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A Great Thing for our People: The Institute for Colored Youth in the Civil War Era  > 



Cheyney Alumni and Team ICY. 2.15.15


This project began as a challenge.  In 1866, the Board of Managers published a list of all of the graduates of the Institute for Colored Youth from the first graduation in 1856 to 1864, a year that featured a graduating class of ten, including five men and women.  Students in a graduate seminar on the Civil War at Villanova were challenged to choose a few of the thirty-seven graduates to see what they might learn about these individuals and this school that stood at the center of the black community in Civil War Philadelphia but about which we know very little.  The results were mixed, and not all students were keen on pursuing a project that seemed littered with obstacles.  But several students were enthusiastic about continuing the project.  With a grant from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, Michael Johnson, James Kopaczewski, and Elizabeth Motich began the work in earnest the summer of 2014.  By the end of summer, we had something to say about each of the thirty-seven Graduates, and when we saw that, as alumni, their paths continued to cross, we added sections on Faculty and Moments.

That summer, Mike, Jim, and Elizabeth visited archives, cemeteries, and churches to find out more about the Institute and the community that it served.  Together we walked the seventh ward, toured Mother Bethel, and visited Historic Camp William Penn, the nation’s premier training ground for black troops who fought in the war, among them, 1861 ICY graduate Martin White, who served in the 24th Regiment, United States Colored Troops.  Mike, Jim, and Elizabeth scoured the collections of Swarthmore College and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, searched Ancestry and newspaper databases for traces of evidence, and kept Falvey Library Interlibrary Loan staff members busy.  Little is left to tell the history of this extraordinary school.  Once it left the city and became Cheyney University early in the twentieth century, early records were lost or misplaced.  Much of what students did find is part of the William Dorsey Collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  A selection of these items can be found on the Documents page.

Besides Charlene Conyers’ 1990 A Living Legend: The History of Cheyney University, 1837-1951 and a brief discussion of the school in Roger Lane’s 1991 William Dorsey’s Philadelphia and Ours, scholars have paid little attention to the school.  Those who did chose to focus on prominent graduates, like Harry Silcox’s 1973 “Philadelphia Negro Educator: Jacob C. White, Jr. 1837-1902” and Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin’s 2010 biography, Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, that tell the history of an 1857 and 1858 graduate, respectively.  Of the other thirty-five remaining graduates of the school, bits and pieces could be found here and there but nothing that put these people’s lives together, for those years that they sat next to one another in the classrooms of the Institute for Colored Youth, learning the lessons that encouraged them to fight for freedom and to exhibit extraordinary courage when they did so. 

“A Great Thing for Our People,” seeks to tell the early history of the Institute for Colored Youth, its graduates, and how they helped to shape the history of the postwar nation.

Thank you to the Department of History at Villanova University, Pennsylvania Abolition Society, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and Special Collections at Falvey Library at Villanova.  Sara Borden at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania opened up the Dorsey collection to us and allowed us to digitize items featured on the Documents page.  David Uspal provided digital support from start to finish, and he was a pleasure to work with.  Michael Johnson marshaled his considerable digital skills to make the project happen.  Michael Mafodda designed the header, and Diego Fierros designed our handy business cards.  Coming late to the project but providing enthusiasm and help in spreading the word were Larry Robin and Michael Coard.  As an alumnus of Cheyney University, Michael allowed us valuable airtime on his local radio station (900AM WURD) to get the word out to those who are advocating on behalf of this historic HBC with a distinguished civil rights history.  Michael Coard has been an invaluable champion of this project.

We dedicate this site to the graduates of the Institute and of Cheyney University who have done so much to shape the world we live in. 


 Judith Giesberg

Michael Johnson

James Kopaczewski

Elizabeth Motich



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