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From 1820-1842 the Black Community Saved Black Public Schools - Twice

Updated: Apr 9

Note that this is a rephrasing of Henry Silcox’s work in his article on education for Black students from 1800-1860.  See the full article here:

The earliest documented Black teacher for Black students in Philadelphia was Eleanor Harris who worked at the Pennsylvania Abolition Societies Cherry Street school in 1793. (See Kammerer).

ai image of Eleanor Harris in 1793 at the Cherry Street School

By 1838 there were 23 public and private schools for Black children and adults. (see this page in 1838 Census Report).

Explore the locations on our map.

Schools for Black education in 1838

Balance the history about the public schools you' ll see below with the fact that there were good private schools for Black children, many of which were free or offered tuition assistance. These schools were often started by Black teachers or employed Black teachers.

Two Black Women Cause The City of Philadelphia to Level Up Black Schools in 1827

Public school education began in 1818 in Philadelphia but due to racial discrimination, the first Black public school didn't open until three years later, on St. Mary's Street (now Rodman) and on Gaskill. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society was instrumental in pushing city officials to fund a Black public school.

Public schools, however, did not employ Black teachers, emphasized a system of education that Black parents felt wasn't stringent enough, and were so underfunded that by the mid 1820s two anonymous Black women wrote a scathing article in the Freedom's Journal decrying the state of Black public education.

ai image of the authors of an article that improved public school education for Black children in 1827

They emphasized that for a population of 20,000 free Black people, there were only three public schools. More importantly, they emphasized teacher bias in the expectations for Black children.

They write:

"We are so skeptical, that we cannot believe, that almost any one is qualified to keep a school for our children. Enemies may declaim upon their dullness and stupidity; but we would respectfully enquire, have they not had dull and stupid instructors; who, if placed in any other than a coloured school would hardly be considered as earning their salt"

As Silcox notes, they also hinted a plan to visit the schools and expose the inadequacies (Silcox, 453).

White Bias Towards the Capabilities of Black Students Was a Reality that the Black Community Had to Navigate

One of the first Black novels in the 19th Century, The Garies and Their Friends (1859), was focused on this community. Garies author Frank Webb was born and raised in the 1838 Black Metropolis. Notably, he exposes white bias towards the education of Black students in a scene set in the 1840s.

In this scene Mrs. Ellis, the matriarch of the central Black family in this narrative, is proudly discussing the education of her son Charlie. Webb clearly illustrates how the Ellis' were not part of the upper class - they were all working people. Mr. Ellis was a carpenter and Mrs. Ellis and her daughter lived in a white family's home as domestic servants during the work week. Some existing myths are that only children of the Black elite went to school, but here we have a narrative of non-elites prioritizing education.

The Ellis' son, Charlie, was expected to go to school. Here, Mrs. Ellis is talking to a white woman, Mrs. Thomas, an abolitionist, and describing the family's plan to further Charlie's education with Latin and Greek.

The family feels that Charlie should continue his education. Dr. Shirley Turpin-Parham echos how important education was to the Black community in her 1986 dissertation History of Black Public Education in Philadelphia (Turpin-Parham, 5).

Webb's focus on this conversation may have been for purpose; to illustrate both the push for education and literacy among Black families and the bias that still existed in the external environment. Mrs. Thomas emphasizes that Latin and Greek would "make him feel above his situation." These kind of attitudes among the white population influenced what and how white teachers taught Black children.

With this kind of racism prevalent among white people, the education of Black students in public schools faced tremendous obstacles.

Winning Despite the Racism

The article by two anonymous Black women on the biased state of public school education for Black students had a tremendous impact.  

The City reacted by deciding to move the school to better facilities and add new leadership with white administrator James Bird and white teacher Maria Hutton.

The Lombard Street School (which incidentally was on the same site originally established by the Augustines for Black children's eduction see below) was, at this point, a school for white children.

The City moved the white children to a new school on Locust.

And Black children moved into the Lombard Street school.

The Lombard Street School - later called 'The Forten School'

In 1841 James Forten Led an Effort that Stopped the Lombard Street School from Closing

In 1833 James Bird moved to a white school and from 1834-1839 the Lombard Street school had a hard time keeping teachers. 

The school also was one of the last to remove the Lancastrian system of education, which favored large class sizes, and repetition. While white schools were moving to smaller class sizes, with more teachers, the Lombard Street School still had 3 teachers for almost 400 students. 

So by 1840 the school had seen a decline in enrollment.  There were 15 private schools, many of which provided free tuition for Black students.  One was Solomon Clarkson’s school on St. Mary’s street, which was drawing many of the children of the Black elite away from the public schools. 

In 1841, Philadelphia actually proposed closing the Lombard Street School. 

This is when the Black community organized to keep public schools for Black students open.  

James Forten, who by then was at the end of his life - he died in 1842 -  led a series of community meetings and organized with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society to a) impart the importance of attendance on parents in the community, b) remonstrate with the City to keep the school open, and c) bring in elite children to the Public Schools by asking Solomon Clarkson to close his school.  The Clarkson school closed, attendance went up and the school stayed open.

The Lombard Street School stayed open for the rest of the Century - later being renamed to ‘The Forten School’.

This is where Octavius Catto and his best friend, Jacob C. White Jr, went to school. We call them Jack and Oc based on a correspondence we've seen between the two of them in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

And Jacob C. White, Jr. later became the first Black Public School Principal in Philadelphia.

ai image of Oc and Jake on the way to the Lombard Street School

And Olevia Parker also attended the Lombard Street school at the same time as Jake and Oc where she did this needlepoint in 1852.

