Pezavia O’Connell, PhD


Methodist MinisterActivistEducator Scholar of Hebrew


Pezavia O'Connell (1861–1930) was an African American Methodist minister, activist, educator, and scholar of Hebrew.  He received a PhD in 1898 for a dissertation entitled, "Synonyms of the Clean and Unclean in Hebrew.”  This distinction made him the first African American to earn a PhD in Semitic languages in the United States.  Born to a family of farmers in Natchez, Mississippi in 1861, O’Connell attended classes at Jackson College (now Jackson State University) in Mississippi and Wilberforce University in Ohio – both Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBU’s).  He transferred from there to another HCBU, Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, where he earned a divinity degree in 1888. After assuming a position as a Methodist pastor in Newark, New Jersey, he took classes and studied Hebrew at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.  He then moved to Philadelphia to become a pastor at the Bainbridge Street Methodist Church.  Around this time, he began his studies at Penn.  After securing his Penn PhD, O'Connell became principal of Princess Anne Academy, in Salisbury, Maryland – the precursor to what is now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) – and filled this role from 1899 to 1902.   From 1902 to 1911 he served as a pastor in Wilmington, Delaware and served as a district superintendent for the African Methodist Church. Three professorial positions followed at HCBU’s.  From 1911 to 1913, he was a professor at Howard University Divinity School; from 1913 to 1916 he returned to teach at Gammon Theological Seminary; and in 1920 he became a professor of History and Philosophy at Morgan College, now Morgan State University, in Baltimore, where he served until his death on November 26, 1930, at age 69.  In 1964, Morgan State University named a new building, O’Connell Hall, in his honor. The pioneering scholar of African American history, Carter G. Woodson, wrote a 1921 book entitled The History of the Negro Church, which noted Pezavia O'Connell's fearless advocacy for African American rights.  In 1931, following O’Connell’s death, the Journal of Negro History echoed these sentiments, citing his courage and commitment to truth. 


Gammon Theological Seminary, Divinity, 1888 University of Pennsylvania, PhD in Semitic languages, 1898


Jackson College (now Jackson State University) Wilberforce University Gammon Theological Seminary Hebrew at Columbia University Union Theological Seminary Bainbridge Street Methodist Church University of Pennsylvania Princess Anne Academy (now University of Maryland Eastern Shore) Howard University Divinity School Morgan College (now Morgan State University)