Black Organizing in Pre-Civil War Illinois: Creating Community, Demanding Justice

Chicago High School
(Source: A. T. Andreas. “History of Chicago: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time vol I” (Chicago: A. T. Andreas, 1884), 218. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Mary E. Mann made Chicago history when she applied for admission to the city’s high school in 1861. Though the Board of Education initially rejected her application, Mary went on to become the first African American to attend and graduate from a Chicago public high school and the first African American to hold a board-appointed position at a city public school.

Mann was likely born in the 1840s. Although her ancestry remains murky, it is possible that she was the daughter of Isaac Mann, a Virginia-born African American barber, and Martha Mann, who was born in Illinois. Mary Mann attended Dearborn Elementary School, located on the corner of Madison and Dearborn Streets, with the rest of the children in her neighborhood—both white and African American. After graduating, Mary applied for admission to Chicago’s only public high school.1

The co-educational high school opened in 1856 in a large, ten-room building on Monroe Street near Halsted. The school was selective. To be admitted to the two-year program that prepared young women for teaching, applicants had to take an entrance exam and earn qualifying scores in four different subjects: mathematics, history, geography, and grammar. Mary took the exam, earned qualifying scores, and applied for admission in 1861.2

“Well Done, Chicago!”
Douglass’ Monthly published an article celebrating Mary E. Mann’s acceptance into the Normal School. (Source: “Well Done, Chicago!” Douglass’ Monthly, Sep., 1861. Courtesy of Accessible Archives.)

The Board of Education rejected her application, igniting a debate both in public and among members of the Board of Education. She was finally granted entry to the school in July 1861, after John Wentworth, a Republican board member, pushed for her admission. Frederick Douglass praised city authorities in his magazine, exclaiming, “Well done, Chicago! you have acted nobly.” Mary completed the two-year teaching program in 1863, graduating tenth in her class of twenty-two. That summer, the Board of Education hired her as principal of the newly created separate school for African American children, and she remained in that job during the school’s two-year existence.3

Mary Mann was the first African American to apply for and gain admission to a public high school in Chicago, the first to graduate from one, and the first to earn an appointment (either administrative or instructive) at a public school in Chicago. When activist organizing paid off and a new city charter closed down the segregated African American school, Mary continued to work as a teacher.4


Written by Hope McCaffrey. Edited by Kate Masur.


  1. It is not certain that Isaac Mann was Mary’s father, but an entry in the US Census for 1850 is suggestive. A barber would have had the means to advocate for his daughter’s education, and Mary is listed as seven years old in the 1850 census, making her around the right age for high school in 1861. Moreover, newspaper articles mention “her parents” and this is the only African American Mary E. Mann found in the 1850 census in Chicago with both parents present. “Regular Meeting of the Board of Education,” Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1861; City of Chicago, Department of Planning and Development, Chicago Public School Buildings, Pre-1940 Context Statement, Bauer Latoza Studio, accessed Sept. 7, 2021,, ​5; Matthew D. Bernstein, “Progress is Painful: Race Relations and Education in Chicago Before the Great Migration” (University of New Mexico, History Electronic Theses and Diss. 2008), 19.
  2. “The High School. Interesting Anniversary Exercises at Bryan Hall,” Chicago Tribune, July 11, 1863; Marjorie Warvelle Bear, A Mile Square of Chicago (Oak Brook: TIPRAC, 2007), 84.
  3. “Well Done, Chicago!” Douglass’ Monthly, Sep., 1861; Robert McCaul, The Black Struggle for Public Schooling in Nineteenth-Century Illinois (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987), 58; “The High School. Interesting Anniversary Exercises at Bryan Hall,” Chicago Tribune, July 11, 1863; “Regular Meeting of the Board of Education. Chicago, July 27, 1861,” Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1861; Alexander M. Gow and Samuel A. Briggs, eds., The Illinois Teacher: Devoted to Education, Science and Free Schools, Volume 9 (Peoria: N. C. Nason, 1863), 263.
  4. McCaul, Black Struggle for Public Schooling, 58-59; Bernstein, “Progress is Painful,” 19.