LEWISTON – Few graduates of Bates College can match the life led by Lewis Penick Clinton, the first African to earn a degree from the Lewiston-based college back in 1897.

“Heir to an African throne,” declared a Boston Globe headline at the time.

“An African prince,” said the Buffalo Courier.

Lewis Penick Clinton depicted in The Boston Globe in 1894. The Boston Globe

Managing to be both racist and sensationalist, the San Francisco Call titled its story, “From Cannibal to Minister.”

Born Somayou Zea Clayou in a village that’s probably near the border of modern-day Guinea and the hinterlands of Liberia, Clinton was the eldest son of the favorite wife of a leader of the Bassa people and in line to inherit his father’s position someday.

It didn’t work out that way, however.


With a Westernized name and a new religion, Clinton eventually became a prominent missionary able to speak at least nine languages, respected in his homeland and embraced by religious peers around the world.

“I was once a heathen lad,” Clinton wrote a few years after he graduated, “but through the mercy of God, I am what I am today.”

Sorting out the story of Clinton’s life is complicated by the pervasive racism that seeped into nearly every mention of the man during his years in the United States, where news stories mocked his appearance and expressed surprise at his intellectual achievements.

“He is a typical African, black as the ace of spades,” the Lewiston Daily Sun said in 1897.

But there are enough common themes among the dozen news stories that focused on Clinton that they likely contain a reasonable degree of truth, particularly since he must have been their primary source of information. They were, though, always colored by a strange mix of prejudice and admiration.

Take for instance, what may have been the first news story to mention him.


The Boston Herald in 1892 expressed surprise that “a genuine prince has been living in Lewiston for over two years. Not only a prince of good fellows, but the only son of a king, and rightful heir to a throne.”

“Darker by far than the midnight shadows of Bates’ classic halls is the face of Somayou Zea Clayou, but his heart is as white as that of any student in Lewiston’s great institution of learning, and his aims and purposes are as high and noble.”

The story said that “Somayou is better known at Bates as Lewis P. Clinton,” the name he used in his professional life that followed.


Born about 1866, the boy who came to embrace the name Clinton appeared destined to play a prominent role among the million or more Bassa people who lived along a 160-mile swath of West African coastline and well into the interior of Liberia as well.

The Bassa are a unique ethnic group, traditionally small farmers who raised cassava yams, plantains and edoes, according to James Stuart Olson’s “The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary.”


Clinton told a reporter his rice-loving people sold ivory, coffee and redwood to traders along the coast and purchased cotton goods and firearms in return.

The Bassa people have no singular leader, but are divided “into a variety of chiefdoms,” with each chiefdom further divided into dozens of ethnically distinct clans, according to Olson.

What that means for Clinton’s story is that his father and grandfather, both cited in stories as Bassa kings, were almost certainly chiefs of one of the clans. The clan leaders often had many children, all of whom could with justification claim they were the equivalent of princes and princesses in European monarchical terms.

When Clinton’s father died, leaving behind about 30 wives, an uncle took the helm and perhaps the 13-year-old boy’s life was suddenly in danger.

Clinton told a Lewiston Daily Sun reporter in 1897 that his uncle watched him closely after taking power.

The Boston Globe said the odds were that his uncle, who didn’t want to give up “the throne,” would not permit Clinton “to grow to manhood.” Taking no chances, it said, Clinton escaped to the Liberian coast sometime in his teens.


Or at least that’s one of the stories he told. The first story about Clinton, from the Boston Herald two years earlier, had a different tale.

It said that Bassa boys were taken into the bush during an annual feast, starting at age 8, and were “obliged to remain in the custody of the gods” and undergo three terrible ordeals by the time they reached the age of 17.

In the Herald’s account, Clinton underwent an unspecified first ordeal and stayed for a second “very cruel” one that included his hands “being beaten with thorns until the fingers are a mass of jelly.”

The last, unspecified ordeal was supposed to be even worse, and a young man might not survive it, the story said. It said dying was a sign “the gods were angry and took him away.”

