Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

13 VALEDICTORY ADDRESS

Margaret Odell

The New York African Free School was founded in 1787 by the New York Manumission Society, which was devoted to three objectives: to lobby for the legislative abolition of slavery; to secure the protection of free blacks and fugitive slaves in New York from kidnapping by slave-dealers; and "to provide means for educating children of color of all classes," both slave and free. Denied admission to existing New York schools, forty children enrolled during the Free School's first year of operation. By 1828, the affiliated schools' enrollments had grown to more than three hundred male and female students.

For most of their history, the schools received substantial support from New York's black community. Samuel E. Cornish, editor of Freedom's Journal and later of the Colored American, worked as a home agent for the school in the late 1820s. The African Free School's distinguished graduates included Peter Williams, Jr., James McCune Smith, and Ira Aldridge (who played Othello at the Royal Theater in London), but few of the perhaps thousands of students who had passed through the school had been able to secure positions commensurate with their education and talents, as Charles C. Andrews, teacher and principal at the school, noted in his history of the institution in 1830. "In almost every instance," Andrews laments, "difficulties have attended them on account of their color, either in their obtaining a thorough knowledge of the trades, or, after they have obtained them, in finding employ in good shops; and a general objection is made, by white journeymen to working in the same shop with them" ( History, 122).

Margaret Odell was among five graduates of the school listed in Andrews 1830 Historyas having obtained positions commensurate with their education. But Odell's employment as a teacher at the Hudson School for black children was short-lived, as she soon quit in protest over inadequate funding, enrollment, and community support.

The teachers and friends of the African Free School mounted an ambitious public relations campaign, Andrews explains, "in order, that a more correct idea may be formed, by strangers, of the practicability of imparting the useful branches of education to the descendants of Africans." Central to this effort were the public graduation examinations administered to students in order to exhibit their knowledge of various fields of instruction, including spelling, needlework (for female students only), reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, geography, and elocution. Members of the public, especially civic leaders and journalists, were invited to attend the examinations so that they might see for themselves that "they are as susceptible of mental cultivation as the children of white parents."

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