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Education for Black Americans

Prior to the American Civil War, education for Black Americans in the South, was dependant on the goodwill of their masters, and sometimes the church, where if lucky, the more socially advanced congregations taught them to read the Bible.

Even in the supposedly liberal northern states, the opportunity to gain more than the basic rudiments of reading and writing, was hard to come by. New York city opened the first African Free School in 1797, which gained public funding in 1824. Larger cities with institutes of higher learning, did take in black students, but they were few and far between, and often admitted under vehement protest from alumni and financial supporters of the college.

Oberlin University, was the first to set down a policy of admissions for all, regardless of color, in 1834-35. It would be 1853 before the Ashum Institute, specifically for the education of black males was established. But there was movement afoot long before this, in many quarters to bring the escaped, or newly freed black American the skills to help them cope in living and working on their own.

Prudence Crandall, a Quaker, opened a school for black girls at Canterbury, Conn. In 1833. Connecticut had been the last northern state to abolish slavery, and had even wangled legislation to let it run 20 years longer than any other state. Crandall’s school was originally a simple academy for girls, but when she admitted a black girl, other parents withdrew their daughters. Refusing to change her policy of admitting any girl, Crandall eventually ended up teaching an all black school, to the outrage of local residents who blocked delivery of her supplies and tried to burn the building down. When the school’s popularity started attracting students from Boston and Pennsylvania, local authorities used a vagrancy law to administer ten lashes to any of these girls caught attending the school. When Connecticut passed a law in 1834, forbidding the free education of black Americans, Prudence Crandall refused to give in, and was subsequently convicted and imprisoned. While she won her case on appeal, the resulting mob attacks left her in fear for the safety of her students, and she eventually closed the school.

Mary Ann Shadd grew up in Delaware, where her father’s store was part of the Underground Railroad. Mary Ann moved north to Windsor, Canada in 1851 to educate freed or escaped slaves, many of whom would return home in later years. She opened a racially integrated school against the vociferous opposition of white and black abolitionists, most of whom held that their societies should co-exist but as separate entities. Henry Bibb, leader of the Black community, reviled her in his paper, so Shadd started her own paper, The Provincial Freeman in rebuttal, making her the first black woman in North America to own or edit a newspaper. The fight to educate Blacks led her to law school, which she graduated in 1860, becoming the first black female lawyer in North America.

Laura Towne, a dedicated abolitionist born in Pittsburgh, Penn. In 1825, would open the first schools for freed slaves in the South. A homeopathic physician and teacher, she answered the call for compassion, when the Southern residents of the Seas Islands off South Carolina, fled before the Union Army in 1861, leaving behind 10,000 slaves. Arriving in April of 1862, she set to work with her doctor’s skills, before opening the school in June of the same year, with nine students who attended class in the back room of a plantation house. It became known as the Penn School, which she would operate with Ellen Murray for another 40 years.

When the Civil War was over, it became possible for blacks to attend public school in the south, albeit under the displeasure of the white residents. The government established the Freedmen’s Fund to assist in building schools, which expanded with the aid of the Freedmen’s Aid Society, an association of northern churches.

As education for Black Americans became more available, so did institutions created specifically for them. Black colleges sprung up partly from the large numbers to be educated, and partly because the traditional colleges, publicly or privately, still would not accept more than token numbers of black students. Thirty-seven were established between 1864 and 1894. There are still over 100 “Black” colleges in America today.