Read CHAPTER XII of The Education Of The Negro Prior To 1861, free online book, by Carter Godwin Woodson, on


Having before them striking examples of highly educated colored men who could find no employment in the United States, the free Negroes began to realize that their preparation was not going hand in hand with their opportunities. Industrial education was then emphasized as the proper method of equipping the race for usefulness. The advocacy of such training, however, was in no sense new. The early anti-slavery men regarded it as the prerequisite to emancipation, and the abolitionists urged it as the only safe means of elevating the freedmen. But when the blacks, converted to this doctrine, began to enter the higher pursuits of labor during the forties and fifties, there started a struggle which has been prolonged even into our day. Most northern white men had ceased to oppose the enlightenment of the free people of color but still objected to granting them economic equality. The same investigators that discovered increased facilities of conventional education for Negroes in 1834 reported also that there existed among the white mechanics a formidable prejudice against colored artisans.

In opposing the encroachment of Negroes on their field of labor the northerners took their cue from the white mechanics in the South. At first laborers of both races worked together in the same room and at the same machine. But in the nineteenth century, when more white men in the South were condescending to do skilled labor and trying to develop manufactures, they found themselves handicapped by competition with the slave mechanics. Before 1860 most southern mechanics, machinists, local manufacturers, contractors, and railroad men with the exception of conductors were Negroes. Against this custom of making colored men such an economic factor the white mechanics frequently protested. The riots against Negroes occurring in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington during the thirties and forties owed their origin mainly to an ill feeling between the white and colored skilled laborers. The white artisans prevailed upon the legislatures of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Georgia to enact measures hostile to their rivals. In 1845 the State of Georgia made it a misdemeanor for a colored mechanic to make a contract for the repair or the erection of buildings. The people of Georgia, however, were not unanimously in favor of keeping the Negro artisan down. We have already observed that at the request of the Agricultural Convention of that State in 1852 the legislature all but passed a bill providing for the education of slaves to increase their efficiency and attach them to their masters.

It was unfortunate that the free people of color in the North had not taken up vocational training earlier in the century before the laboring classes realized fraternal consciousness. Once pitted against the capitalists during the Administration of Andrew Jackson the working classes learned to think that their interests differed materially from those of the rich, whose privileges had multiplied at the expense of the poor. Efforts toward effecting organizations to secure to labor adequate protection began to be successful during Van Buren’s Administration. At this time some reformers were boldly demanding the recognition of Negroes by all helpful groups. One of the tests of the strength of these protagonists was whether or not they could induce the mechanics of the North to take colored workmen to supply the skilled laborers required by the then rapid economic development of our free States. Would the whites permit the blacks to continue as their competitors after labor had been elevated above drudgery? To do this meant the continuation of the custom of taking youths of African blood as apprentices. This the white mechanics of the North generally refused to do.

The friends of the colored race, however, were not easily discouraged by that “vulgar race prejudice which reigns in the breasts of working classes." Arthur Tappan, Gerrit Smith, and William Lloyd Garrison made the appeal in behalf of the untrained laborers. Although they knew the difficulties encountered by Negroes seeking to learn trades, and could daily observe how unwilling master mechanics were to receive colored boys as apprentices, the abolitionists persisted in saying that by perseverance these youths could succeed in procuring profitable situations. Garrison believed that their failure to find employment at trades was not due so much to racial differences as to their lack of training. Speaking to the free people of color in their convention in Philadelphia in 1831, he could give them no better advice than that “wherever you can, put your children to trades. A good trade is better than a fortune, because when once obtained it cannot be taken away.” Discussing the matter further, he said: “Now, there can be no reason why your sons should fail to make as ingenious and industrious mechanics, as any white apprentices; and when they once get trades, they will be able to accumulate money; money begets influence, and influence respectability. Influence, wealth, and character will certainly destroy those prejudices which now separate you from society."

To expect the cooeperation of the white working classes in thus elevating the colored race turned out to be a delusion. They reached the conclusion that in making their headway against capital they had a better chance without Negroes than with them. White mechanics of the North not only refused to accept colored boys as apprentices, but would not even work for employers who persisted in hiring Negroes. Generally refused by the master mechanics of Cincinnati, a colored cabinet-maker finally found an Englishman who was willing to hire him, but the employees of the shop objected, refusing to allow the newcomer even to work in a room by himself. A Negro who could preach in a white church of the North would have had difficulty in securing the contract to build a new edifice for that congregation. A colored man could then more easily get his son into a lawyer’s office to learn law than he could “into a blacksmith shop to blow the bellows and wield the sledge hammer."

