The issue of educational access and opportunity for African Americans dominated the black convention movement in the antebellum era. Some African American leaders defined education as a politics of elevation and moral reform, which linked African American intellectual improvement to racial advancement and equality. However, this ideological definition of African American education was androcentric; it focused on establishing schools, academies and colleges primarily for African American men. In fact, African American leaders introduced a proposal to establish a manual labor college for African American male youth at the Philadelphia convention in 1831. Twenty-two years later, in July 1853, African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass discussed opening a manual labor college near Erie, Pennsylvania that welcomed all students, “without reference to sex or complexion.” Needless to say, aside from the focus on manual labor, these two plans were different, especially in regard to the composition of the student body.
This paper examines the evolution of African American higher education by comparing the two plans for a manual labor college. In a twenty-two year period, African American women apparently had become part of this and other educational initiatives. Frederick Douglass even stated that African American women too “needed training in the ‘methods and means of enjoying an independent and honorable livelihood.” Of course Douglass advocated for women’s rights and his daughter’s experiences with school discrimination certainly influenced him, but that is not the whole story; Douglass won support from some African American leaders for his proposal. I argue that the activism of African American women like Mary Shadd, many of whom believed that pursuing knowledge could help to secure freedom, transformed the ideological definition of African American education to be more inclusive and empowering. And African American leaders like Douglass recognized and supported that. This paper also examines what constituted an “independent and honorable livelihood” for African American women. More broadly, it explores the sweeping changes that occurred in the antebellum period, from the expansion of public schools to the continuous assault on African American civil rights. These changes made education a political and powerful pursuit that could help to promote and secure African American freedom at a particularly challenging moment, and this pursuit demanded the inclusion of African American women.