Those who survive, though, “come forth a man,” the Herald said.

The paper said that Clinton, whom it referred to as “our Bates College friend,” didn’t stick around for the final ordeal at age 17.


“The second was so hard with him he was afraid of the third — and began to wonder if there wasn’t some way to dodge it, or some good god to whom to flee for protection,” the story said. “Brooding over his condition of life, Clinton finally resolved to run away and find out if there was not some place on earth where those third degrees were not known.”

The Herald said Clinton tried twice to flee without success. But he made one final bid to escape that went better.

With help from a young uncle, he reached a Liberian seaport, the story said, and there met Bishop Charles C. Pennick “who took a kindly interest in the youthful scion” of what he saw as a noble Bassa family.

An illustrator captured the appearance of Monrovia and nearby areas of Liberia about 1870, when Lewis Clinton was a boy living in a more rural area of the country. New York Public Library Digital Collection


The Rev. Charles Pennick The National Council of the Protestant Episcopal Church

Pennick was an Episcopal missionary from Virginia. He had arrived in Liberia in 1878 and founded the Cape Mount Mission near Monrovia, the capital. He quickly gained a reputation for his vigor in building the thriving mission, which focused on the education of several hundred young people. But his health broke down and he returned to Virginia about 1883.

Before he left, Pennick arranged to send to the United States three boys from the mission that he described in an 1884 letter as “orphans left to me” with the intention of helping them receive a good education, according to the book “Guanya Pau: A Story of an African Princess” by Joseph Jeffrey Walters.


All three of the boys got a chance to attend Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, where they studied for about five years at the Free Will Baptist institution established to educate freed slaves and other African Americans.

Clinton moved to Lewiston about 1890 and studied further at a secondary school attached to Bates College. Two years later, he matriculated as a Bates student, studying at the college’s Cobb Divinity School, which always had close ties with the now-closed Storer College.

While at Bates, Clinton impressed his classmates.

Those who knew him, the Lewiston Daily Sun said, “are loud in his praise.”

“Clever, keen, bright and especially well-posted in metaphysics, they say he is the equal of any of his contemporary theologians in debate,” the paper said.

Clinton said that he could speak English, French, German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Bassa, Kru and Vai, an impressive tally by anyone’s standards. He hoped one day to create a written form of the Bassa language, though it doesn’t appear he had a hand in doing so.


A Boston Globe reporter talked to him in 1894 in Maine. The story carried the headline “Future King at Bates.” At the time, Clinton told the reporter, he was about 28 years old.

The Globe said that during his time at Bates, Clinton supported himself by giving lectures around the country about his native land and its people.

“He is an elocutionist and mimic, and has often entertained his mates at society and other gatherings by his stump speeches and recitations,” the paper said.

The Globe called him “an intelligent study and at the same time deeply interested in all the various features of student life, a strong supporter of the college sports, baseball, football, tennis and all others, though himself playing nothing but tennis.”

The Boston paper said Clinton was “very popular” at Bates and had been particularly active in its debating society, where he “always demonstrated his ability to hold his own in argument.”

At one point during a college debate, Clinton heard someone insist on the superiority of white people in support of suppressing the vote of “the inferior negro” in the South.


Clinton “was on his feet in an instant,” the Lewiston Daily Sun reported. “He said he was reminded of the story of two men fighting. One was down and the other was straining every muscle to keep him there.

“’He is down, don’t that satisfy you?’ was the query. ‘No! I feel him rising,’ replied the man at the top,” the newspaper said Clinton responded.

An illustration accompanying an 1897 story about Lewis Clinton that ran in a California newspaper. San Francisco Chronicle


During his final year at Bates, Clinton wrote a column for the college newspaper headlined “No Christmas in Heathen Africa,” an idea sparked by holiday concerts he attended at Pine Street Congregational Church in Lewiston.

Seated near the front, he watched parents as they kept an eye on the children taking their assigned parts in the celebration of “the birth of the Prince of Peace.”

As each boy and girl rose, Clinton wrote, “I could discern in each one’s countenance that spirit of freedom, love and joy which are the chief characteristics of the sons and daughters of America.”


