Henry Malachi Griffin: The first African-American to earn a UC undergraduate degree

Born into a New Jersey farming family, Henry Malachi Griffin came to Cincinnati and enrolled at UC in 1882. It appears he may have worked as a coachman while completing his degree, and records suggest he was a popular student. He was elected class orator and served as speaker of the Mock Congress (a sort of debating society). He was even listed among the members of the Pie Biters, a joking name for students who ate lunch from street vendors near the university building. Griffin went on to work as a teacher and high school principal until he returned to the role of student – entering medical school in middle age – and afterward went on to become a practicing physician in New York City’s Harlem, pursuing his new vocation well into his late 60s.

From the historical record, it’s clear Griffin never stopped breaking barriers -- and had a fine sense of humor, perhaps believing laughter to be the best medicine. In 1910, the “New York Age” newspaper wrote of him as an early adopter of the automobile, a transportation innovation that others avoided due to prudent safety concerns: 

“Dr. H.M. Griffin, who has his office on 135th Street, is the first one of our doctors to use an automobile. Dr. Griffin explains that he does not like the idea of those Southern physicians getting ahead of New York, and therefore, he recently purchased a small runabout in which to make his professional calls. The doctor learned to run that car in a week, but he is talking little chance. He explains that he is well insured, and there are a score of undertakers in the immediate vicinity and a hospital on the next corner.”

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