Harmful language note: This article contains historical accounts and language used to describe Black people that reflect racist and ableist attitudes.
In 1833, just over 120 years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision making segregated schools illegal, the Perkins Trustees unanimously accepted a resolution stating the school’s duty to admit Black students. As a prominent and well-known abolitionist, Samuel Gridley Howe was determined to make sure his school exemplified his beliefs. A number of historic resources, including primary sources in the Perkins Archives along with correspondence in other collections and The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper, document the process of admitting the first Black student to Perkins – and that it wasn’t without challenges.
In 1833, a Black woman brought her four year old daughter to the Perkins Institution seeking admission (Trent, 105). At the time, the school was still housed in Howe’s father’s house on Pearl Street (Trent, 105). Howe recalled the incident in the 1845 Annual Report, remembering that the woman “was kindly received,” but because her child was under four years old, she was too young to be a student at the Institution (15). According to Howe, she left “apparently pleased with her reception, and satisfied with the decision” (15). Howe explained in an 1853 letter to Horace Mann that he advised the woman to return when the child was older, and “promised” to receive the child at that time (Houghton).
After learning that Howe had refused admission to the Black child, Mann wrote that he was “distressed” over the decision (Trent, 105). Mann wrote to a friend, Elizabeth Peabody, in August 1833 that Howe was concerned that a Black student at the Institution may offend his wealthy local supporters (Trent, 105).
At the September monthly board meeting following the inquiry, the subject was formally raised and referred to a Committee. The next month, at the October 3, 1833 meeting, the report stating that “it was the duty of the Institution to receive colored pupils” was unanimously accepted (1845 Annual Report, 15).
Just one year after the school opened to students, the “Committee Resolution on Admittance of Colored Students” was unanimously accepted at the October 3, 1833 Board meeting. The document read:
The Committee appointed to take into consideration the subject of admission of Colored pupils. [beg] have to report-
That it is our duty to receive them (crossed out: provided) and we recommend that they be admitted whenever (crossed out: in the opinion of the Director and the Committee of the Trustees,) they can be accommodated with rooms and board separate from the other pupils
John Dix Fisher
Oct. 3 1833
Despite the board’s 1833 decision to admit Black students, rumors and speculation continued. As someone closely aligned with a number of progressive interests, Howe’s peers sought to hold him accountable. In January 1834, Benjamin Davenport reported to Massachuestts legislator Effingham L. Capron that Howe would not admit Black students to the school. In May 1834, at the New England Anti-Slavery Society Convention, Reverend John M.S. Perry read Davenport’s letter and “denounced the refusal” of Perkins to admit “a colored boy” from Uxbridge, referring to Sullivan Anthony (Trent, 105). Perry said that Howe justified the exclusion by saying that, “We may have some pupils from the South, and if we admit this blind colored boy into our Institution, it may make it unpopular there” (Picket, 14). These public remarks brought great attention to Perkins and Howe’s policies on admitting Black students, both in local and national abolitionist publications.
Howe had initially expressed concern in 1833 that admitting a Black student would cause problems with students from other states and prevent states from sending their children who were blind to Perkins. At the time, in addition to the New England states, South Carolina contracted with the Institution for the education of their “indigent blind children.” The arrangement with South Carolina remained in place until the beginning of the Civil War in 1865 (Trent, 294). Reflecting on the situation years later, Howe suggested in the 1845 Annual Report that admission was initially objected to because “more harm might be done if the admission of the boy kept others away, than could be done for him” (15).
Howe was also concerned about space because of the growing number of students. The school was first located in his father’s house and then in the slightly larger Perkins mansion. There was not room for additional students, “colored or otherwise,” (Trent, 106). It is noted in the Committee’s report that Black students were to be housed separately from white students, an arrangement which, perhaps, could have claimed more limited space than if the students had been permitted to board together. In reality, however, reports indicate that Black students were not segregated by race.
In February 1835, a poem describing an interaction between a Black woman seeking an education for her son and the director at “an Asylum for blind children in Boston” was published in The Liberator. The poem is introduced by explaining that, “There was an Asylum for blind children in Boston, but the directors refused to admit [the little blind boy] because he was colored!” (emphasis in original). It goes on to claim that the mother said that, “They told me–and scornfully bade me go back, they’d have nothing to do with a child that was black” (1845 Annual Report, 16; Liberator, 2/1835). The poem describes how the boy begs his mother to let him go to the school and how distraught and confused he is after his mother explains that the school will not admit him because he is Black.
