Remembering the Life of William S. Noland, the First Known Black Graduate of UW-Madison

Today, the average college student leaves a daily social media mark, detailing what they’ve eaten, what they’re listening to, what they’re studying – or what they’re supposed to be studying.

It’s easy to take information, be it useful or mundane, for granted. That is until you try to put together the pieces of someone’s life who lived long ago.

William S. Noland is believed to be the first Black student to graduate from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, receiving his degree June 17, 1875. This fact is often told but his story isn’t.

While there are none of the digital footprints students leave today, we can get a glimpse into his life digging into the archives, learning when he was born, where he lived, and when he was a student. But we also have his own words captured in the class album of 1875 and praise from his fellow students:

“He is adept at intellectual gymnastics and especially delights to use his powers against profs. He is the poet of the class and we believe in general aspires to literature.”

Noland earned a short critique from The Wisconsin State Journal as part of its extensive commencement coverage:

“The poem of Wm. S. Noland upon the subject ‘Yesterday – Tomorrow’ was a gem in itself, but too lengthy. Mr. N. will doubtless rank high as a poet at some future day.”

That was not to be.  Sadly, Noland died by suicide June 20, 1890.

The passage of time takes the footprints of people’s lives with it. Traces get left behind, often bringing up more questions than answers. Noland’s story – or as much as we know of it – is a reminder that history is rarely simple.

William S. Noland was born Feb. 11, 1848 to Anna and William H. Noland in Binghamton, New York. The family, including his sisters Laura and Anastasia, moved to Madison in 1850. Frank and Charles were born in Madison. The Nolands are often credited as the first Black family to establish permanent residence in Madison.

On June 25, 1976, The Capital Times wrote a story about the family’s father, William H. Noland, and his role as a groundbreaker in Madison for its bicentennial section.

The story credits him with:

Being the first Black person to establish permanent residence in Madison.

The first Black person to be named to state office by a Wisconsin governor.

The first Black man offered as a candidate for the office of mayor of Madison.

Suggesting to Wisconsin Governor Alexander W. Randall that Black men be recruited for military duty at the outbreak of the Civil War.

His career was eclectic to say the least. Musician, baker, grocery operator, ice cream maker. Notary public, veterinarian, chiropodist.

He started out as a barber when he arrived in Madison in 1850 operating the Empire Shaving Saloon. In 1854, he refused service to a man identified as a slave catcher, telling him that he “did not shave kidnappers or their underlings.”

While the father, William H., was nicknamed “the professor,” it was actually William S. who was the family member who went to college. Records show him first registered as a student at UW–Madison from 1862-63 when he was 14, later returning as a student in 1869.

There were 31 students in the graduating class of 1875. Before there were Badger yearbooks, class albums were handwritten. Page after page of cursive writing provides a brief biography of each of the graduates along with a portion of the biography using the graduate’s own words.

Think of it as 19th century LinkedIn:

“Born Feb. 11, 1848, in Binghamton, Brown County, N.Y. A follower of the ‘star of empire’ in ’50 – a pupil in the common schools of Madison from the age of 7 to 14 – and a basically prepared student in the Classical department of the University of Wisconsin from ’69 to ’75 with a year & one half travel between the junior and senior years.”

While his father pursued numerous business ventures, his son had other interests.

“Mr. Noland is a member of the College of Letters. He has a sanguine temperament, a logical mind, and is a good writer & speaks in public with a slight hesitancy. He has a tendency toward skepticism. He is liberal in politics, is not engaged and has ‘paddled his own canoe’ most of the time since his boat was launched on the sea of life.”

In Noland’s own words:

“The filling up of this skeleton of my life would read very much like Mark Twain’s diary. ‘Got up. Eat breakfast. Eat dinner. Eat supper. Went to bed,’” Noland says of himself in the album.

In addition to their age, class members were asked to include other information about whether they used tobacco, consumed alcoholic drinks, their religion, and curiously, their height and weight:

“Never having used tobacco in any form or alcoholic drinks, the age of 27 years 4 months and 5 days find me 155 ½ lbs in weight; 5 ft 10 in. in stature, a member of the Hesperian Society; a disbeliever in secret societies in general; perfectly willing that anyone who chooses to believe himself a lineal descendent of the Old Man of the Sea should do so; a believer in free trade when I am making the trade myself and in hard money when I can get enough of it; a believer in an educational basis of suffrage; an admirer of Shakespeare, Byron & Moore, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Miss Muloch, Bancroft & Macaulay, and Prof. S.H. Carpenter as the best teacher in the University or out of it.”

Noland was 27 when he graduated from UW–Madison. The last years of Noland’s life are much harder to put together. He was a student at the Law School for a short time “but was compelled to abandon his studies there and begin the work for daily bread,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal. “He went east and engaged in literary work, but was lost sight of by old acquaintances here until the letter, received Saturday afternoon, announced his death.”

To read more go to More than a footnote: Remembering the life of William S. Noland, the first known Black graduate of UW-Madison (