CHAPTER VIII.

EDUCATION AND ILLITERACY.

19. The History of Negro Education.--Anthony Benezet and the Friends of Philadelphia have the honor of first recognizing the fact that the welfare of the State demands the education of Negro children. On the twenty-sixth of January, 1770, at the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting of Friends, the general situation of the Negroes, and especially the free Negroes, was discussed. On motion of one, probably Benezet, it was decided that instruction ought to be provided for Negro children.1 A committee was appointed, and on February 30 this committee proposed "that a committee of seven Friends be nominated by the Monthly Meeting, who shall be authorized to employ a schoolmistress of prudent and exemplary conduct, to teach not more at one time than thirty children in the first rudiments of school learning, and in sewing and knitting. That the admission of scholars into the said school be entrusted to the said committee, giving to the children of free Negroes and Mulattoes the preference, and the opportunity of being taught clear of expense to their parents." A subscription of 100 (about $266.67) was recommended for this purpose. This report was adopted, and the school opened June 28, 1770, with twenty-two colored children in attendance. In September the pupils had increased to thirty-six, and a teacher in sewing and knitting was employed. Afterward those who could were required to pay a sum, varying from seven shillings sixpence to ten shillings per quarter, for tuition. The following year a school-house was built on Walnut street, below Fourth--a one-story brick building, 39 by 18 feet.

From 1770 to 1775 two hundred and fifty children and grown persons were instructed. Interest, however, began to wane, possibly under the war-cloud, and in 1775 but five Negro children were in attendance and some white children were admitted. Soon, however, the parents were aroused, and we find forty Negroes and six whites attending.

After the war Benezet took charge of the school and held it in his house at Third and Chestnut. At his death, in 1784, he left a part of his estate to "hire and employ a religious-minded person or persons to teach a number of Negro, Mulatto or Indian children, to read, write, arithmetic, plain accounts, needle-work, etc." Other bequests were received, including one from a Negro, Thomas Shirley, and from this fund the schools, afterward known as the Raspberry street schools, were conducted for many years, and a small school is still maintained. In the early part of the century sixty to eighty scholars attended the school, and a night school was opened. In 1844 a lot on Raspberry street was purchased, and a school-house erected. Here, from 1844 to 1866, eight thousand pupils in all were instructed.

Public schools for Negroes were not established until about 1822, when the Bird school, now known as the James Forten, was opened on Sixth street, above Lombard; in 1830 an unclassified school in West Philadelphia was begun, and in 1833 the Coates street school, now known as the Vaux school, on Coates street (now called Fairmount Avenue), near Fifth, was established. Other schools were opened at Frankford in 1839, at Paschalville in 1841, on Corn street in 1849, and at Holmesburg in 1854. In 1838 the Negro school statistics were as follows:

 

NEGRO SCHOOL STATISTICS, 1838.

Schools. Pupils
Enrolled.
Average
Attendance.

9 free schools

1,116

713

3 schools, partly free

226

125

3 pay schools, white teachers

102

89

10 pay schools, colored teachers

288

260

25 schools

1,732

1,187

Total children of school age .........3,025

 

Ten years later school facilities had greatly increased:

 

NEGRO SCHOOL STATISTICS, 1847.

Schools

Pupils
Enrolled.

Public Grammar School, Lombard street

463

Abolition Society Infant School, Lombard street

70

Public Primary School, Gaskill street

226

Raspberry Street School

155

Public Primary School, Brown street

113

Adelphi School, Wager street

166

Shiloh Baptist Church Infant School, Clifton and Cedar Sts.

207

Bedford Street School

32

Moral Reform School

81

Public School, Oak street, West Philadelphia

12

At undesignated public schools

67

At twenty private schools

296

Total

1,888

At work and apprenticed

504

At home and unaccounted for

2,074

Total Negro children

4,466

 

This would seem to indicate a smaller percentage of children in school than in the last decade--a natural outcome of the period of depression through which the Negroes had just passed.

In 1850 the United States census reported 3498 adults who could neither read nor write, among the Negroes of the city. The adult population at that time must have been about 8000. There were 2176 children in school. In 1856 we have another set of detailed statistics:

 

Schools

Total
Enrolment
Average
Attendance.