Because the poem referred to “an Asylum for blind children in Boston,” it was assumed that the author was referring to Howe and Perkins, even though the mother who visited Perkins in 1833 was inquiring about an education for her daughter, not a “little black boy.”. Howe asserted that all applications were taken by the Director and that neither such an interview took place, nor that such language was used. To address the poem, Howe published a letter in The Liberator, but the story continued to circulate (1845 Annual Report, 16).
During the summer of 1835, a number of letters were published in The Liberator, including some from Howe himself. Howe first addressed the poem in a letter to the editors dated July 6 (published in the July 18 issue). He writes that he “must beg you to correct a false impression which you have helped to make” by publishing the poem, which he declares as “deficient in one small point–truth!” (emphasis in original). He goes on to explain that, to his knowledge, “one colored woman ever applied” to the school for the admission of her son. Her son, however, was “too young to be benefitted by our mode of instruction,” but the woman was “satisfied with the period which was fixed upon for the admission of her boy as a pupil…”. He writes that the Trustees have “never refused to admit applicants on account of color” and have been enlarging the campus. When the school reopens in Boston, he says, “applicants of any color will be received”.
In the next issue of The Liberator, dated July 25, 1835, Lydia Maria Child, a prominent author and abolitionist who was a leader of the Anti-Slavery Society, sent her reply to Howe for the editors to publish. She wrote that “there was a foundation in truth for the lines [of the poem] which have given offense” (emphasis in original). In her letter to Howe, she provides three points as evidence of the poem’s truthfulness: First, she cites Rev. Perro’s speech at the Anti-Slavery Convention in May 1834, highlighting that Howe “candidly” stated that the potential effect on the Institution’s reputation, particularly with potential students from the South, as his reason for the rejection.
Second, she shares a letter that Mr. Effingham L. Capron received from Benjamin Davenport about the requirements for the Institution’s funding. The state provided money for a certain number of students to be educated. Davenport’s letter asserts that spots were available when the inquiry was made. Davenport writes that when he inquired about why the boy had been rejected, the Governor informed him that “he had no objections to granting [the student] a certificate [to attend]; but the Trustees of the Institution objected” (emphasis in original). He also repeats the belief that “the objection made by Doctor Howe is, if they should have pupils from the South, their parents or friends would not like to have them in the same school with colored children!”
Finally, she describes a conversation that she had with a mutual acquaintance. She claims that the woman told her that Dr. John Dix Fisher said that “Doctor Howe and himself think colored children ought to be excluded, lest their admission should cause the Southerners to keep away their children”.
Childs finishes her letter by suggesting that Howe’s rebuttal relies partly on the language used in the accusation: “You say the Trustees of the Institution never did refuse to admit a colored child.” Referencing Howe’s explanation of the inquiry, she continues, “I supposed that application was never formally made to the Trustees, as a Board.” Childs says that she is “glad to hear the Trustees have voted to admit colored pupils” and shares her reaction to the rumored reasoning: “When I was told that you thought it right to exclude colored pupils, lest offence should be given to Southern parents, I was sorry for one whom I entertained in a friendly regard, should think and utter such wretched time-serving sentiments…. I rejoice to hear you declare yourself incapable of acting the inhuman part, to which these sentiments must, of course, lead, if brought into action.”
In the August 1, 1835 issue of The Liberator, Howe offered his response to Childs, including the letter he sent her outside of the publication, noting that he did not have a chance to respond to it before she had it printed in the previous issue. In his letter to Childs, he responds to and addresses each of the points raised in her July 18 (published July 25) letter. He explains, for example, that he “considered it to be the imperative duty of the Trustees, to admit colored pupils as soon as possible…” He goes on to admit, however, that “among the disadvantages attendant upon such reception, I have mentioned the effect it would have in keeping away many who might otherwise be benefitted” (emphasis in original).
He states that only “minor parts” of his statement were laid before the Anti-Slavery Convention and “were all that couple be of service in the business of agitating and exciting the passions.” He writes that his remark cited in Davenport’s message is “not stated fairly or fully” and that Davenport knew “it was an imperfect, a partial, and disingenuous statement.”
To address the conversation Childs claims to have had with a mutual acquaintance, Howe said that the sentiments attributed to him and Fisher “were never uttered” by either man (emphasis in original). and that, after consulting with Fisher, the same is true for him. In fact, he writes, Fisher “denies that any such conversation” ever took place between him and the woman (emphasis in original).