Left then in a quandary as to what they should do, northern Negroes hoped to use the then popular “manual labor schools” to furnish the facilities for both practical and classical education. These schools as operated for the whites, however, were not primarily trade schools. Those which admitted persons of African descent paid more attention to actual industrial training for the reason that colored students could not then hope to acquire such knowledge as apprentices. This tendency was well shown by the action of the free Negroes through their delegates in the convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1830. Conversant with the policy of so reshaping the educational system of the country as to carry knowledge even to the hovels, these leaders were easily won to the scheme of reconstructing their schools “on the manual labor system.” In this they saw the redemption of the free Negroes of the North. These gentlemen were afraid that the colored people were not paying sufficient attention to the development of the power to use their hands skillfully. One of the first acts of the convention was to inquire as to how fast colored men were becoming attached to mechanical pursuits, and whether or not there was any prospect that a manual labor school for the instruction of the youth would shortly be established. The report of the committee, to which the question was referred, was so encouraging that the convention itself decided to establish an institution of the kind at New Haven, Connecticut. They appealed to their fellows for help, called the attention of philanthropists to this need of the race, and commissioned William Lloyd Garrison to solicit funds in Great Britain. Garrison found hearty supporters among the friends of freedom in that country. Some, who had been induced to contribute to the Colonization Society, found it more advisable to aid the new movement. Charles Stewart of Liverpool wrote Garrison that he could count on his British co-workers to raise $1000 for this purpose. At the same time Americans were equally active. Arthur Tappan subscribed $1000 on the condition that each of nineteen other persons should contribute the same amount.

Before these well-laid plans could mature, however, unexpected opposition developed in New Haven. Indignation meetings were held, protests against this project were filed, and the free people of color were notified that the institution was not desired in Connecticut. It was said that these memorialists feared that a colored college so near to Yale might cause friction between the two student bodies, and that the school might attract an unusually large number of undesirable Negroes. At their meeting the citizens of New Haven resolved “That the founding of colleges for educating colored people is an unwarrantable and dangerous undertaking to the internal concerns of other states and ought to be discouraged, and that the mayor, aldermen, common council, and freemen will resist the movement by every lawful means." In view of such drastic action the promoters had to abandon their plan. No such protests were made by the citizens of New Haven, however, when the colonizationists were planning to establish there a mission school to prepare Negroes to leave the country.

The movement, however, was not then stopped by this outburst of race prejudice in New Haven. Directing attention to another community, the New England Antislavery Society took up this scheme and collected funds to establish a manual labor school. When the officials had on hand about $1000 it was discovered that they could accomplish their aim by subsidizing the Noyes Academy of Canaan, New Hampshire, and making such changes as were necessary to subserve the purposes intended. The plan was not to convert this into a colored school. The promoters hoped to maintain there a model academy for the co-education of the races “on the manual labor system.” The treasurer of the Antislavery Society was to turn over certain moneys to this academy to provide for the needs of the colored students, who then numbered fourteen of the fifty-two enrolled. But although it had been reported that the people of the town were in accord with the principal’s acceptance of this proposition, there were soon evidences to the contrary. Fearing imaginary evils, these modern Canaanites destroyed the academy, dragging the building to a swamp with a hundred yoke of oxen. The better element of the town registered against this outrage only a slight protest. H.H. Garnett and Alexander Crummell were among the colored students who sought education at this academy.

This work was more successful in the State of New York. There, too, the cause was championed by the abolitionists. After the emancipation of all Negroes in that commonwealth by 1827 the New York Antislavery Society devoted more time to the elevation of the free people of color. The rapid rise of the laboring classes in this swiftly growing city made it evident to their benefactors that they had to be speedily equipped for competition with white mechanics or be doomed to follow menial employments. The only one of that section to offer Negroes anything like the opportunity for industrial training, however, was Gerrit Smith. He was fortunate in having sufficient wealth to carry out the plan. In 1834 he established in Madison County, New York, an institution known as the Peterboro Manual Labor School. The working at trades was provided not altogether to teach the mechanic arts, but to enable the students to support themselves while attending school. As a compensation for instruction, books, room, fuel, light, and board furnished by the founder, the student was expected to labor four hours daily at some agricultural or mechanical employment “important to his education." The faculty estimated the four hours of labor as worth on an average of about 12-1/2 cents for each student.

