Monday, December 16, 2013

A Few of Our Favorite Things, Part Eleven: “Teaching with Capital Success”

Like many of my colleagues, I find it impossible to choose just one favorite thing from our collection. Nevertheless, I’d like to shine a spotlight on a humble but intriguing item, an annual report. Since I trained as an archivist, it’s not surprising that I have a soft spot for institutional records. Printed institutional reports are intended to circulate widely, allowing institutions to amplify their image, aspirations, and goals. The Library Company’s African Americana Collection is rich in printed annual reports, minutes, and constitutions of anti-slavery societies as well as black-run institutions, such as churches, charities, and schools. Objects and Regulations of the Institute for Colored Youth, … for the Year 1860 (Philadelphia, 1860) exemplifies how very informative these publications can be.

The Institute for Colored Youth (ICY), Philadelphia’s only high school for African Americans prior to the Civil War, became the institution of choice for many of the city’s elite black families. Through the bequest of Quaker Richard Humphreys, the school was founded in 1837 for the express purpose of educating African American youth, especially for careers as teachers. Located on a farm on the outskirts of the city, the school taught mechanical and industrial arts, a curriculum which proved unpopular and resulted in the school’s closure in 1846. It reopened as a preparatory and high school in 1852 in Philadelphia with a redesigned curriculum and a staff of educated, highly trained black teachers, allowing African American students to attain a quality classical education while avoiding the racial prejudice they often encountered under the tutelage of white teachers in public schools.

The list of teachers demonstrates the talent that ICY was able to attract. Ebenezer D. Bassett, who graduated from the Connecticut State Normal School and studied at Yale, presided over the school from 1857 to 1869, leaving this post at the request of President Ulysses S. Grant to serve as U.S. minister to Haiti. Among other illustrious educators in 1860 were Sarah Mapps Douglass, an abolitionist and teacher since the 1820s, and her cousin, Grace A. Mapps, who became one of the first African American women to receive a degree from a four-year college in the United States when she graduated from McGrawville College in 1852. Octavius V. Catto, an ICY alumnus and civil rights activist, rose from assistant teacher to principal of the high school’s male department before his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet during the racial turmoil of the 1871 Philadelphia city elections.

ICY’s rigorous curriculum encompassed a wide range of subjects including math, literature, history, anatomy, and Latin. The 1860 annual report provides a rare glimpse of the 19th century curriculum and textbooks used at an African American school. Some of these books are in the Library Company’s collection, allowing researchers to examine the same textbook titles that ICY students used.

What I find most striking is the list of alumni and their demographic information, which concludes the 1860 annual report. The list is indicative of the great range of social status within Philadelphia’s black community. The occupations of parents and guardians, ranging from whitewasher to washer woman and from painter to physician, reflect the importance of ICY for elevating students’ economic class or for solidifying hard-won social attainment. Affirmations about students’ characters, such as their industriousness and honesty, speak to the scrutiny that African Americans faced in constantly having to demonstrate their worthiness of respect, citizenship, and civil rights. All in all, the annual report inspired hope that students were well equipped to achieve “capital success” after leaving the nurturing environment of the Institute for Colored Youth.

Krystal Appiah
Curator of African American History

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