Sumus Primi (Latin, “We are first.”)
The Boston Latin School’s motto, above, has a double meaning; it was both the first public school in the country and, for many years, one of the most highly regarded. Its alumni include four signers of the Declaration of Independence, four Boston mayors, fourteen governors (twelve of Massachusetts), three bishops, three Harvard presidents, two conductors of major orchestras, the founder of Nabisco, the owner of MTV, and many notable authors, including transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and mythologist Thomas Bulfinch. Benjamin Franklin was a notable attendee—and a fifth signer of the Declaration of Independence—but he dropped out after only two years and did not graduate.
The Boston Latin School was founded in 1635 and its first school building was erected a decade later, on the site now marked by a hopscotch mosaic inlay by Lilli Ann Killen Rosenberg. Because of the importance placed on literacy by the Puritans, who believed strongly in the ability to read the Bible and foster a personal relationship with God, education was an important early tenet of the colonies. English was not a major world language at the time, as it is today, and an emphasis was instead put on a classical Greek and Roman curriculum. Some early graduates went on to attend Harvard or other institutions of higher education, but many went directly into trades, which often did not require further schooling.
Though the Boston Latin School was known for admitting students across all classes, this was restricted to male pupils for most of its history; the first coed class was not admitted until 1972. Despite this, however, Helen Magill White was allowed to attend in 1859 as the first female student. White was the first woman in the US to earn a PhD, when she graduated Boston University in 1877 having studied Greek.
Today, the Boston Latin School continues to operate at its new location in the Fenway area, where it moved in 1922.