Efforts were then being made for the establishment of another institution near Philadelphia. These endeavors culminated in the above-mentioned benefaction of Richard Humphreys, by the will of whom $10,000 was devised to establish a school for the purpose of instructing “descendants of the African race in school learning in the various branches of the mechanical arts and trades and agriculture." In 1839 members of the Society of Friends organized an association to establish a school such as Humphreys had planned. The founders believed that “the most successful method of elevating the moral and intellectual character of the descendants of Africa, as well as of improving their social condition, is to extend to them the benefits of a good education, and to instruct them in the knowledge of some useful trade or business, whereby they may be enabled to obtain a comfortable livelihood by their own industry; and through these means to prepare them for fulfilling the various duties of domestic and social life with reputation and fidelity as good citizens and pious men." Directing their attention first to things practical the association purchased in 1839 a piece of land in Bristol township, Philadelphia County, where they offered boys instruction in farming, shoemaking, and other useful trades. Their endeavors, so far as training in the mechanic arts was concerned, proved to be a failure. In 1846, therefore, the management decided to discontinue this literary, agricultural, and manual labor experiment. The trustees then sold the farm and stock, apprenticed the male students to mechanical occupations, and opened an evening school. Thinking mainly of classical education thereafter, the trustees of the fund finally established the Institute for Colored Youth of which we have spoken elsewhere.

Some of the philanthropists who promoted the practical education of the colored people were found in the Negro settlements of the Northwest. Their first successful attempt in that section was the establishment of the Emlen Institute in Mercer County, Ohio. The founding of this institution was due manly to the efforts of Augustus Wattles who was instrumental in getting a number of emigrating freedmen to leave Cincinnati and settle in this county about 1835. Wattles traveled in almost every colored neighborhood of the State and laid before them the benefits of permanent homes and the education for their children. On his first journey he organized, with the assistance of abolitionists, twenty-five schools for colored children. Interested thereafter in providing a head for this system he purchased for himself ninety acres of land in Mercer County to establish a manual labor institution. He sustained a school on it at his own expense, till the 11th of November, 1842. Wattles then visited Philadelphia where he became acquainted with the trustees of the late Samuel Emlen, a Friend of New Jersey. He had left by his will $20,000 “for the support and education in school learning and mechanic arts and agriculture of boys of African and Indian descent whose parents would give such youths to the Institute." The means of the two philanthropists were united. The trustees purchased a farm and appointed Wattles as superintendent of the establishment, calling it Emlen Institute. Located in a section where the Negroes had sufficient interest in education to support a number of elementary schools, this institution once had considerable influence. It was removed to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1858 and then to Warminster in the same county in 1873.

Another school of this type was founded in the Northwest. This was the Union Literary Institute of Spartanburg, Indiana. The institution owes its origin to a group of bold, antislavery men who “in the heat of the abolition excitement" stood firm for the Negro. They soon had opposition from the proslavery leaders who impeded the progress of the institution. But thanks to the indefatigable Ebenezer Tucker, its first principal, the “Nigger School” weathered the storm. The Institute, however, was founded to educate both races. Its charter required that no distinction should be made on account of race, color, rank, or religion. Accordingly, although the student body was from the beginning of the school partly white, the board of trustees represented denominations of both races. Accessible statistics do not show that colored persons ever constituted more than one-third of the students. It was one of the most durable of the manual labor schools, having continued after the Civil War, carrying out to some extent the original designs of its founders. As the plan to continue it as a private institution proved later to be impracticable the establishment was changed into a public school.

Scarcely less popular was the British and American Manual Labor Institute of the colored settlements in Upper Canada. This school was projected by Rev. Hiram Wilson and Josiah Henson as early as 1838, but its organization was not undertaken until 1842. The refugees were then called together to decide upon the expenditure of $1500 collected in England by James C. Fuller, a Quaker. They decided to establish at Dawn “a manual labor school, where children could be taught those elements of knowledge which are usually the occupations of a grammar school, and where boys could be taught in addition the practice of some mechanic art, and the girls could be instructed in those domestic arts which are the proper occupation and ornament of their sex." A tract of three hundred acres of land was purchased, a few buildings were constructed, and pupils were soon admitted. The managers endeavored to make the school, “self-supporting by the employment of the students for certain portions of the time on the land." The advantage of schooling of this kind attracted to Dresden and Dawn sufficient refugees to make these prosperous settlements. Rev. Hiram Wilson, the first principal of the institution, began with fourteen “boarding scholars” when there were no more than fifty colored persons in all the vicinity. In 1852 when the population of this community had increased to five hundred there were sixty students attending the school. Indian and white children were also admitted. Among the students there were also adults varying later in number from fifty-six to one hundred and sixteen. This institution became very influential among the Negroes of Canada. Travelers mentioned the Institute in accounting for the prosperity and good morals of the refugees. Unfortunately, however, after the year 1855 when the school reached its zenith, it began to decline on account of bad feeling probably resulting from a divided management.