There were, of course, more struggles with the City through the century.  While private schools had been employing Black teachers since 1792 in Philadelphia,  Black teachers were finally allowed to work in Philadelphia public schools in 1854. 

Want more? Here's Some More History of Education for Black Students in Philadelphia

As mentioned above In 1793, 232 years ago, Eleanor Harris taught Black children as a teacher at the Pennsylvania Abolition Society's Cherry Street School in Philadelphia.

In 1803 Cyrus Bustill opened up a school for Black children at 3rd and Green Street in Philadelphia. His son Charles must have attended one of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) schools before Cyrus opened the school because we have this 1792 handwriting sample from Charles in the PAS records at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Handwriting sample of Charles Bustill, 1792. Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

William Still, author of the Underground Railroad, who was born and raised as a free person in New Jersey, and who had early education in how to read and write, put himself into adult education classes when he came to Philadelphia in 1844. (see page XVI of the 1886 Underground Railroad)

This story is instructive.

First, let's just think about the fact that there were Black adult education schools in 1844; created and run by Black people.

Second, let's think about the fact that leadership in the Black metropolis had education, and some had higher education; a few had training at college.  Many participated in literary societies which essentially acted in place of early college classes in literature and writing.

While we don't have literacy statistics from the 1838 census, there are read/write questions in the 1847 PAS Census of the Black population. Of the approximately 23,000 Free Black people in Philadelphia who answered the census, 6724 (approx 30%) could read (see data sets here).

While this number appears low, keep in mind that many Black people in Philadelphia were Freedom Seekers, which meant that it was against the law for them to learn to read and write in their origin states. So they often arrived as adults with no education. They would have to find work first, then get education.

Despite these obstacles, we still see literacy early in the century. Written minutes and order books were the rule for any organized group and most of them followed rules of order. This March 1, 1825 entry in the Daughters of Africa Minute books emphasizes motions and business "At a committee meeting of the Daughters of Africa it was allowed and seconded the house proceed to business."

March 1, 1825 entry from the Daughters of Africa Minute Book, courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

There was an eloquent written voice of Black people in Philadelphia in this period was as we can see from the many pamphlets and books that still exist.

Schools for Black Children Started in the Mid 1700s

The earliest school for Black children in Philadelphia was the Bray school which ran from 1758-1776 (See Oast).

After the Revolutionary war, there were four groups that started schools for Black children.

Quakers: Quaker Anthony Benezet came to Philadelphia in 1731 and was a vocal advocate for the emancipation of enslaved peoples. He opened a school for Black children in Philadelphia in 1770. This is where Absolum Jones and James Forten went to school.

The Adelphi School on Spring Street is still standing and it started teaching Black students in 1835. (see Friends page 8)

Site of the Adelphi Friends School, a free private school for Black children in 1835, Photo courtesy Uwe Dedering

Black Founders: Richard Allen's school at Mother Bethel A.M.E started in 1796 and included a night school for adults. Absalom Jones' school for children at St. Thomas started in 1803. Cyrus Bustill started a school at his home on Green and North Third street in 1803. By 1818 Black leaders founded the Pennsylvania Augustine Society for the Education of People of Colour which erected a school across from Mother Bethel on 6th Street (see this Tribune article).

Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS): The PAS supported schools in the City (1793), and Northern Liberties (1795). They closed these early schools and opened a new set; the 6th Street Boys school (1800), and the Grey's Alley girls school (1802).

Private Schools:  The Bray schools started in Philadelphia in the 1750s. By the 1830s the Bray institute funded a school on St. Mary's (Rodman) where Free Black man Solomon Clarkson was the Head. (See Oast).

Many people, like Sarah Mapps Douglass who had a school at 7th and Arch, opened their own private schools.

Facts and Stats

By 1838 there were 23 public and private schools for Black children and adults. (see this page in 1838 Census Report).

There were 14 Black teachers in the 1838 Census, many of whom, like Solomon Clarkson, ran their own schools.

Here is Ann Eliza Carey's entry. She lived on Rose Alley and ran a school for 30 students.

Entry from the 1838 PAS Census, Vol 4, Page 26, Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

There were 3025 children eligible to attend school. About 57% were enrolled in common (day) school but a large percentage did not attend. Sunday schools were not just religious education, they also taught basic reading. About 66% of children were enrolled in Sabbath (Sunday) schools but about half of them did not attend.

From the Present State and Condition, 1838, Courtsey Hathi Trust

While a much smaller group of children were enrolled in Black run schools, the attendance rates were much higher than at white run schools. This appears to be because of two things. First, children whose families could afford private school also most likely did not have to work during the day. Second, white school attendance polices were too restrictive. Concerning attendance, Elsie Kammerer notes that the Pennsylvania Abolition Society schools were strict about attendance and unwilling to change hours to accommodate children whose employers would not allow them to attend school. (See Kammerer page 315).

Keep Exploring

It's important to keep these stories alive else we start to see the drift of bias in the historical narrative where it's assumed that there was little or no education for Black people by Black people in the early 19th Century. Or that only the Black elites were educated. What's also missed is the agency and power of free Black people to fight for rights and to effect change for the better. We've provided some resources for you below and throughout this article to continue to explore education for Black people in Philadelphia.



Oast, Jennifer Bridges, "Educating Eighteenth-Century Black Children: The Bray Schools"

The Philadelphia Tribune. The Educational History of African-Americans in Pennsylvania. February 8, 2011.

The Origin And Proceedings Of The Philadelphia Association Of Friends

Silcox, H. C. Delay and Neglect: Negro Public Education in Antebellum Philadelphia, 1800-1860.

Kammerer, Elise, Uplift in Schools and the Church: Abolitionist Approaches to Free Black Education in Early National Philadelphia

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