New York African Free Schools and Their Convention Legacies

1853 Convention: Case Study

The 1853 National Colored Convention minutes highlight a convergence of tensions and energies in relation to education. Over the three-day period, delegates debated the nuances of education’s foundational role in employment and advancement, domesticity and polity, and the futurity of the African American people.

On the first day, New York African Free School #2 (NYAFS#2) graduate James McCune Smith launched the National Council of Colored People. Three of the organization’s fourteen articles promised educational efforts tied directly to employment and advancement. Continuing the push for Manual Labor Schools that provide instruction in literary, mechanical, and agricultural arts, the Council also proposed a registry of persons willing to employ or apprentice African American men and boys as well as those seeking such work. To educate the public about African American artistry and industry, “sale[s] or exhibit[s] [of] products of the skill and labor of colored people” were to be established—a notion that may have arisen from McCune Smith’s participation in “Examination Days” at the NYFAS, where students showcased their learning for visitors. On a more permanent scale, the Council called for the establishment of libraries, reading rooms, and museums to promote awareness of African American achievements.

While the National Council founded its educational plans on the premise of empowerment and advancement, the report from the Committee on Social Relations and Polity listed domestic and social failures in the African American population that necessitated educational intervention. Citing “ill-trained and often worse-governed youth,” the Committee implicated adults whose “acquiescence” aligned with white discrimination to reproduce the “lethargy, depression, discouragement and seeming content” that stymied social advancement. To counteract this neglect, the committee proposed efforts in both “school-room” and “fire-side” education, arguing that schools must “adapt” to the needs of youth needing to “catch up in the great race,” and homes must “teach the great lessons of self-confidence, self-dependence, perseverance, energy, and continuity.”

The report ignited significant controversy, especially over a key distinction made by the committee: that “as a whole, we constitute…a body of consumers and non-producers.” McCune Smith and others objected—confident that African Americans were producers—and essentially asserted that potentiality and accomplishment should be the foundation for educational and other political efforts. Delegates deemed the entire report “doubtful” and rejected it by vote of 63 to 31. In direct response to the report, George T. Downing, another NYAFS#2 graduate and chairman of the Committee on the Importance of Colored Persons Engaging in Commercial Pursuits, affirmed later that day that “we are beginning to become producers as well as consumers,” and that, consequently, it was time for the “development of intellect in business pursuits.” Downing’s report, predicated upon employment and advancement, was accepted, seemingly without debate.

Downing and McCune Smith’s emphasis on achievement and futurity was echoed the next day by fellow NYAFS#2 graduate Charles L. Reason, chairman of the Committee on Manual Labor School. Asserting that the best education is “one that would develop power,” Reason proposed a cure to the curricular imbalance that often defeated Industrial School missions: true professorships in the “practical application of mathematics and natural philosophy.” The committee also outlined, albeit briefly, a course of studies for women and a detailed financial plan for implementing their proposals. This report was the most detailed offered by this committee to date.

Frederick Douglass refuted and bolstered the work of the School Committee in a letter to author, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Backing the Manual Labor model but arguing against agricultural pursuits for a population “congregat[ed] in the large towns and cities” with little “self-reliance,” Douglass petitioned Stowe to support the creation of Industrial Schools focused on the mechanical arts. Citing the exodus of educated African Americans (including NYAFS#2 graduates and former convention delegates Alexander Crummel, Henry Highland Garnett, and Samuel Ringgold Ward, as well as, former delegate John Brown Russwurm) to countries more likely to value intellectual achievement than the US, Douglass asserted the necessity of practical education as an inroad to a stronger African American citizenry.

Near the close of the convention, delegates passed one final motion on education: that no “principle of complexional exclusiveness is contemplated” in the creation of Manual Labor Schools. Overtly positioning their work against discrimination and segregation, delegates confirmed an African American futurity focused on possibility rather than limitation.

Credits

Researched and written by Amanda M. Greenwell.

References

Colored National Convention (1853 : Rochester, NY), “Proceedings of the Colored national convention, held in Rochester, July 6th, 7th, and 8th, 1853.,” ColoredConventions.org, accessed November 15, 2016, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/458.