Champion Miller

Since 1861, Monmouth College has awarded approximately 530 honorary degrees. Of that number, fewer than 2 percent have been awarded to persons of color.

As the College moves toward dedicating The Champion Miller Center for Equity, Inclusion, and Community—the first building in its history named after a person of color—a case can be made for considering Champion Miller as a candidate for receiving a posthumous honorary degree.

Although Miller was not a noted man of letters, science or religion, his remarkable life story provides inspiration for the marginalized, disadvantaged and first-generation college students who will be served by the Champion Miller Center. Already, the Champion Miller 1860 Fund has raised thousands of dollars toward the work of the Center.

Born a slave in Barren County, Kentucky, in 1808, Champion Miller was emancipated by a circuit court decree in 1848, having paid to his master—then deceased—the sum of $600 with interest for the privilege of possessing his own body. He later bought the freedom of his wife and daughter for $800, and his son for $400. The son later died from fever contracted while serving his country during the Civil War.

Miller came to Monmouth in 1856 and brought his family here the following year. He was one of the founders, along with President David Wallace, of the First African Church, which later became the Fourth United Presbyterian Church before it was dissolved in 1871. He then became a respected member of First United Presbyterian Church, a membership he held until his death in 1882.

During his years in Monmouth, Miller was a respected citizen, running a laundry business out of his home and raising a family of four children. Upon his death, the local newspaper wrote: “Here he lived an upright and honorable Christian life, so that it had been said of him since his death that no man in Monmouth was more respected. And the life of this humble black man, no less than that of the good whom death snatches from the high places of earth, has a lesson for the living. How many of the names blazoned in history would be found if their owners had begun life without a title to their own bodies?”

Although he did not enroll in Monmouth College, Miller was in a sense a student of the College. From 1858 to 1860, William T. Moffet, as student at the Monmouth College Theological Seminary, personally taught Miller to read and write. Had he been born under different circumstances, it is reasonable to expect this intelligent, industrious man might well have completed a college degree at Monmouth.

Champion Miller, his wife, daughter and granddaughter are all buried in Monmouth Cemetery. Lack of financial resources apparently prohibited the family from purchasing a burial plot and the graves have no markers. Burial space was apparently donated by friends—perhaps from the Presbyterian Church. Research into the life of Miller is ongoing but has yet to locate even a photograph of the former slave. We do know that descendants are still living, and it is hoped that some can be located, who may add to our knowledge of Miller and help honor his memory.

Awarding an honorary degree to Champion Miller would not only provide long-overdue recognition for his life achievements but would also help bring attention to the Champion Miller Center and its work. In addition, there is precedence for honorary degrees being awarded to persons for whom College buildings are named, among them: Haldeman, Gibson, Huff, Poling and Stockdale.