African American Education in the 19th Century

Misty Doane

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, educating African Americans was not a priority of the white majority in the United States. Much of the country, especially the South, had firm laws against educating African Americans in order to protect the institution of slavery (Stowell). The dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the early part of the century brought with it the need for a cheap, educated labor force (Stowell 1922).

According to Frank Gilyard, early African American education in Berks County occurred in churches. The original meeting minutes of the Reading Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church from November 7, 1836, describe plans for building the church itself, which included a schoolroom. In Hopewell Furnace, William “Black Bill” Jacobs, the African American who had the longest employment at the Furnace (sixty years), claimed that “in his boyhood he had attended school in ‘Lloyd’s Baptist Church’” in Bethesda, Maryland (Walker 1974, 314).

Though some African Americans came to Hopewell already educated, those who weren’t had an opportunity to be educated in Hopewell Village alongside the children of their white neighbors. Wilkinson Hill, an African American laborer who worked at Hopewell Furnace in the 1840s, may have arrived with the ability to read and write already, and records show that at least two of his children attended the “subscription school,” a school people paid to attend. Another African American employee at Hopewell Furnace, Benjamin Hill, a hostler (stable boy), was paid to attend the Hopewell Village School from 1830 to 1834 (Walker 1974, 315-17).

By 1834, African American churches in Reading had been teaching Sunday school for nearly eleven years. Many Sunday schools included reading as part of the curriculum, for reading the Bible was believed to be requisite for a good Christian. In 1823, Reverend John F. Grier opened Reading’s first African American church, the First African Presbyterian Church, and supervised Sunday school there until he died in 1829. In 1834, sixteen-year-old Augustus T. Boas, who was white, became the first superintendent of the African Colored Sunday school at First African Presbyterian Church (McClellan 1957-58, 18).

Though Pennsylvania’s Free School Act was enacted in 1834 and Reading opened its first public school for white children the following year, Reading didn’t open its first public school for African American children until May 8, 1854. The school was located in the basement of the Second Presbyterian Church until it moved to a one-story building on North 10th Street between Walnut and Elm. The school, part of an African Methodist Church known as “The Ark,” was taught by an African American teacher, and had equipment and materials inferior to those of white schools. (McClellan 1957-58, 19).

When Reading school directors in 1873 called for a more modern building for the African American school, the A.H. Phillippi School was built. It housed forty-one students on two floors; the upper floor housed primary students taught by a Miss Ware (an African American), while the older students were taught by principal and teacher Samuel G. Hubert (an African American) on the lower floor (Haupt 2002, 6).

Mr. Hubert lost his job after the Reading School District moved to integrate the schools. On December 23, 1876, the school board passed a resolution that threw “open the public schools of the city to colored and white children alike” (McClellan 1957-58, 20). The resolution also called for A.H. Phillippi School to close and for its students to report to assigned integrated schools.  Forty-one students reported for the examinations that would place them in the appropriate grade at the new school. Of those, thirty-six were placed in primary grades, five in secondary, and none earned places in the “Intermediate Grammar” or high school level (McClellan 1957-58, 20-21).  The fact that none qualified for high school was probably due to the “separate but not equal” level of the curriculum and the scarcity of supplies in the African American school. Into mid-century, African Americans could not find jobs in their fields because of discrimination, so students were discouraged from enrolling in college preparatory, commercial, or pre-nursing courses. Yet although only a few African Americans attended school between 1890 and 1920, many who did went on to become successful professionals.

The 1800s were a pivotal time for African American education in the country, with Pennsylvania a leader. The beginning of the century saw little to no schooling available to African Americans; it ended with the integration of public schools. Education for African Americans was not yet even remotely equal to that provided for whites, but for those who believed that education was fundamental to progress, free public education was nothing short of a major victory.

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