Working for Higher Education: Advancing Black Women’s Rights in the 1850s

News Coverage in the Black Press

Frederick Douglass’ Promotion of the Industrial College Initiative

In this March 1853 letter to Mrs. Stowe, Frederick Douglass lays out the argument for an Industrial College built to elevate the economic condition of free African Americans. He describes free Blacks as people plagued by poverty, ignorance, and degradation. Douglass maintains that the cure to this illness that has taken a foothold in a free society is education, which will elevate the Black population to an equal societal level with their white counterparts. Only through education, claims Douglass, will Blacks fully attain the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that is guaranteed by the constitution. Douglass argues in his letter that although education is beneficial for Blacks, it is often in vain. Professional Blacks, as he writes, are “at a very great discount” because whites have no confidence in these very capable individuals, causing their Black counterparts also to lose confidence in them. Convention delegates responded to this perceived problem within the community of Black professionals by arguing there was a need for schools that not only granted Blacks a liberal education, but also provided an education in a manual trade or agricultural skill. While Douglass agreed that this hybrid education system would greatly benefit the free Black population, he regarded farming as an occupation that would not fit the free Black identity. Blacks, he believed, “will congregate in the large towns and cities; and they will endure any amount of hardship and privation, rather than separate, and go into the country.” Thus he advocated for an American Industrial College that would focus on mechanical trades.

Frederick Douglass’ agenda was met during the Rochester National Colored Convention in 1853. The accounts of this convention and the formation of the National Council of Colored People are described in his paper, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, detailing his appointment to the National Council, by the Committee on Labor Schools, while also being appointed as the “agent to receive and solicit funds for the [s]chool.” Finally the committee appointed Douglass, along with two other men, “to draw up a plan of the [s]chool, with its laws, etc.” Douglass was crucial in the creation of these schools, and, in many ways, other committee members followed his ideology surrounding the schools. This demonstrates Douglass’ incredible intellect and the power he had over free Black lives in this era


Written by Gabriel Barrett-Jackson, History 213 taught by Sharla Fett, Occidental College, Spring 2016.


“Letter to Mrs. Stowe,” Frederick Douglass’s Paper, 2 December 1853.  Accessible Archives. African American Newspapers: The 19th Century. Reproduced by permission. “Proceedings of the Colored National Convention Held in Rochester, July 6th, 7th and 8th 1853,” (Office of Frederick Douglass’ Paper: Rochester, 1853), 33-38, accessed on

William Howard Day’s Response to the Manual Labor College Plan

On August 14, 1854, William H. Day published an article titled “Progress of Equality” in response to the Manual Labor College plan proposed at the National Colored Convention held in Rochester a year earlier. This article sheds new light on the Rochester convention proceedings where Day served as vice president. Writing a year later in this article, Day articulated his distaste for the proceedings of the Rochester convention and the means by which it was advertised. He questioned the alleged donation of $15,000 from Harriet Beecher Stowe for the manual labor college. He concentrated on the improper politics as well as miscommunication that led to the initial belief that Stowe would donate funds. Later it became clear that Stowe “had been guilty of a late refusal in reference to such donation.” Day quoted a gentleman who was disappointed that Stowe’s donation had fallen through: “The withdrawal of this aid renews in us the conviction that our lives are full of disappointment, bitterness and oppression… we are only meted out to be destroyed.” Day concurred, “We are to be the objects of compassion only.”[1]

On the matter of women’s education, Day failed to acknowledge the co-educational aspect of the college, despite his wife’s educational experiences. Lucy Stanton Day was an educator and the first African American woman to earn a collegiate degree. While the issue of Stowe’s donation was important to the manual college, it did not define it. Day voiced his dissent for the college by focusing primarily on the loss of the Stowe donation.


Written by Lindsay Drapkin, History 213 taught by Sharla Fett, Occidental College, Spring 2016.


[1] William H. Day, “Progress of Equality,” Aliened American, reprinted in Liberator, 14 April 1854.

The Rhode Island State Council Supports Manual Labor School Initiative

Support for the American Industrial College was strong after the 1853 National Convention in Rochester even though the school was never created. Much of it was from those associated with Frederick Douglass, who expressed his advocacy for the Industrial College in his newspaper. Two of those who supported the creation of the school were John Waugh and H.W. Foster of Ohio. The two wrote an editorial that was reprinted in Frederick Douglass’ Paper in April of 1854, explaining their support for the school. In the letter, the two men opposed the Aliened American‘s criticism and laid out the resolutions they hope to have adopted by the Rhode Island State Council in regards to the Industrial College presented at the national convention in 1853.

Their seven resolutions begin with an explanation that any opposition to the creation of industrial schools is without a foundation. The same goes for any suggestions that the New York Mechanics’ Institute would serve as an acceptable substitute. Throughout the editorial, the authors describe why they are in favor of the creation of both the Industrial College and also manual labor schools. They recognize that by creating these types of institutions they are allowing for individuals to create new paths towards success that had not been traditionally offered to Black Americans at that time. After specifically discussing the Industrial College, Waugh and Foster lead into the resolutions that deal with the criticisms of the Manual Labor College. They denounce any negative critique of the Manual Labor College, especially with regards to the opposition based solely on the idea that the money “put to a more advantageous use.”

In spite of the criticism, supporters of Manual Labor College reason that while the funds could be used to support Blacks who were still enslaved, the community needed to also spend money on educating those who were already free. The point of creating such institutions was to better the entire community through the availability of education.