Public schools

1,031

821

Charity schools

748

491

Benevolent and reformatory schools

211

 

Private schools

331

 

Total

2,321

 

Children from 8 to I8 not in school. . . . . . . . . 1,620.

 

The schools by this time had increased in number. There were the following public schools:

 

Schools and Situations.

Number
Teachers.
Enrolment. Average
Attendance

Bird, Sixth above Lombard street, Boys'
Department, Grammar School

4

228

208

Bird, Sixth above Lombard street, Girls'
Department, Grammar School

4

252

293

Bird, Sixth above Lombard street, Primary
Department

3

183

150

Robert Vaux, Coates street, unclassified

2

136

93

West Philadelphia, Oak street, unclassified

2

97

78

Corn street, unclassified

1

47

32

Frankford, unclassified

1

31

25

Holmesburg, unclassified

1

25

19

Banneker, Paschalville, unclassified

1

32

15

Total

19

1,031

913

 

The public schools seemed to have been largely manned by colored teachers, and were for a long time less efficient than the charity schools. The grammar schools at one time, about 1844, were about to be given up, but were saved, and in 1856 were doing fairly well. The charity schools were as follows:

Schools.

Teachers Enrolment Av. Attendance

Institute for Colored Youth, Lombard St.

2

31

26

Raspberry St. schools, Boys' Department

2

90

64

Raspberry St. schools, Girls' Department

2

79

53

Adelphi, Wager Street, Girls' Department

2

70

42

Adelphi, Wager street, Infants' Department

2

95

61

Sheppard, Randolph street

2

60

40

School at the House of Industry

3

100

75

School for Destitute, Lombard street

1

73

45

Infant School, South and Clifton streets

3

150

85

House of Refuge School

3

119

111

Orphans' Shelter School, Thirteenth street

2

73

73

Home for Colored Children, Girard avenue

1

19

19

Total

25

959

694

 

Of the above schools, the House of Refuge, Orphans' Shelter, House of Industry, and Home for Colored Children were schools connected with benevolent and reformatory institutions. The Raspberry school was that founded by Benezet. The Institute for Colored Youth was founded by Richard Humphreys, a West Indian ex-slaveholder, who lived in Philadelphia. On his death, in 1832, he bequeathed the sum of $10,000 to the Friends, to found an institution, "having for its object the benevolent design of instructing the descendants of the African race in school learning, in the various branches of the mechanic arts and trades, and in agriculture, in order to prepare, fit and qualify them to act as teachers." The Institute was acccordingly founded in 1837, chartered in 1842, and upon receiving further gifts was temporarily located on Lombard street. In 1866 additional sums were raised, and the Institute located on Bainbridge street, above Ninth, where it is still conducted.

There were in 1856 the following private schools:

 

Grade. Schools. Enrollment.

For high school work

1

30

For grammar school work

2

30

For common branches

10

271

Total

13

331

 

There were also two night schools, with an attendance of 150 or more.

The percentage of illiteracy in the city was still large. Bacon's investigation showed that of 9021 adults over twenty years of age, 45 1/2 per cent were wholly illiterate, 16 1/2 per cent could read and write and 19 per cent could "read, write and cipher." Detailed statistics for each ward are given in the next table:

 

ILLITERACY OF PHILADELPHIA NEGROES, 1854-6.

Ward

Total
Adults over
20 Years
of Age.
Of these
there can
Read,
Write and
Cipher.

Read
and
Write.

Read Totally
Illiterate.

1

223

25

23

47

128

2

349

36

54

76

183

3

275

60

48

68

99

4

1,427

262

199

273

693

5

1,818

350

285

310

873

6

151

21

25

34

71

7

1,867

431

337

311

788

8

969

204

192

199

374

9

76

20

16

19

21

10

208

40

39

42

87

11

37

2

11

5

19

12

234

53

35

42

104

13

69

15

12

15

27

14

233

34

46

66

87

15

157

20

26

29

82

16

82

17

12

13

40

17

70

13

8

11

38

18

4

1

1

0

2

19

114

6

20

18

70

20

99

22

12

15

50

21

2

0

0

1

1

22

36

7

4

7

18

23

249

30

43

48

128

24

252

41

34

37

140

Total

9,001

1,710

1,482

1,686

4,123

 

