The Institute for Colored Youth Project: Discovering the Life and Career of James L. Smallwood

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This week, with the assistance of our advisor, Dr. Judith Giesberg, Michael Johnson, James Kopaczewski, and I have been finalizing research on brief biographies of Institute for Colored Youth students from the graduating classes of 1856-1864. Our goal is to create an educational website about ICY, accessible for students and the general public. The Institute for Colored Youth was a highly elite school for African American teenagers and young adults, drawing students from Philadelphia and surrounding areas. It provided students with advanced training in mathematics, classics, history, composition, and literature. While most of ICY’s graduates became teachers, many also held significant social and political roles in the African American community, advocating for causes such as voting suffrage and support of the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. The most well-known ICY graduates included activists Octavius V. Catto and Jacob C. White, Jr.

The genealogical research to determine what the students did after graduation has been both highly satisfying and somewhat exasperating. Several of the students had very common surnames and appear to have vanished into time. As a historian, I feel an ethical responsibility to not allow the students with easily identifiable names or extraordinary accomplishments to overshadow the importance of classmates who became day laborers, merchants, and teachers in ordinary schools. It makes the search all the more rewarding when we can find information on these students.

Earlier this week, I was very fortunate to locate potentially significant details on one of the students with an elusive biography. During the summer semester, I worked in the VU History Department office and spent some time browsing Falvey Library’s copy of Ancestry.com to locate census records for ICY students. James L. Smallwood, ICY class of 1864, had a puzzling (potential) census record. The 1880 census for York, Pennsylvania (far west of Philadelphia) listed a “James L. Smallwood” born in 1845, as a “schoolteacher”. He lived with his mother, and his race was identified as Black. I was intrigued; most of ICY’s students became teachers and his birthdate matched with a likely age for an ICY student. I thought about the record and decided that due to the distant location, it would be difficult to infer that this was the same James L. Smallwood. I continued to research Smallwood throughout the summer without much luck.

I decided to attempt several general searches again. The Institute for Colored Youth’s 1871 Annual Report simply lists Smallwood as a “teacher in Pennsylvania,” without Philadelphia specificity. I found a James L. Smallwood mentioned in the African American Christian Recorder newspaper as a District Deputy Grandmaster Mason for York County, PA. This would indicate that the York Smallwood held a prominent position in his community. Finally, the most fascinating information appeared: James L. Smallwood’s 1885 grave in Lebanon Cemetery, York, and an incredible marker on South Pershing Avenue:

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“James Smallwood Schoolhouse. Built in 1892, this school was part of a movement to create schools for the education of black students by black teachers, and is representative of the national struggle for equal education, regardless of race. Named in memory of James Smallwood, elected teacher of the city’s first colored school in 1871.”

There is still no definitive evidence that this was ICY’s Smallwood. However, many ICY graduates opened pioneering schools like the one in York. Smallwood could have been sent to Philadelphia to be educated in the 1860s, returning to his mother’s home in York as a bachelor teacher. Following their graduation, ICY’s newly minted teachers traveled all over the East Coast. It remains highly possible that this was the same person.

As luck would have it, my family lives a half hour away from York, and I happened to be at home on Thursday of this week. Needless to say, I made an impromptu field trip to see the grave and marker.

Lebanon Cemetery is a visually striking place. It is an exclusively African American cemetery in the middle of the city, with graves dating from the early nineteenth century to the present. Part of the cemetery is built on a rolling hill. Thursday was September 11th, and I was moved by the vast rows of flag-dotted veterans’ graves. Smallwood’s grave was almost immediately recognizable. His tombstone was larger than most of the others (perhaps indicating prominent social status), and simply contained the information that he died in 1885 at age 45. I enjoyed seeing this site and thinking that I could have been standing by the resting place of someone I researched for such a long time.

Locating the historical marker was difficult, but it eventually appeared between S. Pershing Avenue and W. College Street in York. The schoolhouse no longer stands. It was replaced by another type of modern training facility.

Regardless of whether this James L. Smallwood can be conclusively linked to the Institute for Colored Youth, it was fascinating to see another important location on the map of nineteenth century African American urban schools and honor Smallwood’s memory. Locating the “lost” voices of everyday people is the 21st century historian’s greatest task, and many of Villanova’s students and faculty members are engaging in this pursuit. Dr. Judith Giesberg recently published Emilie Davis’s Civil War, a memoir of an everyday African American woman living in Philadelphia during the 1860s. Dr. Catherine Kerrison’s latest project, Jefferson’s Daughters, attempts to construct the identity of Harriet Hemings, the formerly enslaved daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings who disguised herself in white society and raised a family. Every James L. Smallwood, Emilie Davis, and Harriet Hemings we locate enables us to have a broader and more unique understanding of history. From the people we study, we realize the incredible elements that make up each “average” person’s life.

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11 Comments

  1. The first site for the school was on 7th and Lombard. In 1866, the school moved to a bigger facility at 9th and Bainbridge. While the first school building no longer exists, part of the 9th street building still stands as an apartment complex. There is also a historic marker out front. It’s actually interesting to think about the neighborhood now, as it is both a hip, trendy area and one that is full of history.

  2. As a fellow YoCo native and York College alum, it’s embarrassing for me to admit that I was unaware of these fantastic pieces of history right in my own backyard. Thanks for this article, Elizabeth. I know what I’ll be checking out the next time I’m home.

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