Historical Markers
Institute for Colored Youth Historical Marker
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Institute for Colored Youth

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
915 Bainbridge St., Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

The Institute for Colored Youth, Philadelphia, PA, circa 1900.
Legend has it that his experience as a slave trader and subsequent conversion to the Society of Friends persuaded philanthropist Richard Humphreys to commit part of his personal fortune to the education of black children in Philadelphia. Witnessing several violent race riots throughout the city in the last years of his life also may have convinced Humphreys that education was the key to African-American progress in the City of Brotherly Love.

Whatever his motivation, 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 college in America."
Image of Bassett, Catto, Campbell, White, and others in ovals
Celebrated faculty of Philadelphia's Institute for Colored Youth, 1850s-1890s.

The establishment of the Institute for Colored Youth was intimately connected to African-American struggles for social freedom and economic opportunity in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Nor can the Institute's founding be separated from the expanding network of Quaker benevolence that included several charitable schools for poor children and children of color.

In his landmark sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro (1899), markerW.E.B. Du Bois estimated that at the time the Institute was formally chartered in 1842 nearly half of Philadelphia's African-American population was illiterate and unprepared to compete in the expanding industrial economy. Hence the school's mandate to "instruct the descendants of the African race in school learning," with an emphasis on the "various branches of the mechanic arts and trades, and agriculture." The charge was also in keeping with the instinct for vocational and manual training to complement a more classical education. With the Commonwealth's new emphasis on teacher training in 1857 it also made sense to add a normal-school division.

Over the years a remarkable group of faculty and students expanded the reputation of the Institute for Colored Youth, and marker demonstrated African-American educational achievement. Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett served as Principal for thirteen years beginning in 1856, before becoming Minister to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Bassett had a powerful influence on the intellectual quality of the Institute program, and he attracted many excellent students. Perhaps the most famous was markerOctavius V. Catto,1858 class valedictorian and an accomplished instructor and civil-rights activist.(Catto also presented marker a brief history of the ICY in 1864 presented a brief history of the school in 1864.)

Head and Shoulders portrait.
Fanny Jackson Coppin, circa 1910.
Catto's murder following an 1871 voting rights rally brought national attention on the fledgling institution. About the time of Catto's death, Richard T. Greener, the first African-American graduate of Harvard University, joined the faculty. Five years later, Edward A. Bouchet, Yale's first black doctoral graduate, accepted appointment. This early generation of outstanding black faculty instilled a measure of racial pride that added a sense of social purpose to the academic regime.

Without a doubt,marker Fanny Jackson Coppin, the Institute's Principal from 1869 to 1902, set the tone for high achievement and cultural distinction in the school's early history. Born into slavery, Coppin graduated from Oberlin College and came east to teach in the Institute's high-school division. Fanny Jackson married Levi Coppin, who rose to prominence in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Another AME elder, Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, served as her mentor.

Fanny Coppin succeeded Bassett as Principal in 1869 and served the second longest tenure in the school's history. She transformed the institution at each level (grammar, high school, and normal), expanding and modernizing the curriculum and improving outreach and fund-raising. It was Coppin who hired many of the distinguished faculty members that gave the Institute its character. And in an age of pervasive racial discrimination following Reconstruction, Coppin created a network of friendly benefactors across the country. On a personal level, Fanny Coppin combined the qualities of intellectual curiosity, religious piety, and practical duty she encouraged in the faculty and students.

"However brilliant a person may be intellectually," she wrote in her autobiography, "however skillful in the arts and sciences, he must be reliable; he must be trustworthy."

Group photograph
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Faculty, Institute for Colored Youth, Cheyney, PA, 1905.
In 1883, William Adger, a member of the class of '75, became the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. Late in her Institute career, Coppin oversaw plans to move the growing school to a new site at Cheney Station, Pennsylvania. She left the institution after the 1902 commencement ceremony to help establish Coppin State College in Maryland. The move was completed the next year. Beginning in 1914, the Institute for Colored Youth underwent several name changes identified with its new location.

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.

What began as a private church-affiliated institution for poor children has evolved over time into a state institution of higher education with an international student body. The University occupies the land purchased more than a century ago. Now a full-fledged liberal arts institution enrolling 1,550 undergraduate and 160 graduate students, Cheyney draws students from throughout the Greater Philadelphia region and beyond. Ed Bradley, the recently deceased CBS news correspondent, is the most recent of a long line of distinguished graduates.
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