Separate schools for black and white were maintained from the beginning, barring the slight mixing in the early Quaker schools. Not only were the common schools separate, but there were no public high schools for Negroes, professional schools were closed to them, and within the memory of living men the University of Pennsylvania not only refused to admit Negroes as students, but even as listeners in the lecture halls.2 Not until 1881 was a law passed declaring it "unlawful for any school director, superintendent or teacher to make any distinction whatever on account of, or by reason of, the race or color of any pupil or scholar who may be in attendance upon, or seeking admission to, any public or common school maintained wholly or in part under the school laws of this commonwealth." This enactment was for some time evaded, and even now some discrimination is practiced quietly in the matter of admission and transfers. There are also schools still attended solely by Negro pupils and taught by Negro teachers, although, of course, the children are at liberty to go elsewhere if they choose. They are kept largely through a feeling of loyalty to Negro teachers. In spite of the fact that several Negroes have been graduated with high marks at the Normal School, and in at least one case "passed one of the best examinations for a supervising principal's certificate that has been accomplished in Philadelphia by any teacher,"3 yet no Negro has been appointed to a permanent position outside the few colored schools.

20. The Present Condition.--There were, in 1896, 5930 Negro children in the public schools of the city, against 6150 in 1895 and 6362 in 1897. Confining ourselves simply to the Seventh Ward, we find the total population of legal school age--six to thirteen in Pennsylvania-- was 862 in 1896, of whom 740, or 85.8 per cent, were reported as attending school at some time during the year. Of the persons five to twenty years of age about 48 per cent were in school. Statistics by age and sex are in the next table.4 (See page 90.)

Some difference is to be noted between the sexes: Of the children six to thirteen years of age, 85 per cent of the boys and nearly 86 per cent of the girls are in school; of the youth fourteen to twenty, 20 per cent of the boys and 21 per cent of the girls are in school. The boys stop school pretty suddenly at sixteen, the girls at seventeen. Nearly 11per cent of the children in school were in attendance less than the full term;5 of these attending the whole term there is much irregularity through absences and tardiness. On the whole, therefore, the effective school attendance is less than appears at first sight.

 

SCHOOL POPULATION AND ATTENDANCE (1896-97) BY AGE.

Negroes of the Seventh Ward.

Age. Males. Females.
School
Population.
School
Attendance
School
Population.
School
Attendance
Kindergarten
age
4 years

67

5

66

6

5 years

46

11

51

19

Total of Kindergarten age

113

16

117

25

Pennsylvania
legal school age

6 years

50

28

56

35

7 years

48

40

59

45

8 years

53

48

67

59

9 years

54

50

51

50

10 years

49

44

57

52

11 years

39

38

58

55

12 years

45

39

62

56

13 years

53

46

61

55

Total of legal school age

391

333

471

407

Youth
above legal
school age
and under
voting age

14 years

45

35

52

36

15 years

39

22

52

24

16 years

53

24

71

31

17 years

50

6

87

19

18 years

55

4

80

4

19 years

56

2

91

1

20 years

67

0

122

2

Total youth . . . 14-20

365

93

555

117

Total children 5-20
(Usual school age.)

802

437

1077

543

 

The question of illiteracy is a difficult one to have answered without actual tests, especially when the people questioned have some motives for appearing less ignorant than they actually are. The figures for the Seventh Ward, therefore, undoubtedly understate the illiteracy somewhat; nevertheless the error is not probably large enough to deprive the figures of considerable value, and compared with statistics taken in a similar manner they are probably of average reliability.6 Of 8464 Negroes in the Seventh Ward the returns show that 12.17 per cent are totally illiterate. Comparing this with previous years we have:

1850 44 per cent 1890 18 per cent
1856 45 1/2 " 1896 (7th Ward) 12.17 " . . .7
1870 20 "

 

The large number of young people in the Seventh Ward probably brings the average of illiteracy below the level of the whole city. Why this is so may be seen if we take the illiteracy of four age- classes:

Age.

