Updated: Feb 10, 2022
Just three years after the University of Idaho produced its inaugural class of graduates, the first African American to earn a bachelor’s degree in Idaho accepted her diploma in 1899.
Jennie Eva Hughes was born in Washington, DC to Louisa and Alexander Hughes in 1879. While still a young child Jennie’s mother married Lewis Crisemon and they began moving westward. For a time the family, which now included two more daughters, lived in Indian Territory. By the early 1890s the Hughes were living in Idaho. During this period the African American population in Idaho was quite small, and the Hugheses were likely Moscow’s first black family.
Jennie graduated from Moscow High School in April of 1895 and enrolled in college the following fall. During her four years at the university, Jennie won the Watkins Medal for Oratory and earned enough credits to receive a Bachelor of Science degree, just one of seven students to matriculate in 1899. While not much is known about Jennie’s parents, Lewis and Louisa, they must have been quite proud of their daughter, who had weathered several moves across the country before the family’s arrival in Moscow. At the turn of the twentieth century, only about one percent of all Americans earned a bachelor’s degree, a fact that makes Jennie Hughes’ accomplishment all the more remarkable.
A short time after her graduation from the university, Jennie married a miner named George Smith and moved to Idaho’s Silver Valley. Following the birth of their fourth child, the couple moved to Spokane, Washington where Jennie believed her children would benefit from a more established public school system. Her commitment to education was a trait she passed on to her children. Her son Berthol became the second African American to enroll at the university, although he passed away before his graduation. Another son would earn a degree in Electrical Engineering from Washington State College, and a third became a lawyer in the Spokane area.
Most of what we know about Jennie Hughes Smith comes to us from school records, Argonaut articles, and recollections from grandchildren. Jennie’s own words were never captured in a diary or oral history interview. Her life experiences were surely shaped by race and gender. As we commemorate the women’s suffrage and equal rights movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is important to remember that women of color were largely excluded from participating. The particular needs of non-white women, among the most marginalized individuals even today, were not acknowledged. For an excellent overview on the historic intersections of race and gender equality, see “Feminism and Race in the United States.”