The Short Story: The UW’s First Black Graduates

It’d be difficult to forget who the University of Wisconsin’s “founding fathers” were. You see their names on buildings: Bascom, Lathrop, Vilas, Chadbourne. Even some of the UW’s earliest prominent women are household names; certainly you’ve heard of Helen C. White and Elizabeth Waters. But you’re probably less likely to have heard about William Smith Noland and Mabel Watson Raimey. Their achievements and contributions aren’t any less grand, nor are their stories any less fascinating. The written history of the university has been a predominantly white one, but that’s finally changing. 

The names Raimey and Noland didn’t come to light until 2016, when an inquisitive graduate student in the iSchool took a deep dive into the UW Archives. Harvey Long MA’16 went searching through papers and photos in Steenbock Library, with the goal of unearthing information about the university’s earliest Black students. Long found the names of the UW’s first (known) Black female and male graduates: Mabel Watson Raimey and William Smith Noland. Now, five years later, their legacies are being solidified through a new initiative — the Raimey-Noland Campaign. This campaign, which launches in March and runs through the end of the All Ways Forward comprehensive campaign, aims to foster a more diverse and welcoming campus community at all levels and to support research into social and racial injustice. 

So, who were Raimey and Noland? 

Mabel Watson Raimey 1918’s firsts didn’t stop with being the UW’s first Black female graduate. After earning her degree in English, she went back to her hometown of Milwaukee and became a teacher. After a few years, she became Marquette University Law School’s first Black student, and in 1927, she became the first Black female lawyer in Wisconsin. (The next Black woman admitted to the State Bar of Wisconsin, 24 years later, was another UW grad — Vel Phillips LLB’51.) 

Less is known about William Smith Noland 1875. He first enrolled at the UW in 1862, and after several starts and stops, earned his degree in classics in 1875. That year puts Noland in high esteem: of the country’s 50 flagship universities, Noland was just the second Black scholar to graduate. (Gabriel Hargo was the first, graduating from the University of Michigan in 1870.) Long’s research indicates that Noland was an active member of campus, participating in several clubs. Noland attended UW Law School for two semesters after graduating.