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A Great Thing for our People


History of the Institute for Colored Youth

In the years before the Civil War, educational opportunities for African American children in Philadelphia could be described, at best, as substandard. The few facilities the city offered for African American children were much poorer than those provided for white children. Adding to the adversity was the city’s refusal to hire African American teachers for so-called “colored schools.” White teachers were often ill-prepared, lacked the motivation to educate African American children, and experienced a high turnover rate. African American parents with means tutored their children at home, but this left many children with few options.

African American leaders in the city complained about these poor conditions. They stressed to city school officials the paradox of lamenting the poor state of African American literacy while offering them a second-rate education that perpetuated the inequality. But improvements were insufficient and short-lived.

Sensing the futility of sending their children to substandard schools, African American parents often refused to do so. Black public schools in the city threatened to close due to poor attendance. Parents looked to private schools run by African American teachers to provide a proper education and opportunity for their children.

Among these up and coming private schools was the Institute for Colored Youth. The brainchild of a group of white Philadelphia Quakers, the Institute for Colored Youth was intended as a solution to the problems of black education in the city. The original funds came from the Quaker elder Richard Humphreys. Humphreys was born in 1750 in the British Virgin Islands to a slaveholding family, who over time came to embrace the teachings of the Society of Friends. When he came to Philadelphia as a young man to pursue a career as a goldsmith, his religious faith continued to grow. By the time of his death in 1832, he had become a wealthy and respected member of the community. He had also been moved by the struggles of the African American community in his adopted city. In his will, he bequeathed ten thousand dollars, about one-tenth of his estate, to a group of friends for the purpose of providing opportunity to African Americans through education. Humphreys tasked the group with establishing a

benevolent society or institution…having for its object the benevolent design of instructing the descendants of the African race in school learning, in the various branches of the mechanic arts and trade, and in agriculture, in order to prepare and fit and qualify them to act as teachers in such of those branches of useful business as in the judgment of the said society they may appear best qualified for.

At first the Board of Managers experimented with agricultural and industrial education as well as apprenticeships for black children. But by 1851 the Managers focused instead on Humphreys’s wish to prepare young African Americans to teach. The result was the Institute for Colored Youth. In 1852, the Boys and Girls High Schools opened at 716-718 Lombard Street. Preparatory Schools followed in the subsequent years. Led by Principal Charles L. Reason of New York, the school was staffed by an elite faculty of black women and men. The Managers initially planned to charge a modest tuition, but by 1853, young men and women attended the school for free. Students at the Institute were not required to become teachers, but, true to Humphrey’s bequest, the Managers insisted that such men and women “shall always have the preference over others who have no such intent.”

Despite Humphrey’s original modest vision of instructing students in “the mechanical arts,” Institute faculty held their students to high academic standards. They pursued a rigorous academic curriculum which included advanced mathematics, sciences, English, philosophy, various social sciences, and classical languages (both Greek and Latin). Members of the Senior Class of 1864, for example, were expected to achieve mastery in mathematics (including higher algebra, logarithms, geometry, and plane and spherical trigonometry), English, natural and mental philosophy, chemistry, and the classics (including Greek and Latin grammar, Virgil’s Aeneid, Caesar’s de Bello Gallico, and the New Testament in Greek). Students also received religious instruction, as the Board of Managers considered “moral and religious training” to be even more important than “literary and scientific instruction.” Students were required at all times to maintain high standards of both academic performance and behavior; failure to do so, especially for three or more consecutive months, could result in expulsion. In order to graduate, students had to pass rigorous final examinations that placed heavy emphasis on mathematics and the classics. These oral examinations were held before the Board of Managers and were open to the public.

Beyond the instruction of the next generation of black teachers, the Institute served as an invaluable community resource committed to enriching the lives of Philadelphians of color. Teachers began to amass a lending library, which in ten years had grown to include more than two thousand books, and opened a reading room which was “neatly fitted for the comfort and conveniences of those inclined to avail themselves in that way of the advantages of the Library.” In addition, the Institute held an annual lecture series featuring both teachers and other leading African American intellectuals, ministers, and activists of the time. The topics for the lectures were diverse, and included subjects in academics, religion, and current events.

When the Civil War broke out, the Institute for Colored Youth had grown to more than one hundred students and was rapidly gaining a reputation well beyond the city for academic excellence and for producing community leaders. In 1866, fourteen years after it first opened its doors, the Institute moved to a larger building in the city. That same year, the school proudly celebrated it first thirty-seven graduates, women and men who mastered the Institute’s rigorous curriculum and now stood ready to carry on that work. Most graduates went on to teach in schools in both the North and the South. Others became physicians, government employees, lawyers, and business owners. Even students who failed to graduate found opportunities to pursue teaching, business, or higher education.        

Philadelphians of color enthusiastically embraced the Institute for Colored Youth and its students. By 1863, the school was part of the intellectual, cultural, and political fabric of the community. The Christian Recorder, a black newspaper published by Philadelphia’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, regularly reported on the public lectures sponsored by the Institute and the “interested colored audiences” who convened to hear the speakers. The newspaper also reported on the Institute’s annual Examinations and offered praise for the individual achievements of graduates at each Commencement. The school was a source of pride for the community and an important cultural and political institution.