Studying these facts concerning the manual labor system of education, the student of education sees that it was not generally successful. This may be accounted for in various ways. One might say that colored people were not desired in the higher pursuits of labor and that their preparation for such vocations never received the support of the rank and file of the Negroes of the North. They saw then, as they often do now, the seeming impracticability of preparing themselves for occupations which they apparently had no chance to follow. Moreover, bright freedmen were not at first attracted to mechanical occupations. Ambitious Negroes who triumphed over slavery and made their way to the North for educational advantages hoped to enter the higher walks of life. Only a few of the race had the foresight of the advocates of industrial training. The majority of the enlightened class desired that they be no longer considered as “persons occupying a menial position, but as capable of the highest development of man." Furthermore, bitterly as some white men hated slavery, and deeply as they seemingly sympathized with the oppressed, they were loath to support a policy which they believed was fatal to their economic interests.

The chief reason for the failure of the new educational policy was that the managers of the manual labor schools made the mistakes often committed by promoters of industrial education of our day. At first they proceeded on the presumption that one could obtain a classical education while learning a trade and at the same time earn sufficient to support himself at school. Some of the managers of industrial schools have not yet learned that students cannot produce articles for market. The best we can expect from an industrial school to-day is a good apprentice.

Another handicap was that at that time conditions were seldom sufficiently favorable to enable the employer to derive profit enough from students’ work to compensate for the maintenance of the youth at a manual labor school. Besides, such a school could not be far-reaching in its results because it could not be so conducted as to accommodate a large number of students. With a slight change in its aims the manual labor schools might have been more successful in the large urban communities, but the aim of their advocates was to establish them in the country where sufficient land for agricultural training could be had, and where students would not be corrupted by the vices of the city.

It was equally unfortunate that the teachers who were chosen to carry out this educational policy lacked the preparation adequate to their task. They had any amount of spirit, but an evident lack of understanding as to the meaning of this new education. They failed to unite the qualifications for both the industrial and academic instruction. It was the fault that we find to-day in our industrial schools. Those who were responsible for the literary training knew little of and cared still less for the work in mechanic arts, and those who were employed to teach trades seldom had sufficient education to impart what they knew. The students, too, in their efforts to pursue these uncorrelated courses seldom succeeded in making much advance in either. We have no evidence that many Negroes were equipped for higher service in the manual labor schools. Statistics of 1850 and 1860 show that there was an increase in the number of colored mechanics, especially in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Columbus, the Western Reserve, and Canada. But this was probably due to the decreasing prejudice of the local white mechanics toward the Negro artisans fleeing from the South rather than to formal industrial training.

Schools of this kind tended gradually to abandon the idea of combining labor and learning, leaving such provisions mainly as catalogue fictions. Many of the western colleges were founded as manual labor schools, but the remains of these beginnings are few and insignificant. Oberlin, which was once operated on this basis, still retains the seal of “Learning and Labor,” with a college building in the foreground and a field of grain in the distance. A number of our institutions have recitations now in the forenoon that students may devote the afternoon to labor. In some schools Monday instead of Saturday is the open day of the week because this was wash-day for the manual labor colleges. Even after the Civil War some schools had their long vacation in the winter instead of the summer because the latter was the time for manual labor. The people of our day know little about this unsuccessful system.

It is evident, therefore, that the leaders who had up to that time dictated the policy of the social betterment of the colored people had failed to find the key to the situation. This task fell to the lot of Frederick Douglass, who, wiser in his generation than most of his contemporaries, advocated actual vocational training as the greatest leverage for the elevation of the colored people. Douglass was given an opportunity to bring his ideas before the public on the occasion of a visit to Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe. She was then preparing to go to England in response to an invitation from her admirers, who were anxious to see this famous author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and to give her a testimonial. Thinking that she would receive large sums of money in England she desired to get Mr. Douglass’s views as to how it could be most profitably spent for the advancement of the free people of color. She was especially interested in those who had become free by their own exertions. Mrs. Stowe informed her guest that several had suggested the establishment of an educational institution pure and simple, but that she had not been able to concur with them, thinking that it would be better to open an industrial school. Douglass was opposed both to the establishment of such a college as was suggested, and to that of an ordinary industrial school where pupils should merely “earn the means of obtaining an education in books.” He desired what we now call the vocational school, “a series of workshops where colored men could learn some of the handicrafts, learn to work in iron, wood, and leather, while incidentally acquiring a plain English education."