Finally, Howe discusses the Trustees’ work and motivation. To Childs’ suggestion that the Trustees passed their resolution as a response to “The Little Black Boy,” Howe points out that he only became aware of the poem over a year after the resolution had been approved. He goes on to explain that “when the subject was first brought before the Trustees, (…) it was immediately committed in course to a Committee,” at the next month’s meeting, the Committee reported that “it was the duty of the Board to receive colored pupils” and the resolution was accepted. Once accepted, however, the logistics of accepting more students, “particularly…colored ones,” had to be considered. Simply put, the school needed to raise funds to “extend the premises.”
At the beginning of his letter, Howe states that he “shall avoid all farther newspaper discussion” and invites any interested person to review “the books of the Institution” for “satisfactory proofs” that “the Trustees not only never refused to admit persons on account of color–but that they have had their reception in view, and made preparation for it.”
The editors of The Liberator published three letters in the August 15, 1835 issue that they had received addressing Howe’s response to Childs. They say that they provide “sufficient evidence to substantiate the heavy charge against [Howe[ and the Institution,” and acknowledge that Howe would “fain repel” such evidence. They write that the tone and “sneering language” of Howe’s correspondence is “full of conscious guilt.”
The three letters are written by David L. Child to the Editors, Effingham Capron to Mr. Child, and one from Benjamin Davenport to Capron. Notably, Capron summarizes his interview with Davenport, during which he “corroborated every statement that has been made relative to the blind boy” made by Lydia Childs. Fisher explained to him, he writes, that the Black student “would be admitted after they had removed to the house in Pearl-street, where there would be more room.” He goes on, however, to say that despite Fisher’s assurance, he was “informed that the Trustees had decided not to admit any colored persons, until there should be a sufficient number of applications to form a class of colored persons.” Davenport, however, was concerned that the boy would be too old for admission by the time that happened. He concludes by saying that he is not surprised that “Dr. Howe should feel strong objections to having the reasons for rejecting colored pupils go before the public.” He concedes that Fisher did invite him to visit Perkins, but he was “unexpectedly called away at the time appointment” and was unable to attend.
True to his word, Howe did not respond with another letter to The Liberator. Howe later wrote to friend Charles Sumner that he regretted what he wrote to Childs and, in 1853, wrote a letter offering an apology (Trent, 106).
The first Black student admitted to Perkins was Sullivan D. Anthony (1824-1850). Anthony was nominated for admission by Capron in 1834, but the application was refused because the school was about to relocate to allow renovations to the Pearl Street mansion. When the school returned to South Boston in March 1836, Anthony’s application was accepted and he began his studies in April. In the 1845 Annual Report, Howe reports that initially his tuition was paid by the Trustees and that “as soon as the Institution was removed to South Boston, he was taken into the house….” (17). While at Perkins, Anthony was “treated in every respect like the other pupils,” but struggled to meet the expectations of Perkins for its students (1845 Annual Report, 16). Howe wrote to Capron, assuring him that Anthony “attended the same classes, ate at the same table,” and received the same treatment as other students (Trent, 107).
As a Perkins student, Anthony was taught to make shoe brushes and, like other students, “when he learned as much as was supposed would enable him to get a living by the help of his friends,” he was discharged from the school in 1840 (1845 Annual Report, 16). Perkins continued to supply him with the materials and tools needed and offered to sell “all the brushes that he might make, and every disposition manifested to aid him” (1845 Annual Report, 17). Anthony is listed in the 1850 Annual Report on the list of “Blind Persons Employed in the Work Department” in 1849 and is noted to have earned $74.48 for work done that year (46).
Howe noted in the 1845 Annual Report that another Black student had been admitted and, like Anthony, had “been treated as well as all others will be, according to their merits, and not according to the color of their skins” (17). In the same previously mentioned 1853 letter to Mann, Howe reported that the school had admitted “six other colored persons.”
Thirty years after Sullivan Anthony became a student at Perkins, Howe declared that “The State should admit the right of every child, whether native or foreign, black or white, sound or infirm, to the benefits of instruction at public expense.” He was speaking at an event celebrating the beginning of construction of the New York State Institute for the Blind and went on to reflect on the benefits and importance of special schools for children with disabilities while advocating for improving resources and accessibility of such opportunities (37). Throughout his career, Howe continued to advocate for access to education for children with disabilities, regardless of race. Today, PerkinsSchool for the Blind continues to advocate for children around the world and believes that not only can every child learn, but that education is a human right.
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Coit, Susanna. “Admitting Black students at Perkins in the 1830s.” Perkins Archives Blog. Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA. July 24, 2023.