live at home with her family, with her address recorded as 27 Beacon Ave. in her 1904 Liber Brunensis yearbook

This was not an uncommon occurrence at the time, as Black women were not allowed to live on campus until after World War II, Ray Rickman, director of the nonprofit Stages of Freedom, explained. The University “claimed it wasn't a strict rule, and they're lying,” he said. “They had four or five houses (off campus) that the University had arranged for Black girls to live at.”

The University accepted very few Black women as students partially because they would not allow them to live in the residence halls. At the time, the University argued “that they couldn't take a lot of Black females because they didn't have respectable Black families to place them with,” Rickman said. “Of course, they could have found families, but they didn't work very hard at it.”

In 1904, Robinson played the roles of Devils and Jennie Perry in a rendition of Dr. Faustus for the Andrews Association for the Benefit of the Women’s College. The money raised by this performance was added to a fund to build a women’s gymnasium.

“While there were necessarily defects in the acting of such a difficult play wholly by a cast of girls …  on the whole, the performance was of a high order of merit and the members of the cast deserve the greatest credit for their interpretations of their parts,” said an April 1904 article in The Herald about the play. 

Like Inman Page and George Washington Milford, the first two Black graduates of Brown, Robinson faced intense racism during her time at the University. “It was rough sledding for Black folks at the University, really rough,” Rickman said. “Most of the teachers gave them a very hard time.”

Black women had access to very few academic resources while at the University, and they faced rampant racism from classmates and professors alike. “There were virtually no scholarships anyway for young women, and there were certainly no scholarships for Black women … They did not get any resources to speak of,” Rickman said.

“That's all you get is racism and more racism, and it doesn't abate,” Rickman added. “This is what went on at elite institutions. The majority of people would not associate with Black people.”

Regardless of these hurdles, Robinson won the Class of 1873 Prize Essay competition’s collateral prize for her essay on the topic of “Conscience, its Origin, Development and Significance” in her final year at Brown. She was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa, according to University Archivist Jennifer Betts. 

Robinson graduated with honors in 1905 and earned a Bachelor of Philosophy degree. 

From student to educator: Robinson passes down her wisdom at Howard 

After graduating from Brown, Robinson took up a post teaching “Methods of Teaching and Rhetoric” at Howard University in Washington, D.C, a historically Black university. There, she taught English and Literature in the College of Liberal Arts until 1914, according to Howard’s archives.

Robinson is credited for guiding her student Ethel Hedgeman to found Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first sorority created by and for Black women at Howard. Hedgeman was inspired by the stories of Robinson’s own sorority experiences at Brown.

“It may have been because of her experience with Phi Beta Kappa at Brown (and) her experience of being a sole Black woman on campus,” Betts said. Because of these experiences, she added, Robinson would have been “wanting to create a sense of community … knowing how important that was.”

In 1914, Robinson married Joaquin Pineiro, who was in the U.S. on a diplomatic mission from Cuba. They briefly lived in France, where he worked as a chancellor for Cuba. They returned to the U.S. in 1916, after the start of World War I. 

In 1930, she once again lived in Providence, now as a widow, according to Providence city directories. After 1932, Robinson disappeared from the historical record. She never had any children, and her death date is unknown.

Though Robinson is a trailblazer for being the first Black woman to attend Brown, the University “ignored her for a very long time,” Rickman said.

 In 2018, the University named Page-Robinson Hall after Robinson and Inman Page to honor their legacy as Brown’s first Black students. A portrait of her hangs as part of the University Portrait Collection in the faculty club. 


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