New York African Free Schools and Their Convention Legacies

1855 Convention: Case Study

In 1855, delegates from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Canada gathered from October 16th to October 18th to discuss topics of educational improvement, change, and adaptation. In the convention meeting minutes it is documented that they discussed the education and employment of both sexes, reassessed the 1853 debate regarding the issues of “complexional intuitions,” and, ultimately, addressed the work accomplished during the 1853 convention in New York where “much of the work done…demands now a vigorous prosecution: other portions of it remodeled or shaped to meet our newer experiences.” In particular, the 1855 Convention debated the establishment of an Industrial School, a trade-orientated school designed to generate both educated youth and skilled laborers. Not all delegates of the 1855 convention, however, agreed on the establishment of an Industrial School. While Philadelphia delegates, on the one hand, argued that the creation of an Industrial School would require unattainable capital and would overlap with current educational systems, several New York delegates, on the other hand, insisted not only on the development of an Industrial School, but also strove to ensure education was offered to both male and female students.

In the October 16th evening session of the convention’s first day, Philadelphia delegates voiced their concerns for the establishment of an Industrial School. These delegates worried about the amount of capital needed to create and successfully run an Industrial School. Further, they voiced skepticism about the poor’s financial inability to attend such schools. They took issue with the practicality of the Industrial School in that capital restrictions would limit the trades offered through the school, the mixing of mental and mechanical instruction would be redundant of educational opportunities already in place, and the time needed to successfully complete courses would set students behind those trained by the “usual method.”

The same Philadelphia delegates followed their opposition of an Industrial School with the proposal of a substitute plan to create a Mechanical Bureau, an operation that would fund and promote Mechanic Arts within the Black community. Philadelphia delegate J.C. Wears moved for the adoption of this plan while New York delegate James McCune Smith and Philadelphia delegate T. P Hunt opposed it. McCune Smith was a NYAFS alumnus who had been educated in a decidedly different model than the mechanical school, in a decidedly different model than the Industrial School he supported during the 1855 convention.

The Industrial School vs. Mechanical Bureau debate appeared again in the October 17th afternoon session when McCune Smith proposed yet another substitute plan. In addition to his call for Industrial Associations, McCune Smith motioned successfully that the Philadelphia delegate report remove their disapproving statements about the establishment of an Industrial School, that they remove their report that warned against the limited trade instruction and limited opportunities for the poor. McCune Smith, in other words, encouraged, even urged, delegates to embrace an Industrial School, to embrace the educational opportunities he believed it would offer to youth of different races, classes, and genders.

It was perhaps ironic that McCune Smith, who motioned for and favored the establishment of an Industrial School, was a NYAFS alumnus with non-mechanical educational background. The conflict between McCune Smith’s non-mechanical schooling and the decidedly mechanical schooling at an Industrial School would offer its students highlights one of the major undercurrents of the Colored National Conventions—the evolution of education. Through McCune Smith’s support of an Industrial School, we begin to see the shifting needs, requirements, and outcomes of education. We find that while a non-mechanical education was once a productive educational model—a model that produced highly educated individuals like McCune Smith—a hybrid education that instilled both academic knowledge and mechanical or artisan skills was the new desired educational model in the 1850s. Perhaps, then, this suggest how youth, specifically African American youth, required multiple forms of education to become both highly educated citizens and highly skilled workers.


Researched and written by Alyssa Amaral.


Colored National Convention )1855: Philadelphia, PA), “Proceedings of the Colored National Convention, held in Franklin Hall, Sixth Street, Below Arch, Philadelphia, October 16th, 17th, and 18th, 1855.,”, accessed November 15, 2016, Link.