“We are not without some cheering evidence that the benevolent design of our Institute is being appreciated by those for whom [sic] benefit it was established,” the Board of Managers reported in the minutes of a monthly meeting, taking apparent satisfaction in the esteemed position of the school in the African American community of Philadelphia. “We have found on the part of many of the most respectable of the colored people an increased disposition to aid our efforts, and from parents and others we often receive expressions of gratitude,” Board members added. Of their hope that their Institute’s uplift work would reach beyond the walls of the school, Board Members offered the example of a “mother of a pupil in addressing one of our Teachers [who] said, ‘You cannot think how proud I am of that Institute and how grateful I am to the Managers for its Library, its Schools, its lectures, and its colored teachers. Oh, it is a great thing for our people.’”

Managers also noted with pride the growing reputation of the school outside of Philadelphia. In May 1857 they reported that since its opening, the school was “beginning to attract the attention of intelligent persons in various parts of the country, and has been more frequently visited by strangers than heretofore.” Most surprising among the visitors, at least before the secession crisis and Civil War, were “several [white] persons from the Southern States.” One such visit came in 1856, when Henry Hutz, “a highly educated man” from Alabama came to examine the classes at the Institute. Like many whites, Hutz believed that African Americans were inferior to whites. But after listening to and questioning Institute teachers and students, he was “agreeably surprised at the progress of the scholars.”

In the fraught political climate that followed the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford ruling that African Americans were not American citizens, the Institute for Colored Youth represented a bright spot and an opportunity for African American men and women to showcase their academic abilities. In response Henry Hutz’s visit, the Managers commented that “the theory of which he is the advocate will delight the slaveholder, but a well educated colored man is a powerful argument against it, and one so plain that all can comprehend it.” The men and women who graduated from the Institute stood as striking counter-evidence to Hutz’s racism, and after they graduated, they went on to agitate for equality in a number of ways, including educating their fellow African Americans, supporting the Union war effort, and lobbying for equal rights.

As early as 1861, before the Institute was even ten years old, the Managers were developing plans for better facilities for their students. At the conclusion of an extensive fundraising campaign among the city’s Quaker community, Institute managers were able to purchase a larger lot on Ninth and Shippen (now Bainbridge) Streets. The new Institute building opened on March 9, 1866; the new building could hold twice as many students as the original school and featured amenities such as a lecture hall and chemistry laboratory. The project cost nearly fifty thousand dollars.

The post-Civil War years were full of changes at the Institute for Colored Youth. In March 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Institute Principal Ebenezer Bassett to the post of United States Minister to Haiti, making him the first African American diplomat in the nation’s history. The Managers appointed Fanny M. Jackson to replace Bassett, though this move caused some tension with Institute graduate and longtime teacher Octavius Catto, who had hoped the post would be offered to him. Jackson, a graduate of Oberlin College, had been teaching in the Institute since 1865. Over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century, under Jackson’s leadership, the Institute gradually introduced normal, household economy, and industrial education, while deemphasizing some of its original subjects, such as Greek, history, philosophy, and advanced mathematics.

The Institute for Colored Youth remained in Philadelphia until the turn of the twentieth century. In 1902, the Managers purchased the farm of Quaker George Cheyney about twenty-five miles outside of the city. When the new facility opened on October 4, 1904, the Institute continued to emphasize its original mission of producing black teachers for black students. In 1914 the Managers agreed to change the name to the Cheyney Training School for Teachers. The school continues to exist today as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.

In their 1864 Annual Report, the Managers wondered how great an impact their small school could have in improving the African American community:

All that this single school may accomplish may seem to be but as a drop in the bucket, yet we are not therefore to shrink from putting forth our best efforts, though the educational labors of those we send out may reach but a limited number among the millions in this nation.

And, of course the Managers were right to note that the school’s thirty-seven graduates (by 1866) represented just a fraction of the millions of African Americans in the United States, but the women and men who graduated from the school became leaders for their communities across the United States and around the world. Their influence far-exceeded their small number. And, while some graduates’ names are etched on buildings and landmarks, many whose names and faces have been nearly lost to history were positive forces in their community and shaped the lives of African Americans for generations. Much more than a “drop in the bucket,” the Institute for Colored Youth prepared a generation of young women and men for leadership positions within their communities, alumni who went on to inspire and lead the next generation. “A great thing for our people” tells this story.


Sources:

Charlene Conyers, A Living Legend: The History of Cheyney University, 1837-1951, Philadelphia, 1990; Harry C. Silcox, “Delay and Neglect: Negro Public Education in Antebellum Philadelphia, 1800-1860,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 97.4 (Oct., 1973): 444-464; G, “The Free Blacks, and the Will of Richard Humphreys,” The Friend; A Religious and Literary Journal, 6.15 (Jan., 1833): 113; “Objects and Regulations of the Institute for Colored Youth, with a list of the Officers and Students and the Annual Report of the Board of Managers, 1864,” Richard Humphreys Foundation Records, 1837-1982, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College; The Examination of the Pupils of the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth,” The Christian Recorder, May 11, 1861; “The Institute for Colored Youth,” The Christian Recorder, May 10, 1862; “The High School Examination,” The Christian Recorder, May 16, 1863; Institute for Colored Youth – Managers Minutes 1337-1855, May 18, 1857, Richard Humphreys Foundation Records, 1837-1982. Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College; Institute for Colored Youth – Managers Minutes 1337-1855, December 15, 1856, Richard Humphreys Foundation Records, 1837-1982. Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College.


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