William Dorsey's Philadelphia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America

By Roger Lane | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
Education and Educators

The progress made in education at every level is the leading Afro-American success story of the late 19th century, in Philadelphia as throughout the country. It was a limited success, not easily won, and there was much confusion at the end of the period, as at the beginning, about where to go and how. But by 1900 the most obvious results, in terms of mass literacy, cannot be denied: in the North and the cities, even in the South and in the countryside, the majority of younger black citizens could read and write.

In Philadelphia, however, as elsewhere, it was not so clear what beyond simple literacy an education should provide, or how to spend limited resources. One of the things that gave the city a unique leadership role was the existence of a strong private school, the Institute for Colored Youth, William Dorsey's alma mater, which flourished especially during the period covered by his collection. But while the ICY both attracted and sent out an unusually able group of people, it was different only in its distinction. It stayed close to the main currents in elite black education, and it was always linked, in particular, to the city's public schools. The histories of both will be woven together through this chapter, as between the middle 1860s and 1903, both within the ICY and the public system, Philadelphians had to deal with the same issues as their fellows across the country: integration and segregation, academic versus manual training, the price of accommodation to white control, and finally how to translate education into jobs.

The institutions and personalities which would most affect the black educational experience until century's end were all put in place about the close of the Civil War. One key event in the public system was the appointment in 1864 of Jacob C. White, Jr., then a teacher at the still-young Quaker-run Institute for Colored Youth, to a job at the public Roberts Vaux elementary school, where

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