Read and Write. Read Illiterate

Youth, 10 to 20 years of age

94%

2%

4%

Men and women, 21 to 30 years of age

90

6

4

Men and women, 31 to 40 years of age

77

6

17

Men and women, over 40 years of age

61

10

29

The same difference is plain if we take the returns of the census of 1890 for the colored population of the whole city:

Age

Illiterate
Males

Illiterate
Females

Total
Illiterates

10 to 19

138

216

354

20 to 34

836

1,096

1,932

35 to 44

1,098

1,571

2,669

45 and over

334

775

1,109

Total (including those of unknown age)

2,450

3,719

6,169

Population over 10

Males
15,981

Females
18,266

Colored Persons
34,247

Per cent of total illiteracy

15%

21%

18%

 

Separating those in the Seventh Ward by sex, we have this table, showing a total illiteracy of 10 per cent among the males and 17 per cent among the females:

 

ILLITERACY BY SEX AND BY AGE PERIODS. -- SEVENTH WARD.

Sex--Ages.

Males

Females

Total Read
and
Write
Read Wholly
Illiterate
Unknown Total Read
and
Write
Read Wholly
Illiterate
Unknown
Youth, 10 to 20 years 550 514 10 13 13 792 730 16 38 8
Post-bellum men,
(born since 1865),
21 to 30 years
1,396 1,229 45 61 61 1,492 1,283 55 116 38
Men of war time
(born between 1855 and 1866),
31 to 40 years
978 784 40 111 43 1,032 697 84 211 40
Freedmen (born before 1856),
over 40 years
887 625 63 181 18 1,101 558 136 381 26
Of unknown age 120 12 1 3 104 116 24 2 4 86
Total 3,931 3,164 159 369 230 4,533 3,292 293 750 198

 

Granting that those reporting themselves as able to read should in most cases be included under the illiterate, and that therefore the rate of illiteracy in the Seventh Ward is about 18 per cent, and perhaps 20 per cent for the city, nevertheless the rate is, all things considered, low and places the Philadelphia Negroes in a position not much worse than that of the total population of Belgium (15.9 per cent), so far as actual illiterates are concerned.8

The degree of education of those who can read and write can only be indicated in general terms. The majority have only a partial common school education from the country schools of the South or the primary grades of the city; a considerable number have taken grammar school work; a very few have entered the high schools and there have been from fifty to one hundred graduates from colleges and professional schools since the war. Exact figures as to the proportion of students taking higher courses are not easily obtained.

In the Catto School, 1867-96, 11 per cent of those entering the primary grade were promoted to the grammar school; less than 1 per cent of those entering the primary grade of the Vaux School were promoted to the High School. Of those graduating from the course at the Institute for Colored Youth, 8 per cent have taken a college or professional course.9 Thus it appears that of 1000 colored children entering the primary grade 110 go to the grammar school, ten to the high school and one to college or to a professional school. The basis of induction here is, however, too small for many conclusions.10

At present there are in the Seventh Ward thirteen schools for children of all races and sixty-four teachers, with school property valued at $214,382. The schools are: one combined grammar and secondary, three secondary, one combined secondary and primary, four primary and four kindergartens.

In the city the following are the public schools chiefly attended by Negroes:

Coulter street, Twenty-second Section 45 boys 39 girls all colored
J.E. Hill, Germantown 84 " 89 " "
Robert Vaux, Wood street 67 " 74 " "
O.V. Catto, Lombard street 140 " 150 " "
Wilmot, Meadow and Cherry streets 48 " 47 " "
James Miller, Forty-second and Ludlow sts 24 " 13 " "
J.S. Ramsey, Quince and Pine streets 243 " 253 " nearly all colored

All the teachers are colored except those in the Ramsey and Miller schools, who are all white. There are a few colored kindergarten teachers in various sections, and large numbers of colored children go to other schools beside those designated. Many of the colored schools have a high reputation for efficient work.11 There is, theoretically, no discrimination in night schools and some Negroes go to white schools; for the most part, however, the Negroes are in the following night schools:

 

PHILADELPHIA COLORED NIGHT SCHOOLS, 1895

Name of School No. Registered
at Beginning
of Term
No Registered
at End
of Term
Average
Attendance
Average per
Cent Present
during Term
Pupils under
15 years
Pupils
15-20 years
Pupils
21-29 years
Pupils
30-40 years
Pupils
40-50 years
Pupils
over 50 years
Average
Age
O.V. Catto 60 175 69 64 17 47 49 32 25 5 27
Vaux 18 71 25 59 1 12 23 16 9 0 28
Park Avenue 35 95 51 62 14 34 40 3 4 0 21
J.E. Hill 30 112 40 64 4 47 40 11 6 4 24
West Philadelphia 50 94 38 49 3 14 39 32 6 0 27
Coulter street 48 88 47 68 5 48 24 11 0 0 20
Total night schools
of city - white and
colored
8957 2208 8352 67 6172 11,963 2844 625 183 44 18

