Barnabas Root was probably the first black man to receive a college degree in Illinois, according to Hermann Muelder in Missionaries and Muckrakers: The First Hundred Years of Knox College. (University of Illinois Press, 1984) The Galesburg Congregational Churches and many of the Knox College alumni were deeply involved with the American Missionary Society.
Knox alumna Mary McIntosh (Knox class of 1855) was called to the Mendi Mission in what is now Liberia and Sierra Leone. One of her students there was Fahma Yahny, known here as Barnabas Root. He adopted the name of a Plymouth, Illinois man who helped raise the funds for Root's education at Knox.
Root was enrolled in the Knox Academy in September 1864, and six years later he graduated from Knox (1870), having excelled in Greek, Latin, and German. As a freshman, he was elected to the Gnothautii Society, one of the college's two literary societies where he participated regularly in debates, orations and business affairs of the society.
Barnabas Root was born in Sherbro in West Africa in 1848. His maternal grandfather had been a slave in America and was returned to Africa by the American Colonization Society. Root was known there as Prince Fahma Yahny, the grand nephew of the King of Sherbro. He came to the United States with Reverend John White in 1859, but returned home. In 1863, C. F. Winship (Knox College Class of 1853), a missionary at the Mendi Mission, brought Root back to America. After his graduation from Knox, Barnabas Root enrolled in Chicago Theological Seminary. He graduated in 1873 and was ordained in 1874. He returned to Africa to engage in missionary work and died of consumption in 1877.