Independence Hall

The Colored Youth of Philadelphia (1867)

By a Massachusetts Teacher

Among many things that interested me in Philadelphia was a visit of three hours time to an institute for colored people, of which I had never heard till about a fortnight ago, when I attended its exhibition in National Hall. This institute has been in existence about ten years. It was founded by two Quakers, who left money in their wills to form a school in which colored children and youth should be thoroughly educated from the primary up to the collegiate department. It has an excellent building, three stories high, with large halls for schoolrooms. The primary departments are on the first floor; the academic on the second; and in the third story are recitation-rooms, with blackboards all round.

The exhibition was in the second largest hall in the city. Next year it is to be in the great Opera House. Every one of its present teachers is colored. The principal is a Mr. Bassett, who was educated in the Normal School of Connecticut. He is a broad-faced, very dark mulatto, in whom the negro nearly puts out all trace of the white. Nothing can be more modest and unassuming than his manners were at the exhibition. We had a Latin salutatory, a Greek oration, and several fine English essays and poems, by both males and females, of ages from twelve to twenty years. The exercises showed wit, humor, pathos, admirable thought and eloquence, and were well delivered. The primary classes recited simultaneously, first a poem, and then a psalm, making a really beautiful exercise.

Nothing could have been more creditable than all the performances, and they received rounds of applause from an audience of two thousand people, all of whom went in by ticket. In the two days before these performances there had been most searching examinations before the trustees and some of the best educated gentlemen of the city. And on the third day before, there had been a meeting of the alumni of the institute, on which occasion there were orations and poems. I understand that these were quite a marvel, and sufficient, as Mr. Turner said, to set at rest any doubt as to the equality of the negro to the white; for pure negroes did as well as any whites do on similar occasions. I was unable to attend the meeting of the alumni, but I was desirous to see the school in undress; so, after a week’s vacation, I went to Mr. Bassett’s.

National Anti-Slavery Standard was the official weekly newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society, an abolitionist society founded in 1833 by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan to spread their movement across the nation with printed materials. Frederick Douglass was a key leader of this society and often addressed meetings at its New York City headquarters.

At my request he called his second Latin class, and heard the pupils say their last lesson, at which they had not looked since three weeks before. It was a page of Viri Romæ which they had read, translated and parsed. I never heard a severer recitation, and I myself never tasked any class with such questions. Their application of rules, theoretically and practically, was of the highest order. The class consisted of about twenty, half of them girls, and five-sixths pure negroes, many of them very ugly and stupid looking; but even these were marvellously keen-minded. After listening half-an-hour I went into a room where a class in the Greek Testament was reciting to a Miss Jackson, a mulatto girl who had graduated at Oberlin College. She is in person of elegant form and manners, with a most pleasing face. Her manner of teaching was a model, so courteous, animated and encouraging was it, and such evident mastery of the language did it show. It was the parsing which was most wonderful. There were here also about twenty young men and women, all prepared in the theory of the Greek moods and tenses. I do not believe that there was ever a more thorough and brilliant recitation in any school or college. But the Latin and Greek classes had their respected grammars at their tongues ends, and thoroughly in mind too. I next entered a mathematical room, where a class of about thirty boys, about twelve years old, was examined in Colburn’s Mental Arithmetic in a section in which the operation was four and five-fold.

The teacher of this class, a Mr. Allen, was as handsome and refined looking as Mr. Purvis must have been in his prime, with an expression of sweetness and of subtle intellectuality that I have hardly seen combined in any face I ever saw. He was a graduate of this very institute, and seemed to be very fond of his profession, and was evidently very much loved by the boys. They went through the exercises splendidly, repeating the question, then giving the theory of the operation; and if there occurred the least slip every hand in the class was thrust out.

Then a stranger who was present, a great mathematician, explained to them some curious methods of analyzing number, which they eagerly attended to, and immediately caught and performed themselves. They multiplied such numbers as thirty-five times twenty-eight instantaneously, as it seemed to me, so quickly did they take the idea of the rule, although it was the first time that they had ever been tried. The questioner said that he had never seen a better arithmetical class.  I next went into the room of the girls’ primary class, taught by a Miss Douglas. She is a full-blooded, uncrossed negro. As the girls were all sewing I would not let her call them into class.

To all doubters of the mental equality of the negro to the white, I would commend a visit to this school, on Shippen and Tenth streets, Philadelphia. There are always there from two to three hundred scholars. Those who go through four years academic course receive a diploma and a degree. Although the school is an endowed one, the primary scholars pay five dollars and the others ten dollars a year. There are at least six teachers, and French, Spanish and German, besides all the English branches, are taught.

Some of the students at the University of Pennsylvania told the following story to a young lady, who told it to me: One day three of them were disputing about the translation of a very difficult passage in Greek, which they could not make out, when a black girl, who was scouring the floor, rose up, and said, with perfect modesty, “I can help you out of that difficulty, gentlemen, if you will allow me.” They laughed, and, thinking she was crazy, they gave her the book, when, to their amazement, she translated the passage and explained the construction. They asked her how she knew. She said that she was very fond of the Greek classics. She had worked in the day-time to earn money to go to a certain evening school, at which she had learned Latin and Greek.

On Thursday and Friday I went to the Anti-Slavery Convention, where they were denouncing the Philadelphia barbarism of excluding the colored people from the horse-cars. A gentleman told me of a colored girl who was studying Greek with him in the intervals of a laborious daily life, and who had to walk two miles to get to him and recite, because she was not allowed to ride in the cars that admit drunken Irishmen.

On Thursday night I went to the annual meeting of the Freedmen’s Education Commission, presided over by Judge Chase, who made a good speech. Lyman Abbot read the report, and made a fine speech. So did Phillips Brooks, Gen. Howard and Judge Bond. They all insisted that universal suffrage was the one thing indispensable to the negro and loyal white of the South. Gen. Howard said if the negroes had the vote they the negroes of Arkansas paid nearly five dollars a head for all the scholars that were taught; and Judge Bond said that the negro children of Maryland paid ten cents a week, under all their difficulties. But I have neither room nor time for more to-night.—Boston Commonwealth.

Source: National Anti-Slavery Standard, January 19, 1867

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