That night, he wrote, he lay in bed “half-awake and half-asleep” while a “thought kept pressing upon me with an irresistible force: No Christmas in Heathen Africa.”

“That very night I was led to reflect upon my past heathen life with such vividness as I have never before done since I left the shores of benighted Africa,” Clinton wrote.

Clinton said he realized that night how the world he’d left behind “was groaning under the tyranny of heathen savagery.”

He recalled seeing himself as a boy, accompanied by “several of my unfortunate dark comrades, sitting at the feet of a heathen sage” who was “always ready and willing to sing to us, from out of his boundless store of legends, the heroic deeds of our ancestors.”

This “wonderful storyteller,” he said, would speak beside a blazing fire to several hundred boys and girls sitting on mats, listening to legends so grand they could be compared to Homer’s “Iliad” or Virgil’s “Aeneid.”

“This is the only system of schooling” available back in his African village, Clinton said.


He recalled, too, how the next day, the boys would “take up our bows and arrows and hasten to the woods in pursuit of birds, squirrels and other small game.”

“The lad who succeeds in killing the greatest amount of game is crowned the hero of that day,” Clinton said, and is “conducted to the village on the shoulders of a dozen of his young countrymen” while carrying a sword in his right hand and leading a familiar chant.

“The whole village often unites to do honor to the young warrior,” Clinton said.

Clinton said, though, that he was glad he embraced “the light of civilization” and journeyed across the ocean.

“I came to your shores that I might with you participate in the glorious gains resulting from that greatest gift to man, which gift you celebrate upon your Christmas Day,” Clinton said.

“And as the time draws near when I shall return to my beloved Africa, the hope grows strong that when the bonds of superstition and ignorance shall have been broken, I shall with my people join with you in celebrating the advent of the Christ-child.”



The summer after graduation, Clinton went on a speaking tour that took him to Nova Scotia and then across Canada.

The Boston Globe said that when he finished the tour, he planned to return to his native land “to work for his people as a teacher and missionary, to bring them to Christianity and to civilization.”

“He will tell his uncle,” the Globe said, “that he has no desire for the throne, but simply desires to found schools for his people.”

Lewis Clinton relaxing after a meal. Muskie Archives, Bates College

In 1901, Clinton sent a letter to supporters telling them what he was up to in Liberia.

Clinton had established a 200-acre farm about 75 miles from Monrovia, about 50 miles from the sea. It aimed to provide agricultural, mechanical and spiritual training to Bassa boys and girls.


He said leading figures in the country wanted him to teach their children English, but it wasn’t clear to him whether he should.

Clinton said he started with 20 boys and five girls. He hoped they would learn from him and then head back to their “heathen surroundings” to spread the word of God.

A decade later, Clinton told the Lewiston Saturday Journal about his return to Liberia.

Suddenly, he heard “a great shouting outside” and saw an old woman coming toward him “weeping with true native abandon and crying.”

“It is you, Somayou, my own Somayou,” his mother told him.

He said his mother soon began calling him “my son Lewis” instead, because she told him he was “a changed man” who should have a changed name to reflect that reality.


The Journal called it “a rather good sentiment from a woman of a heathen tribe.”

Clinton told the Journal in 1910 that his school had grown to house 46 boys and 19 girls, many of them blood relatives to him. He said he hoped to expand the mission school further in the years ahead.

That same year, he went on another extended speaking tour that included a lecture titled “The Hinterland of Liberia” that he delivered at Clark University in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

The Journal said in 1910 that Clinton had played a major role in reforms in Liberia, including a new law related to those charged with sorcery.

It said the custom among the Bassa has been to force those accused of witchcraft to eat poisonous tree bark. If they died, they were innocent. Clinton helped outlaw the practice.

After his speaking tour, Clinton likely returned to Liberia – since his failure to do so would probably have attracted attention – but no book, newspaper or archive appears to have any records that mention him again.

All that can be said for certain is that after 1910, Clinton vanished from the historical record.

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