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When Portsmouth had an African school for black students

PORTSMOUTH — The city’s African School had two incarnations.

The education of black children in Portsmouth began with a private school founded around 1806 by Dinah Chase Whipple (1760-1846), an emancipated slave and leader in the free black community. She opened the school under the auspices of the Ladies Charitable African Society. The school’s tuition was paid by parents or willing individuals.

According to the Portsmouth Journal, an ‘African school was held in Portsmouth in the summer of 1827, the expenses of which were largely defrayed by the city for the first time. Nearly all the colored children, about 30 in all, attended the school.”

Scarce records show that the city-funded African School was reopened between 1831 and 1834 and then closed again. On August 6, 1836, an article in the Journal advocated reopening.

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“We would like to draw the attention of the citizens of our city to a fact that strongly appeals to their goodwill. It is that in a community that prides itself on allowing the poorest and meanest to enjoy the benefits of education; in a community which professes to sympathize deeply with the deteriorated condition of the colored people of the South… that in this community more than twenty colored children are forced to grow up without any provision for their education… the worst feature of Southern slavery is thus visible in a New England community.

The article continued: “It may be said that our common schools are open to colored children as well as to others. But in fact this is not so. The law may give them privileges, but the prejudice that exists against people of color effectively and effectively excludes these children from our public schools.”

Eight years later, another article in The Journal argued against the continuation of the African School. “There is no obstacle for colored children to attend the regular schools, and the experiment with a segregated school shows that there are not enough materials to make an object to continue it.”

In 1846 the High School Committee was voted to oversee the African School. The committee, made up of the president of each of Portsmouth’s three school districts, secured classroom space and hired the teachers. The curriculum included reading, spelling, definition, arithmetic, geography and writing. Under this committee, the African School stabilized and remained open annually until its last day in 1855.

There were at least nine teachers for the school, including Esther Prince Mullineaux (ca. 1782-1868), daughter of Prince and Dinah Chase Whipple. Esther followed in her mother’s footsteps as a teacher. According to the Portsmouth Annual Report, 1838-1839, she taught school in a rented room on Daniel Street for three and a half months from late 1838 to early 1839.

Lavinia Clark (1809-1887) worked from at least 1846 until the school closed in 1855. Lavinia was white and the daughter of silversmith Joseph Clark Jr. and Emma “Amey” Ackerman Clark. Unmarried, Lavinia lived with her widowed sister, Emma Clark March, in her home on the corner of Court and Rogers streets until her death.

In 1847, the High School Committee of Andrew P. Peabody, Christopher S. Toppan, and Samuel Cushman praised Lavinia and summarized in the committee’s annual report why the school was needed.

“Your committee, as directed by the vote of the town, has taken control of the African School under Miss Clark. Her work has been faithful and successful. The scholars have made improvements equal to those of scholars of the same degree in our public schools. While there is no intrinsic reason for excluding children of this class from the other public schools, especially as the experiment of their admission without injury has been tried in Salem, Cambridge, Nantucket, and other towns and cities in Massachusetts, your committee is decided believes that a separate African School had better be substantial for now.

“The prejudice which would exclude them from the public schools is, in our opinion, vulgar and unworthy, yet it is strong and widespread, and if we should undertake to put an end to it too quickly, the colored children would only are exposed to insult and suffering, which they may indeed do. escaping loudly on the way to and from their current school.”

In 1849 the part-time school was expanded to a full day for nine months and a half day for three months.

Over the years, the Portsmouth School Department rented several rooms in the city as schoolrooms to house its students. On a few occasions the African School used rented rooms in Daniel Street, but perhaps one of the most consistently rented spaces for the African School was the South Parish Sunday School (South Vestry) in Court Street, a fact of which was recently discovered.

According to the annual report for 1832-1833, the African School occupied the meeting house when Silas Durkee (1798-1878), physician and member of the school committee, was a teacher for a short time. Twelve years later, in 1845-46, the African School was again listed as occupying the South Parish Sunday School when Lavinia Clark was the teacher.

It is believed that the African School occupied this building for about six years, until 1851-52, when there were thirteen students, five girls and eight boys.

Over the next two years this number dropped to ten students, but in 1854–55 the number fell to just two students.

Why this sudden and steep decline? Perhaps families have moved or students have gotten older.

Another reason for the decline in enrollment may be the conditions of the room where the school was now held. In 1854-55 the High School Committee reported that ‘the African School is kept in a room unfit for any man, where the sun is excluded almost all the day, and where the water enters through both the roof and the door. .”

On April 21, 1855, the High School Committee (then Samuel M. Demerritt, William Lamson and Abraham Wendell) voted that the African School should be discontinued on May 1, and the two students were ‘distributed among the several schools of the departments from which they belong.”

In the city report of 1855-1856, the committee concluded: “Whatever sensibility existed in the minds of our citizens in regard to this change, has, we are glad to believe, entirely disappeared now that the experiment has been made.”

A look at the students at Portsmouth’s African School

Although no school roster for Portsmouth’s African school has been found, the 1850 census listed at least seven pupils.

Sarah M. Johnson, 13, and her brother Charles, 5, went to school. Their widowed mother, Emma “Amey” Johnson, 38, worked as a laundress, and the family lived on Holmes Court with their older sister, Lucy.

In the 1860 census, three members of the Johnson family worked for wealthy families in Portsmouth. Amey was a housekeeper and her son Charles was a clerk, and they worked for merchant Martin P. Jones and his wife Maria on State Street. Sarah worked as a housekeeper for druggist David Kimball and his wife Caroline on Austin Street.

Thomas Wentworth, 8, and his younger sister Jane, 6, also attended the school. Their widowed father, Job Wentworth, 53, was a laborer and the family lived in Tanner Street. Two other children in the household, Elizabeth A. Webb, 8, and Henry, 5, were not attending school.

Mariner John T. Brown, 48, and his wife, Annette, 41, lived on Washington Street with their four children and Annette’s mother, Sylvia Hall Johnson, 76. Three of their four children attended school: Elijah, 13; Rebekah, 8; and George, 5.

The Portsmouth Athenaeum, 9 Market Square, is a non-profit membership library and museum founded in 1817. The research library and Randall Gallery are open Tuesday through Saturday, 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM. For more information, call 603-431-2538 or visit portsmouthathenaeum.org .