Edward Alexander Bouchet was born September 15, 1852 in New Haven, Connecticut, the youngest of four and only son to Williams Francis and Susan (Cooley) Bouchet. He was born just twelve years before United States 16th president Abraham Lincoln Emancipated the slaves. The Bouchet family was quite prominent in New Haven’s small African American community. In addition to holding the position of deacon at the Temple Street Church, the oldest black church in the city, and a stopping point for fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad, William Francis Bouchet was also employed at Yale College as a janitor and Susan did the laundry for Yale Students. William and Susan had hoped their son would one day join the ranks of the Yale College student body. The fulfillment of this aspiration would be no small feat given the fact that no African American had ever attended Yale.
During the 1850s and 60s New Haven had only three schools that black children could attend. Edward enrolled in the Artisan Street Colored school, a small un-graded school with one teacher. He attended the New Haven High School from 1866 to 1868 and then Hopkins Grammar School, a private institution, where he studied mathematics and history in addition to learning Latin and Greek, he attended from 1868 to 1870, where he graduated first in his class and was named valedictorian.
In September of 1870 Bouchet entered Yale College (later renamed Yale University) in pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree, a remarkable endeavor for the time, as there were few opportunities for African Americans seeking higher education. Bouchet graduated from Yale with his bachelor’s in 1874, ranking sixth in a class of 124. After graduating from Yale Bouchet stayed at Yale for two more years and completed his Ph.D. in physics, making his the first African American to earn a doctorate degree in the United Stated.
Despite his impressive achievement, Bouchet could not land a college professorship due to his race. He instead went to work at the School for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. For more than 25 years, Bouchet taught chemistry and physics at one of the few institutions that offered African Americans a rigorous academic program. But the school changed its direction in 1902 to focus on offering vocational training. After leaving the school, Bouchet held a variety of jobs. He worked for Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri, and later for the St. Paul Normal and Industrial School in Virginia. From 1908 to 1913, Bouchet served as principal of Lincoln High School. In poor health, Bouchet retired from work and returned to his hometown of New Haven.
He died there in 1918. Since his passing, Bouchet has received numerous honors. Yale University installed a tombstone to remember him in 1998, and the school’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences established the Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society in his name. Yale also gives out the Bouchet Leadership Award to academics who help advance diversity in higher education.