Edward Alexander Bouchet (1852-1918) was the first African American to graduate from Yale College, the first in the nation to be nominated to Phi Beta Kappa, and the first to earn a Ph.D. in the United States. In fact, he was the sixth person in the western hemisphere to earn a doctorate in physics. But when he died, he was buried without a tombstone.
That omission will soon be corrected.
Bouchet will receive belated honors on Saturday, Oct. 17, at 11 a.m. when a tombstone is unveiled above his grave at Evergreen Cemetery,
92 Winthrop Ave. The public is welcome to attend the ceremony.
Bouchet's father, William Francis Bouchet, was born into slavery in 1817. The elder Bouchet came to New Haven in the 1840s as the personal servant of John B. Robertson, a Yale student from Charleston, South Carolina, and after obtaining his freedom, worked as a porter at the College.
Edward was the youngest of four children and the only boy in the family. Before coming to Yale, he attended Sally Wilson's Artisan Street Colored School and Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven, where he was valedictorian of his class, graduating in 1870 -- five years after the Civil War.
Bouchet's mother, Susan, is believed to have laundered clothes for her son's classmates, and his father worked for a time as a janitor at Yale. They lived on Bradley Street, in a black neighborhood.
Despite his isolated social situation and the challenges of his working class background, Bouchet earned his bachelor's degree with highest honors from Yale in 1874 and his Ph.D. two years later, in 1876, with a dissertation titled "Measuring Refractive Indices."
Despite Bouchet's credentials and talents, no university would hire him -- nor could he find work at any research facility. Eventually he accepted an offer to teach at the School for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, where there was no library and no laboratory for Bouchet to continue his work. He remained there for 26 years and then moved to Summer High School in St. Louis, Missouri. For a time, he was business manager for a hospital in St. Louis. He later moved to Virginia, where he was director of academics at the St. Paul Normal and Industrial School, before becoming principal of the Lincoln High School at Gallipolis, Ohio. He never married.
Bouchet returned to New Haven on his retirement, and became active in St. Luke's Church. When he died in 1918 at the age of 66, he was buried in the family plot at Evergreen Cemetery -- without a tombstone. .