Education: The Backbone of Change for Black People

The Institute for Colored Youth opened on Lombard Street in Philadelphia in 1840.
Tamara Shiloh

Slaveowners were fully aware that their control of slaves must go beyond physical coercion.  Knowledge was power, and virtually all slave codes established in the United States set restrictions making it illegal to teach slaves to read or writer.

This statue, passed by the state of North Carolina (1830-1831), was typical:

“…any free person, who shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any slave with in the State to read or write, the use of fingers excepted, or shall give or sell to such slave or slaves any books or pamphlets, shall be liable to indictment in any court of record…”

Many abolitionists, however, disagreed with this way of thinking.

In 1750, Anthony Benezet, a Quaker, opened the first free school for Blacks in Philadelphia.  In 1779, Benezet founded the Negro School Philadelphia for Black children.  After the state abolished slavery, Philadelphia’s free black community began to flourish.

The first boarding school for Black girls, St. Francis Academy or Rome in Baltimore, MD, opened its doors in 1829.  It was established by Mother Mary Lange and the Oblate Sister of Providence, a group or French-educated Black nuns.  It was a popular school, attracting young women from across the country.

After becoming co-ed in 1965, its name changed to Saint Francis Academy.

Witnessing several violent race riots throughout the city.

in the last years of philanthropist Richard Humphreys’ life may have convinced him that education was the key to Black progress in Philadel­phia. Whatever his motivation, Humphreys’ $10,000 bequest helped to establish the Quaker-controlled African Institute. By the time it opened in 1840, the school had been renamed the Institute for Colored Youth. ­

The establishment of the institute, the first higher edu­cation institution for blacks, was intimately connected to the Black struggle for social freedom and economic op­portunity in early 19th-century Philadelphia. Operated by the Quaker Board of Managers, its faculty consisted entirely of African Americans. Both boys’ and girls’ high schools existed, as well as a preparatory school.

Mary Smith Kesick Peake, a free woman of color, was the first teacher for freed slaves. Supported by the American Missionary Association, she was appointed to teach the children of Fort Monroe, Va., and in 1861, opened a school in Hampton, Va. This marked the beginning of the general edu­cation of Blacks in the South.

Lincoln University in Penn­sylvania opened in 1854, and Ohio’s Wilberforce University in 1856. In the early years, part of their mission was to pro­vide elementary and secondary schooling for students with no previous education. It was not until the early 1900s that his­torically Black colleges and universities offered degreed programs at the post-secondary level.

In 1869, Howard Univer­sity opened the country’s first Black law school; in 1876 Me­harry Medical College became the first Black medical school; Spelman College became the first college for Black women in 1881, and Booker T. Washing­ton found the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Ala­bama that same year. George Washington Carver began his academic career there in 1896.


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