Many Americans who worked to abolish the institution of slavery are unknown or forgotten. Some of them were "conductors" of the celebrated Underground Railroad. Some supported the abolition movement with financial contributions. Others secretly, and sometimes openly, taught fugitives and free blacks how to read and write, often to the displeasure of their communities. Collectively, they were the force that demanded that their elected representatives end slavery. Without their courage and persistence, slavery might have lasted much longer.
P. H. Skinner(1) (or: Dr. Platt Henry Skinner) was one of those unsung individuals, who was vehemently opposed to slavery and expressed his views vocally and in print. Moreover, evidence indicates he may even have participated in Underground Railroad activities in Niagara Falls, New York, one of the final stations on the journey to freedom. Nonetheless, most sources documenting Skinner's activities underscore his role as an educator and a controversial figure.
We first encounter Skinner in 1856 in Washington, D. C., when he appeared in Washington with five children who were deaf, blind or mute.(2) He had brought these children with him from Canada via New York State. They were the children of fugitive slaves and had been born in Canada. When he came to Washington, Skinner had plans for establishing a school for deaf, blind and mute children. He let his ideas be known, and he attracted the attention of Amos Kendal, a journalist, businessman and Democratic politician, whose wife was deaf. Kendal, who was about seventy when he met Skinner, had been a key member of President Andrew Jackson's cabinet.(3) Kendal helped Skinner to acquire "a house and two acres, helped him set up a board of directors, and introduced a bill in Congress, which rapidly passed, incorporating the Columbian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind, and providing an allowance of $150 a year for each local child admitted.(4) To make the public aware of the school, Skinner or Kendal announced in an advertisement in The National Era, a local Washington newspaper, that Friday afternoon of each week would be set apart for the reception of visitors at the Institution.(5) They also invited their friends. Other advertisements to make the public aware of the school were also published from time to time.(6)
A few months after the school opened, a washerwoman of one of Kendal's friends, who had a son in Skinner's school, complained to her employer that her son had been badly cared for and neglected. Her employer informed Kendal, and Kendal and another board member immediately went to the school. The school's door was locked and the children that were there did not know how to unlock it. Kendal and the board member knocked the door down and entered the school. There they observed that the children had indeed been neglected, and two of them lay on a pallet, moaning. The children appeared to have been suffering from heat exhaustion. It is not clear if Skinner was in error, but he appeared to be responsible. Kendal sued in court and obtained custody of the five children Skinner had brought from New York, while the other children were temporarily returned to their parents until Kendal found a new school principal and building.
Skinner, however, protested and put up a strong fight, arguing that his students were not badly cared for or neglected, and that he was being persecuted, not only due to a misunderstanding, but also because he was a northerner and an abolitionist who taught and practiced equality at his school. He allowed black children to eat at his table with him, and he taught black and white mute and blind children together in his school on equal terms.(7)
The fact that Skinner was raising equality issues in Washington should be understood fully in the context of the times.(8) Up until 1850, the domestic slave trade was practiced extensively in Washington, and indeed the city was a major slave-trading center. …