First African-American enrolled in 1870

Although it wouldn't have an African-American graduate for 30 more years, Cornell admitted its first student of color in 1870. His presence was noted in the predecessor of The Cornellian, which wrote that the student had been a slave six years earlier.

In 1873, Charles Ruff, the son of the only African-American family in Mount Vernon, enrolled in Cornell's high school. His father was the local baker and ice cream shop proprietor. The family, joined by Cornell's President Fellows, entertained Frederick Douglass when he lectured at Cornell in 1859.

Cornell's first African-American graduate was Frank Jeremiah Armstrong, Class of 1900. He came from Marion, Iowa, and appeared to be well integrated at Cornell. He was a member of the Adelphian Literary Society and sang bass in its quartet, was captain and second baseman of the baseball team, and served on the executive committee of the Cornell Athletic Association.

In his senior year, Armstrong had the honor of introducing Booker T. Washington in King Chapel, and made a strong impression. Washington hired him as his secretary, a position he held for eight years at the Tuskeegee Institute. Armstrong then earned a medical doctorate from the University of Illinois and served with the U.S. Health Department before going into private practice as a physician and surgeon. He was killed in his Chicago office during a robbery in 1946.

From 1902 to 1904 there was an African-American girl enrolled in Cornell's pre-college academy. In 1910 a second African-American, Henry Freeman Coleman, graduated from the college. Cornell didn't graduate an African-American woman until Madgetta Thornton Dungy completed her degree in 1964 (see main article).