Written by Victoria Walker, History 213 taught by Sharla Fett, Occidental College, Spring 2016.


“Resolutions of the Rhode Island State Council,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, April 28, 1854.  

Frederick Douglass Rebuts Criticisms Regarding the Industrial College

The article titled “Industrial College” in Frederick Douglass’ paper functions as a report of a debate that occurred in the National Council at New York. It reports the dissent against the construction of a college of manual labor and describes how supporters dealt with and managed to quell this discord. It thus highlights the capabilities and shortcomings of the endeavor to create the school. This article also focuses on the possibly positive outcomes of the school, thereby serving as supportive coverage of the school. This indicates that the manual labor school proposed in 1853 required substantial and continuous thought; it was considered both at the convention and also in various African American newspapers at the time and even as late as 1855, when this article was written.

According to the article, the college of manual labor faced opposition from those in the convention who deemed it unfeasible—or even impossible. In addition to this, those in opposition were quite large in number, and they even came close to overturning the proposition. However, for every criticism present, there was a rebuttal brought forward by various different delegates (Stephen Smith, Dr. Pennington, W.J. Wilson, James E. Brown, James McCune Smith, and James D. Bonner were the persons named, and said to be among others). This essentially squashed the opposition. The main argument given to deflect the dissent was that the opposition to the school was not present because of any glaring inability, but rather a matter of will. That is, whether or not people would build the school was a matter of whether or not they wanted to build the school; whether or not the school was sustainable was a matter of whether or not people of color were willing to maintain it. Those in favor were confident they had the ability and the capital to put forth the idea, and the opposition could not prove otherwise.

This article stands out also because of the solidarity present in the debate. The delegates understood the importance of Black unity; one of the dissenters even went as far to state that “he should cheerfully assist in the enterprise, although he doubted if it could be successful; he was willing to give it a trial.” Even in the face of a serious divergence of thought, if anything greatly positive is to happen then there must be—above all—a will to collaborate.


Written By Daniel Waruingi, Hist. 213, taught by Sharla Fett, Occidental College, Spring 2016.


“Industrial College,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 25 May 1855.


William C. Nell Reports on the Colored National Council Meeting

William C. Nell gave an account of the National Council proceedings that affirmatively adopted the Industrial School report (but with only seven of thirteen in favor) in the July 27, 1855 edition of The Liberator. Due to the highly disputed issue, the decision garnered much attention.  According to Nell, representatives on the Colored National Council from New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Illinois opined and debated fiercely over the report. Nell would also vote against the plan.

Frederick Douglass and James McCune Smith both gave rousing speeches supporting the Industrial College. Douglass acknowledged that although some abolitionist newspapers opposed the plan, he felt that in order for people of color to reach a respectable place in society, they would have to make their own way. Mr. Bonner, an Illinois representative, believed the school would aid in helping African Americans, and felt that without these opportunities, Blacks would have a more difficult time gaining autonomy.

Representatives on the Council opposing the adoption of the report cited its impracticability and the failure of agricultural education at both Oberlin and Oneida College. J.W. Duffin, a member of the State Council from New York, felt that it was too early to adopt the report because Black youth already had access to educational institutions.Charles Remond, a Massachusetts representative, expressed concern that other issues were being overlooked; he felt equal rights was the most important issue in the African American community along with recognition of being American citizens.

Not all African Americans agreed with the National Council decision to adopt the Industrial College report. A group of Black citizens in New York resolved that they did not agree with the Council’s decision and thought it was “unwise and impolite to establish an Industrial School, or erect a building for free colored youth.  If free let them have freedom of schools in free states.”


Written by Tina Delany, History 213 taught by Sharla Fett, Occidental College, Spring 2016. 


 William C. Nell, “Colored National Council,” The Liberator, July 27, 1855, 120.  


Opposition to the Manual Labor College Proposal

James McCune Smith published a letter on Frederick Douglass’ Paper to refute Peter H. Clark’s arguments against a Manual Labor School, published in Clark’s Herald of Freedom. Through McCune’s listing of Clark’s points, we gain insight into the oppositional arguments.

Clark’s first cited point is that these schools would only benefit those who could afford them. He argued that only the wealthiest would be able to leave their homes for such an extended period of time as well as pay the travel expenses associated with getting to the school. Second, Clark asserts that the school will not have the resources to teach a large group of students. There would not be a significant enough number of graduates for the school to truly help with Black unemployment. Clark was not optimistic that the school would even make difference in African American lives. Clark’s final point is that creating the school is not financially feasible. The Committee on Industrial College estimated that it would need thirty thousand dollars, but Clark did not believe such a grand idea could be actualized with that amount of money. He stated that to have the high-quality learning environment the Committee wanted, they would need upwards of five hundred thousand dollars or more.

Communipaw disagrees with all of these arguments. He disproves the first one by saying that the schools will be built where the community is and this will be communicated via the newspapers. He rebukes Clark’s second statement by saying that these Colleges will be placing highly qualified individuals into society, which is far more important than the number of graduates. Finally, Communipaw responds to Clark’s final argument by stating that the Committee’s estimates were heavily researched and are correct. Furthermore, he wrote that the schools advocates did not seek big donations because they want the school to success on the basis of Black community support and the merits of the schools themselves. This article very clearly shows the constant debate regarding these schools.


Written by Sydney Hemmendinger, History 213 taught by Sharla Fett, Occidental College, Spring 2016.


Communipaw, “From Our New York Correspondent,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 10 August 1858. Accessible Archives.