The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Schools for Black American children predated the Revolution

Efforts in early America to educate Black children offer us a template for addressing educational inequality today

An 18th-century building travels Feb. 10 from its location on the campus of William & Mary to Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area. The move marks a new chapter for the building, which served as the original home of the Williamsburg Bray School and is probably the oldest extant building in the United States dedicated to the education of Black children. (Stephen Salpukas/William & Mary)
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This year’s Black History Month has witnessed unrelenting attacks on education and, in particular, the teaching of African American history, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) leading the charge. Such battles are not merely academic. Vast inequality in the nation’s educational systems endures and has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. This has only compounded long-standing difficulties that school districts have faced recruiting Black teachers, whose numbers are historically low.

Fortunately, new initiatives are helping address these challenges. For example, the Philadelphia Freedom Schools project and other efforts are training and inspiring a robust pipeline of Black teachers and engaging young Black students. These programs stand at the forefront of a long history of struggle to guarantee robust educational opportunities for America’s Black children.

In the spring of 1757, for instance, about 20 years before the beginning of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin received an odd letter. It was from an English clergyman, the Rev. John Waring, asking about the possibility of setting up schools for “Negro children” in Philadelphia on behalf of the religious charitable society, the Associates of Dr. Thomas Bray.

Founded in 1724 to promote the spread of Christianity among colonial America’s Black population, the Associates had long struggled to achieve their goals in the face of White fears that education of the enslaved would prove at best “useless” and at worst “dangerous.” Indeed, in many colonies, Black education of any sort, especially literacy, was strictly prohibited. Though Franklin was unsure if such prejudices could be overcome, Waring had the right man, and together Franklin and the Associates launched five schools in colonial America, the first of which was in Philadelphia.

These represented some of the earliest formal institutions for Black learning in American history. At these schools, Black children, most of whom were enslaved but others free, were taught to read, spell and answer questions from the scripture. Girls were also taught to knit and sew, and advanced boys could eventually be introduced to mathematics. At a time when formal education was not widely available even to White children, these schools offered a rare form of empowerment for early America’s enslaved children.

The prejudice of White enslavers nevertheless often proved insuperable. Though Franklin became convinced “of the natural Capacities of the black Race” — indeed, he marveled that he “should ever” have doubted it — others refused to be swayed. For instance, the Virginian enslaver Robert Carter Nicholas, superintendent of the Bray School in Williamsburg, wrote how “it is generally observable that the most senisible of our Slaves are the most wicked & ungovernable.” Because of this belief, widely shared by White men and women throughout early America, it was difficult both to maintain instructors and convince enslavers to allow enslaved people to attend the schools.

The location of the Williamsburg school has recently been discovered. In large part because of the difficulties it and the other Bray Schools faced, however, only the Philadelphia school survived the War for Independence.

Supported by an endowment from a generous benefactor in England, and with a larger and relatively less prejudiced population to draw from for its instructors, Philadelphia’s school would not only flourish but also expand into the 19th century. Alongside the shorter-lived Bray Schools, this institution almost certainly left a lasting impact on those it taught. Even basic literacy and spelling could make a world of difference to the children who attended these schools as they navigated a harsh world defined by slavery and racism.

One such child was the Rev. Absalom Jones. Possibly taught at the Philadelphia school attached to Christ Church in the 1760s (where a vestryman claimed ownership over him), Jones would go on to become an early leader of the city’s Black community. Dismayed by White efforts to segregate worship at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, Jones founded the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 1794. Alongside the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, also located in Philadelphia, St. Thomas established one of the first all-Black congregations in the nation’s history. Admitted to holy orders in 1796, Jones became America’s first Black Episcopal priest in 1802.

Using every opportunity at his disposal to advocate for Black Americans, Jones proved crucial to the expansion of educational opportunities in his city. Joining the Christ Church School, Jones founded another institution attached to St. Thomas. With the help of the country’s first Episcopal Bishop, William White, Jones then convinced the Associates of Dr. Bray to contribute to his school for the education of young Black men. Under his tutelage, these students were prepared to enter trades by instruction in reading, writing and mathematics.

After Jones retired, another Black man affiliated with St. Thomas, Solomon Clarkson, took over the helm in 1815, instructing the city’s Black youths from his home on Lombard Street for 30 more years. He helped give them one of the most precious commodities a Black child growing up in early America could possess: education, that “light by which men can only be made free” as Frederick Douglass put it. Transforming the education they received into a legacy for others, Jones and Clarkson empowered hundreds of students in Philadelphia.

Thanks to the records left behind by Clarkson and the various White teachers at the Christ Church Bray School — such as Sarah Ann Leech, who taught more than 180 students for some 15 years in Spring Garden — we are able to recover the names, ages and sometimes even the familial relations of the children they taught. Saving hundreds of boys and girls from complete historical erasure, the reports from these schools memorialize their students’ lives in at least some small way.

Future scholarship will have to use these resources to try to uncover what happened to these children after their education. But, without a doubt, these institutions proved essential in a world where public education was all but unheard of, and Black entry was prohibited even where it was.

Joined by less than a dozen other charitable schools for Black children in the early 19th century — run by White allies such as the Quakers or the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, or by Black Philadelphians themselves — the Bray Schools helped provide a crucial service to a population of nearly 3,000 Black children in 1820. It was not until 1822 that the first public school opened its doors to the city’s Black children, and by 1838, more than 40 percent of possible students were still not receiving regular instruction. In many ways, the advent of public education in America simply inaugurated a new history of separate and unequal treatment that would last until Brown v. Board of Education ordered the country to integrate its schools over a century later.

The work started by the Bray Schools and other institutions for Black learning is far from over. Recovering the lives and impact of Black educators like Jones and Clarkson, as well as the names of those they taught, Americans should reflect on their past this month not only with regret for the many failures of our nation, but with inspiration for what they can accomplish tomorrow.