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A Love Story; How The Institute for Colored Youth Birthed a Philly Public School in 1860

Updated: May 14

In 1860, Cordelia Jennings stood on a stage in front of thousands of people.

She was one of 7 seniors from the Institute of Colored Youth (ICY) reciting their final exams. ICY held private and public exams and also posted the exam results in the newspaper (Conyers 130).

1867 Exam and Public Exercises Program from ICY, Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania. This program for ICY end of year exams and exercises is from 1867. The format had changed slightly from when Cordelia graduated in 1860.

A packed Samson Street Hall room waited silently for Cordelia to answer questions about Virgil’s Aeneid … in LATIN.

1860 Graduates of the Institute for Colored Youth do their exams questions in front of a crowd of 1000 people at Samson Hall. ai image

Professor Octavius Catto peppered the students with questions about trigonometry, quadratics, and radicals.

At the same time this tapestry of Black excellence was happening, across town historical and museum institutions in Philadelphia were excluding Black people from their rooms of learning. In fact, ICY Professor Robert Campbell wrote a letter to the Franklin Institute in protest after he was turned away at the door because of his race. (see this letter).

Young Women from The Institute for Colored Youth Start A School

Cordelia graduated. And immediately, at 17 years old, she started a school.

The school grew so much that within three years she had moved to a permanent location on Ohio street. The school was called the Ohio Street School and also the Colored Unclassified School (see Custis). The school was private but she successfully petitioned the City for the school to go public, which it did in 1865.

Location of The Ohio Street School. Now called Waverly Street. Courtesy Philly Geo History.

Cordelia hired ICY graduates to help her, including Carolyn Le Count. Carolyn had graduated with flying colors at the top of her class in 1863. Her oration skills were known throughout the community and she excelled in math (Biddle 440).

May 16, 1863 Christian Recorder, Courtesy Accessible Archives

Many people know that ICY had a tremendous impact on the quality of Black teaching throughout Philadelphia and the country, supplying well trained teachers and school administrators and raising the bar for Black education nationwide (Falvey).

But we haven’t yet brought to collective consciousness the fact that ICY spawned a new public school in Philadelphia, staffed and run by progressive, activist young Black women.

21 Year old Carolyn Le Count Becomes Principal of a Philadelphia Public School

Note: We don't have a photograph of Carolyn Le Count. We do have an ink drawing. We have sought to have the image of her closely match the ink drawing.

By 1867, Cordelia Jennings got married and left Philadelphia. 21 year old Carolyn Le Count became Principal of what was then the most sought after Black public school in the city.

Carolyn Le Count was an activist. She was raised in the Black Metropolis, surrounded by people who were actively building structures for emancipation and stability. She was the fourth generation of free Black people in her family. Her great grandmother, Hannah Archer Till, famously fed the troops at Valley Forge.

LeCount Family Tree, Courtesy Family Search

As a child she witnessed her father James, a cabinetmaker, help Freedom Seekers escape by hiding them in coffins in his carpenter shop (Biddle 105). From there, they would get on a train or wagon ride out of Philly and to the north.

The family lived at 932 Bonsall street (now Rodman) and the shop was right next door, at 930 Bonsall.

Le Count Family from the 1838 Census, Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

James and Joseph Le Count on Rodman (Bonsall) from the 1860 City Directory, courtesy Philly Geo History

This 1860 Hexamer and Locher map shows a 'CabinetMaker' at 930 Bonsall. This was James Le Count's shop and also an Underground Railroad stop.

This means that Whole Foods is sitting on top of what was once an Underground Railroad stop.

Carolyn was born in 1846, and was probably too young to remember the 1849 mob attack. But she most certainly grew up hearing about the mob attacks on the community that started in 1834.

Despite almost a decade of mob attacks, 7th and Lombard, where she attended ICY, was thriving in 1852. The Philadelphia Institute, Benezet Hall, the Moral Reform Retreat, and the brand new Institute for Colored Youth building were all located at this intersection (see our map).

On any given night at the corner of 7th and Lombard, one would see people coming and going from beneficial society meetings at Benezet Hall, or attending a public lecture on electricity at ICY, or discussing the latest Civil Rights strategy at the Philadelphia Institute.

1852 7th and Lombard, ai image

Major churches surrounded the intersection as well, in all directions.

10 years earlier, that same intersection had been the site of the burning of Stephen Smith’s Beneficial Hall, which was meant to replace the burnt and destroyed Pennsylvania Hall, attacked only 4 years before that.

A Building Born of Love

Carolyn Le Count has a deep history of activism which is well documented and we encourage you to find out all she did for Civil Rights.

Today though, we want to focus on this one interesting and perhaps unknown piece of her life.

Many people are aware that Carolyn was engaged to marry Octavius Catto. She was known as ‘Liney’ and ‘Carrie’ to her friends. Had they married her name might have been ‘Liney Catto’ or ‘Carrie Catto’.

When Octavius Catto was assassinated in 1871, Carolyn was only 25.

In one moment, her future life was snatched away from her. Who knows what the power couple of Liney and Occ Catto would have meant to Black people in Philadelphia and maybe the whole country.

But I’m sure power coupling wasn’t what she was thinking about the day Octavius died.

She had lost Octavius.

And a beautiful wedding, and years of companionship with a wonderful partner. And future children.

Her grief was an open wound; palpable and apparent to everyone at Octavius Catto’s funeral.

She sobbed, "frantic with grief" and cried out

"Octavius! Octavius! Take me with you!"

The Philadelphia Inquirer Philadelphia, Pennsylvania · Tuesday, October 17, 1871; courtesy

How did she go on?

7 years later, in 1878, Principal Carolyn Le Count's Ohio Street school was so successful that Philadelphia Schools built a brand new building for her school at the corner of 20th and Lombard.

And it was called The Octavius V. Catto public school. This may have been the first public school in the United States named after a Black person.

Everyday, Principal Le Count would go to Catto.

She worked in Catto.

She raised children in Catto.

She never married.

Maybe she became married to all that the Catto school represented.

She continued to be the Principal of the Octavius V. Catto public school for 57 years. And she was instrumental, along with ICY graduate Jacob C. White Jr., at working to change school district culture to bring in more Black teachers, tirelessly, decade after decade.

The Threads of Time

We see themes in this work that have threads through time; the resilience, strategy and ingenuity to resist oppression, the creativity to build new structures for emancipation and stability, the love for and protection of community.

And just generally…love.

So today, on mother’s day, we give flowers to Principal Le Count, who from the depths of grief, continued to mother a generation of children, alongside the living memory of Octavius.


Biddle, Daniel R., and Murray Dubin. 2010. Tasting Freedom : Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Campbell, Robert. “Letter from Robert Campbell to the Franklin Institute for Colored Youth.” Black Abolitionist Papers, 1856.

Conyers, Charline Fay Howard. 1960. “A HISTORY OF THE CHEYNEY STATE TEACHERS COLLEGE, 1837-1951”. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Custis, John Trevor. The public schools of Philadelphia : historical, biographical, statistical. 1897.

Edmunds, Franklin Davenport. The Public School Buildings of the City of Philadelphia.

May 16, 1863 Christian Recorder, Courtesy Accessible Archives

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