 

The Institute for Colored Youth is still a popular and useful institution. It gives grammar and high school courses. In 1890, by the efforts of both white and colored friends,12 an industrial department, with eleven teachers, was added. Among the men trained here are Octavius V. Catto, Jacob C. White, Jr., who was for thirty-five years principal of the Vaux School, two ex-ministers from the United States to Haiti, and the young colored physician who recently broke twenty-five years record in the excellence of his examination before the State Board. Under Mr. White, mentioned above, Mr. Henry Tanner, the artist recently honored by the French government, was graduated from the Vaux School.

Considering this testimony as a whole, it seems certain that the Negro problem in Philadelphia is no longer, in the main, a problem of sheer ignorance; to be sure, there is still a very large totally illiterate class of perhaps 6000 persons over ten years of age; then, too, the other 24,000 are not in any sense of the word educated as a mass; most of them can read and write fairly well, but few have a training beyond this. The leading classes among them are mostly grammar school graduates, and a college bred person is very exceptional. Thus the problem of education is still large and pressing; and yet considering their ignorance in the light of history and present experience, it must be acknowledged that there are other social problems connected with this people more pressing than that of education; that a fair degree of persistence in present methods will settle in time the question of ignorance, but other social questions are by no means so near solution.

The only difficulties in the matter of education are carelessness in school attendance, and poverty which keeps children out of school. The former is a matter for the colored people to settle themselves, and is one to which their attention needs to be called. While much has been done, yet it cannot be said that Negroes have fully grasped their great school advantages in the city by keeping their younger children regularly in school, and from this remissness much harm has sprung.

ENDNOTES:

1 This account is mainly from the pamphlet: "A Brief Sketch of the Schools for Black People," etc. Philadelphia, 1867.

2 Within a few years a Negro had to fight his way through a prominent dental college in the city.

3 Philadelphia Ledger, August 13, 1897.

4 The chief error in the school returns arises from irregularity in attendance. Those reported in school were there sometime during the year, and possibly off and on during the whole year, but many were not steady attendants.

5 Of 647 school children 62 were in school less than nine months--some less than three. Probably many more than this did not attend the full term.

6 As has before been noted, the Negroes are less apt to deceive deliberately than some other peoples. The ability to read, however, is a point of pride with them, and especial pains was taken in the canvass to avoid error; often two or more questions on the point were asked. Nevertheless all depended in the main on voluntary answers.

7 This looks small and yet it probably approximates the truth. My general impression from talking with several thousnd Negroes in the Seventh Ward is that the percentage of total illiteracy is small among them.

8 The Seventh Special Report of the United States Commissioner of Labor enables us to make some comparison of the illiteracy of the foreign and Negro population of the City:

The foreigners here reported include all those living in certain parts of the Third and Fourth Wards of Philadelphia. They were largely recent immigrants. The Russians and Poles are mostly Jews. --Isabel Eaton.

9 Date furnished by two principals of colored schools. At present (1897) there are 58 Negro students in the following schools: Central High, Girls' Normal, Girls' High, Central Manual Training and North East Manual Training; or about one per cent of the total school enrollment.

10 Prohably the percentage of children promoted from primary to grammar grades in this case is unusually small.

11 The following report from a member of the Committee on Schools of the City Councils is taken from the Philadelphia Ledger, December 2, 1896: On the matter of the needs of the colored population in connection with the schools, Mr. Meehan had to say: "Young women of the colored race are qualifying themselves for public school teachers by taking the regular course through our Normal School. No matter how well qualified they may be to teach, directors do not elect them to positions in the schools. It is taken for granted that only white teachers shall be placed in charge of white children. The colored Normal School graduates might be given a chance by appointments in the centre of some colored population, so that colored people might support their own teachers if so disposed, as they support their own ministers in their separate colored churches. The good result of this arrangement is show by the experience in the Twenty-second Section, where there are two schools with seven colored teachers, ranking among the most popular in the section."

12 Negroes in the city raised $2000 toward this.

 

From W.E.B. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro. New York: Lippincott, 1899, Chapter VIII, pp. 83-96.


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