Happy August! Are you already thinking about back-to-school? I am––when I walk through a pile of dried brown leaves, and their smell brings me back to college orientation (when it was still summer, the leaves just beginning to fall). Or it feels like I’m walking home from second grade, or my kids’ “Curriculum Night.” This month seemed like a good time to revisit my Work In Progress and how I wrote about Quaker schools.
Elizabeth, Eben, Grace, and Ishmael go to school
In writing “A Little Rebellion,” my Quaker historical novel taking place during the American Revolution, I was intrigued by the idea of free Black students attending school with white students, and the resulting problematic power dynamic. I did research, but also took some literary license. Wealthy Quaker Elizabeth and her country friend Eben would have been schooled at home, or at the early Penn Charter, but not with their free Black neighbors. However, read on: the idea of an early racially-integrated school in Revolutionary Philadelphia is not a far-fetched one.
In the Country: Small Schools
Beginning in the 1600s, there were informal schools in the Pennsylvania countryside, one-room schoolhouses in tiny communities. Locals started schools primarily out of necessity, rather than idealism, and the schools were not “public” (they charged fees). These schools mainly educated white children. But enslavers, including those who were Quaker, also educated their enslaved in the hopes that they would “obey” and be part of the “Christianizing process.” Many of the enslaved and those manumitted were educated in the Bible and catechism in their enslavers’ or employers’ homes, but some attended these tiny schools.
In the City: Penn Charter
In 1700, William Penn founded the first public school: Penn Charter. He and other Quakers worked to create a school of “arts and sciences” open not only to the well-to-do, but also to white students of limited means. As well as Penn Charter, there were small, informal “schools” in Philadelphia for which students’ parents paid a fee.
Betsy Ross gets Schooled
In Betsy Ross, Quaker Rebel by Edwin S. Parry, a book that is more fantasy than accurate description, Betsy Ross and her older sisters attend Friends Public School (Penn Charter) on South Fourth Street below Chestnut. (For more on Betsy, see my previous blog). Quaker Rebel talks about children of wealthy families walking to school there as “8 o’clock rang out from the State House Clock.” Students studied and recited until six o’clock, taking a two hour break at noon for dinner. While boys studied Latin, girls like Betsy would spend the bulk of each afternoon doing needlework. On First Day (Sunday), additional schooling took place in the afternoon, after Meeting for Worship.
Anthony Benezet began teaching in the late 1730s in Germantown. He eventually ran the Penn Charter School from 1742-1754. In 1750, Benezet began tutoring Black children and adults in his Philadelphia home. James Forten (abolitionist), Richard Allen (AME Bishop), and Absalom Jones (abolitionist and clergyperson) were all educated here. “When it became clear that his students were capable of the same achievement as whites, Benezet undermined popular assumptions about Black intellectual inferiority and helped convert Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and others to abolitionism, according to this great article about Raspberry Street Schools.
In 1755, Benezet left Penn Charter to set up the nation’s first public girls’ school whose students included Sally Wister.
A Philadelphia School in 1777: the first racially integrated urban school in America?
In 1773, Jacob Lehre, a schoolteacher working for Benezet, took over the education of approximately 50 Black children. By 1775, only nine remained. The school’s Board of Overseers decided to visit all the parents to encourage better attendance. They also set out a call to admit poor white children to fill up the classroom. Lehre began teaching both 40 Black and six white students–boys and girls–in his classroom, perhaps the first integrated (and co-ed) urban school in America (though a charity school, not a public one).
1800’s: the end of integrated schooling in Pennsylvania
By the early 1800’s, Pennsylvania had passed a law prohibiting Black and white children attending to school together. Whatever the reason for this law (perhaps the actions of persistent racist lobbyists) it reflects the general prejudice of the times. However, it also occurs 20 years after Pennsylvania abolished slavery. Even among the Quakers, the idea of “separate, but equal,” prevailed. Benezet’s school had by then become the African Free School, run by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting..
In “A Jack of All Spaces: The Public Market in Revolutionary Philadelphia” we see evidence of interracial social life beyond school and employment. Candice L Harris talks about “young slaves and servants” gathering in the Market for a raucous nightlife, young people who knew each other from the streets they walked upon during the day, from school, and from the households where they toiled. For a brief moment around the time of the Revolution, social life for young people looked like it might become more racially integrated. But what were these friendships and romances like? How did the American Revolution affect them? And where were the Quakers in all this? Those are many of the questions for which I sought out answers. As I’ve said before, I’m looking forward to bringing my story to you!
In the meantime, what are you looking forward to this school year?