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Knowing Our “Roots” Is Essential in Expanding the American Experience

February 07, 2011

As an amateur gardener, I have learned that the roots of plants are extremely important. We all know that roots anchor a plant. Maybe more importantly, roots give it structure and transfer essential water and nutrients to the plant for its survival. It is hard to imagine a healthy plant that does not have a solid root foundation. For some plants, the longer and deeper their root systems are, the more they benefit other living creatures by producing food, oxygen, and reducing the toxic carbon dioxide in our environment.

In 1977, many American families watched the television mini-series made from Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Roots. In an unprecedented eight-episodes, Haley shared a dramatization of his ancestors’ lives since leaving Africa until his own successful quest to discover his African roots. I was one of those people glued to my television set to watch what an amazing story of an American family’s trials, tribulations, and triumphs. What I remember most about the series was the interest in genealogy that it spurred for many Americans.

As we move through another Black History month, soon to be followed by Women’s History month, it occurs to me that what is most important about these months is that they furnish an opportunity for us to help all Americans to anchor themselves (and to receive essential nutrients) by learning about the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of their own ancestors. Learning our own family’s genealogy can help us develop a new understanding of the factors that shape who we are.

Thus, it is extremely important that the students, faculty, and staff of Cheyney University learn the history of this institution that is entering its 175th year of life in America.

At 915 Bainbridge Street in Philadelphia, PA, there is a historical marker dedicated in 1991, commemorating the Institute for Colored Youth. On the website PAhistory.com, it chronicles some highlights of the Institute of Colored Youth that was founded in 1837 by the philanthropy of Richard Humphreys and the dedication of the Society of Friends.

The historical marker website states, “Humphreys’ $10,000 bequest helped to establish the Quaker-controlled African Institute, which by the time it opened on a farm outside the city in 1840 had been renamed the Institute for Colored Youth. Initially devoted to orphan boys, by 1866 the school was coeducational, with an expanded curriculum and a new residence at Bainbridge and Ninth in the city. Some authorities claim this early history gives present-day Cheyney University the right to be called the oldest historically black institution college in America.”

Even though the Institute might have been started to help improve the literacy, industrial arts, and vocational training of persons of African descent in Philadelphia, by the 1880’s the Institute attracted talented faculty and students. According to historical accounts, the first official principal of the Institute was Charles L. Reason. Prior to coming to the Institute, Mr. Reason had served as the first African American to hold a professorship at the integrated New York Central College in New York. However, Charles Reason resigned in 1852 in order to become the first principal of the Institute, and he served from 1852 to 1856.

It was the third principal of the Institute of Colored Youth, Fanny Jackson Coppin who is credited in some historical accounts for expanding the classical curriculum (Latin, Greek, higher mathematics, industrial arts, and teacher education) and raising the profile of the Institute for Colored Youth. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1865, Ms. Fanny Jackson Coppin came to head the girl’s division; she later became principal of the Institute, when the second principal Ebenezer Bassett, who had served as principal for fourteen years, was appointed United States Minister to Haiti by President Grant.

Ms. Fanny Jackson Coppin was the first African-American principal in America, and she served as the principal from 1869 to 1902.

According to PAhistory.com, “The foundation laid in the nineteenth century served the Institute well in the twentieth. Over the next half century a veritable who's who of notable African-American leaders and public intellectuals visited the campus. Booker T. Washington, Carter G. Woodson, Mary Church Terrell, and Mary McLeod Bethune all gave commencement addresses. W.E.B. Du Bois spoke at least three times over a quarter century's time, and a distinguished lecture series was named in his honor. In more recent decades, historian John Hope Franklin, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, actor and activist Bill Cosby, and former President Jimmy Carter have addressed the student body of the institution known since 1983 as Cheyney University.”

In her memoirs, published posthumously in 1913, Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints of Teaching, Ms. Fanny Jackson Coppin lists numerous distinguished graduates of the Institute for Color Youth. Among these graduates are:

  • Rebecca J. Cole who was a graduate of the class of 1863, who studied medicine at the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia and experienced a long career in practicing medicine.
  • Pliny I. Locke—graduated from the Institute in 1867, taught mathematics, and later obtained a law degree from Howard University. Pliny Locke is the father of Alain Locke, the noted Harvard graduate who served as an educator, writer, and philosopher.
  • James M. Baxter—graduated in 1864 at age 18 and moved to Newark, N.J. to become principal of a colored high school shortly thereafter (during the Civil War). Mr. Baxter was the first African-American principal in Newark, New Jersey. He served in the position so well and for so long (45 years), that the school became popularly known as “Mr. Baxter’s School.”
  • William Adger—graduated from the Institute with Honors in 1875. He became the first African America to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1883 with a B.A. degree. Unfortunately, Mr. Adger only lived from 1856 to 1885.

As we prepare for the 175th anniversary of Cheyney University, it is important to acknowledge the historical foundations of this venerable institution, and to look forward to its continued contributions of access, opportunity and excellence into the 22nd Century.

Michelle.

(retrieved from http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1135 on January 29, 2011); Fanny Jackson Coppin, Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching, can be downloaded at http://worid-of-books.com/?id=Gn8sAQAAIAAJ; (http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/02/newark_urban_renewal_project_b.html)
 

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COMMENTS

Hello, have you ever thought of adding a "genealogy" course to your curriculum? The teaching of black history and genealogy go hand in hand and can open many possibilities for research. I am searching for an HBCU that offers this since I am heavily into it, but I am not finding such success.
 
Mrs. Lun 3:13PM 07/13/11
My Great great grandmother was Cordelia A. Jennings Attwell. Cordelia was a student at ICY, and went on to establish schools in Philadelphia, Kentucky, Virginia and Harlem, NY. Does Cheyney hold any historical records for its early ICY students? Are these records available to the public? Thank you. Donna M. Jackson
 
Donna M. Jackson 11:13AM 06/06/11
I have two brothers who have undergraduate degrees from Lincoln University in Penna. I could never understand how Lincoln University & Cheyney University both claimed to be the first institution of higher learning for African-Americans. I checked the dates & came to the conclusion that Lincoln University was the first. I notice your page is not so adamant about the claim eventhough an explanation is there. I am happy to see that Cheyney has stepped up it's game (in a lot of areas) because both institutions are about the educatution of my people. The bar must be raised. My child attends a suburban high school & I want all our institutions to add to the education not repeat it, as I have seen in too manyinner-city K-12 schools. Alumni & students need to cherish & financially support our HBCUs. I LOVE YOU, I THANK YOU, KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK
 
Sharifah i 4:25PM 04/21/11

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