Under Douglass’s leadership the movement had a new goal. The learning of trades was no longer to be subsidiary to conventional education. Just the reverse was true. Moreover, it was not to be entrusted to individuals operating on a small scale; it was to be a public effort of larger scope. The aim was to make the education of Negroes so articulate with their needs as to improve their economic condition. Seeing that despite the successful endeavors of many freedmen to acquire higher education that the race was still kept in penury, Douglass believed that by reconstructing their educational policy the friends of the race could teach the colored people to help themselves. Pecuniary embarrassment, he thought, was the cause of all evil to the blacks, “for poverty kept them ignorant and their lack of enlightenment kept them degraded.” The deliverance from these evils, he contended, could be effected not by such a fancied or artificial elevation as the mere diffusion of information by institutions beyond the immediate needs of the poor. The awful plight of the Negroes, as he saw it, resulted directly from not having the opportunity to learn trades, and from “narrowing their limits to earn a livelihood.” Douglass deplored the fact that even menial employments were rapidly passing away from the colored people. Under the caption of “Learn Trades or Starve,” he tried to drive home the truth that if the free people of color did not soon heed his advice, foreigners then immigrating in large numbers would elbow them from all lucrative positions. In his own words, “every day begins with the lesson and ends with the lesson that colored men must find new employments, new modes of usefulness to society, or that they must decay under the pressing wants to which their condition is bringing them."

Douglass believed in higher education and looked forward to that stage in the development of the Negroes when high schools and colleges could contribute to their progress. He knew, however, that it was foolish to think that persons accustomed to the rougher and harder modes of living could in a single leap from their low condition reach that of professional men. The attainment of such positions, he thought, was contingent upon laying a foundation in things material by passing “through the intermediate gradations of agriculture and the mechanic arts." He was sure that the higher institutions then open to the colored people would be adequate to the task of providing for them all the professional men they then needed, and that the facilities for higher education so far as the schools and colleges in the free States were concerned would increase quite in proportion to the future needs of the race.

Douglass deplored the fact that education and emigration had gone together. As soon as a colored man of genius like Russworm, Garnett, Ward, or Crummell appeared, the so-called friends of the race reached the conclusion that he could better serve his race elsewhere. Seeing themselves pitted against odds, such bright men had had to seek more congenial countries. The training of Negroes merely to aid the colonization scheme would have little bearing on the situation at home unless its promoters could transplant the majority of the free people of color. The aim then should be not to transplant the race but to adopt a policy such as he had proposed to elevate it in the United States.

Vocational education, Douglass thought, would disprove the so-called mental inferiority of the Negroes. He believed that the blacks should show by action that they were equal to the whites rather than depend on the defense of friends who based their arguments not on facts but on certain admitted principles. Believing in the mechanical genius of the Negroes he hoped that in the establishment of this institution they would have an opportunity for development. In it he saw a benefit not only to the free colored people of the North, but also to the slaves. The strongest argument used by the slaveholder in defense of his precious institution was the low condition of the free people of color of the North. Remove this excuse by elevating them and you will hasten the liberation of the slaves. The best refutation of the proslavery argument is the “presentation of an industrious, enterprising, thrifty, and intelligent free black population." An element of this kind, he believed, would rise under the fostering care of vocational teachers.

With Douglass this proposition did not descend to the plane of mere suggestion. Audiences which he addressed from time to time were informed as to the necessity of providing for the colored people facilities of practical education. The columns of his paper rendered the cause noble service. He entered upon the advocacy of it with all the zeal of an educational reformer, endeavoring to show how this policy would please all concerned. Anxious fathers whose minds had been exercised by the inquiry as to what to do with their sons would welcome the opportunity to have them taught trades. It would be in line with the “eminently practical philanthropy of the Negroes’ trans-Atlantic friends.” America would scarcely object to it as an attempt to agitate the mind on slavery or to destroy the Union. “It could not be tortured into a cause for hard words by the American people,” but the noble and good of all classes would see in the effort “an excellent motive, a benevolent object, temperately, wisely, and practically manifested." The leading free people of color heeded this message. Appealing to them through their delegates assembled in Rochester in 1853, Douglass secured a warm endorsement of his plan in eloquent speeches and resolutions passed by the convention.

This great enterprise, like all others, was soon to encounter opposition. Mrs. Stowe was attacked as soliciting money abroad for her own private use. So bitter were these proslavery diatribes that Henry Ward Beecher and Frederick Douglass had some difficulty in convincing the world that her maligners had no grounds for this vicious accusation. Furthermore, on taking up the matter with Mrs. Stowe after her return to the United States, Douglass was disappointed to learn that she had abandoned her plan to found a vocational institution. He was never able to see any force in the reasons for the change of policy; but believed that Mrs. Stowe acted conscientiously, although her action was decidedly embarrassing to him both at home and abroad.