130 Years Ago, William Henry Fouse Took the Stage as Otterbein’s First Black Graduate

Posted Apr 24, 2023

Otterbein University’s first Black graduate, William Henry Fouse, class of 1893, was a teacher, a principal, a lifelong learner, a musician, and an inspiration to students and educators in his 45 years of work in public education.  On the 130th anniversary of his graduation from Otterbein, there is no one better to tell his story than Fouse himself. 

In 1927, Fouse wrote to Mrs. George Alexander of Westerville, thanking her for an invitation to the Westerville High School Golden Anniversary. He wrote: 

“I will not be garrulous but I must say that I was born in your beautiful town 59 years ago, son of two slaves who came to Ohio from bondage and never were able to read or write. They gave 27 years of their lives without recompense. I was born in a log cabin a mile or so from Westerville.” 

Fouse’s family later purchased a house on Home Street, where William and his two brothers were raised. In 1889 his father, Squire, purchased a home that had been owned by William Hanby and had it moved to a plot of land on Home Street, where the Campus Center is today.  In an article written for the Westerville Public Opinion in 1938, Fouse wrote: 

“Three interests dominated the life of Squire Fouse. They were a home, the education of his children, and his church. If he could speak now, (he) would say that the spirit and literary gifts of Ben Hanby had been infused into his own son, and that he, though a slave for many years, had made the correct appraisal of the magic and power of education.” 

Education was of the utmost importance to Fouse.  From the letter to Mrs. Alexander: 

“I have the honor of being the first Colored boy or person that graduated from Westerville High School. I was not contented to stop with beginning. So with a heart set on college training I went for seven short years to Otterbein and was also the first of my race to receive the cum laude from that institution…   

“I worked my way through college blacking boots, offbearing tiles for a great man Mr. John Everal[,] waiting table in Columbus and elsewhere. But I must say that I am glad I did so, since it prepared me to be of some little service to my own people and to the community in which I live and have lived for the past 14 years… 

“May I say that still being a young man I am still pursuing my studies, going occasionally to the great university of Chicago or Columbia where I am adding a little to my meager store of information. I have been teaching continuously for 34 years and am now Principal of the High School here in Lexington, Ky…” 

Fouse was being extremely modest. According to Otterbein historian Dr. Harold Hancock, “[Fouse] taught school in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky, serving as principal of Dunbar School in Lexington, KY, for 24 years. In Kentucky he organized the Bluegrass Oratorical Association and Bluegrass Athletic Association, instituted the Penny Saving Bank Plan in schools, and guided the development of Dunbar School into a modern school. He became president of the Kentucky National Education Association [in 1937]. Just before he retired in 1937, he received an M.A. from the University of Cincinnati.” 

That same year, Otterbein gave him the honorary degree, Doctor of Pedagogy. In his letter of acceptance, Fouse wrote: 

“Again thanking you most heartily for the confidence you and the faculty have expressed in my ability and achievements in the field I have chosen for my life’s work and assuring you that I shall ever hold in mind the fact that my alma mater is largely responsible for helping me to set the sails that have all to do in determining the way I have gone…” 

William Henry Fouse died on June 1, 1944.  His work continues to bear fruit today in the schools of Lexington, KY, where he worked for a quarter of a century, and in his hometown of Westerville, where an elementary school bears his name, and his alma mater hosts The William Henry Fouse House of Black Culture. In addition, he continues to inspire us over a century later through his writings. In an address entitled “Beneath the Surface,” delivered to the University in June 1898 and published that October in the Otterbein Aegis, Fouse wrote: 

“Let us then be no longer deluded by the pipings and the songs of sirens.  Let us cultivate ourselves and pursue the invisible to such an extent that all may know that we do not belong to that number who would sell their birthright for a mess of pottage; that we are striving to base our judgements upon things not as they seem but as they are; that we are searching not for shadows but for substance as is found in the invisible beneath the surface.”