previous next


Chapter 58: beginning of Howard University

In my earlier interviews with Mr. Stanton in May, 1865, I claimed that the education of the freedmen's children, and of adults, as far as practicable, was the true relief.

“Relief from what” asked Stanton, glancing toward me over his colored glasses.

“Relief from beggary and dependence,” I replied.

I had the same opinion with reference to our numerous “white refugees” of the South, though it was believed that they would naturally be incorporated in ordinary schools there without such prejudice to their interests as existed against the negro population.

Very soon all my assistants agreed with me that it would not be long before we must have negro teachers, if we hoped to secure a permanent foothold for our schools. This conclusion had become plain from the glimpses already given into Southern society. Naturally enough, the most Christian of the Southern people would prefer to have white teachers from among themselves. Feeling a sympathy for this seeming home prejudice, quite early in 1866, I tried the experiment in one State, in cooperation with the Episcopal Bishop of that State, to put over our school children Southern white teachers, male and female, but the bishop and I found that their faith in negro education [391] was too small, and their ignorance of practical teaching too great, to admit of any reasonable degree of success. After trial and failure it was given up. But faith and enthusiasm combined to give the negro teachers a marvelous progress. Of course, in the outset there were few negroes in the United States who were properly fitted to teach. The most who had a smattering of learning could not speak the English language with a reasonable correctness. It was then a plain necessity to have schools which could prepare teachers. My own sentiment often found vent when I was visited by men of opposite convictions — the one set saying that no high schools or colleges were wanted for the freedmen, and the other declaring their immediate and pressing necessity. My own thought favored the latter, but not with haste. It was given in this form: “You cannot keep up the lower grades unless you have the higher.” Academies and colleges, universities and normal schools, had long been a necessity in all sections where the free schools had been continuously sustained.

A brief experience showed us that the negro people were capable of education, with no limit that men could set to their capacity. What white men could learn or had learned, they, or some of them, could learn. There was one school diagonally across the street from my headquarters, named the Wayland Seminary. The pupils were from fourteen to twenty years of age. It was taught in 1866 by a lady, who, herself, was not only a fine scholar, but a thoroughly trained teacher. One day the Hon. Kenneth Raynor, of North Carolina, whom I had long known and valued as a personal friend, came to my room to labor with me and show me how unwise were some of my ideas. [392]

He said in substance about this educating the freedmen:

General Howard, do you not know that you are educating the colored youth above their business t You will only destroy them. Those young girls, for example; they will be too proud or vain to work, and the consequence will be that they will go to dance houses and other places of improper resort.

“ Why, my friend,” I replied, “do you really think that I am astonished That is not the way education affects the Yankee girls. Come with me to the Wayland school, across the street.”

We went together to the large school building and entered the commodious room where the school was just commencing its morning exercises. After extending a pleasant welcome, the teacher gave us seats well back, where we could see the blackboards, which were near her desk, and the open school organ at her left, ready for use. She first sent up two nice-looking girls, of about fifteen years, to the instrument. One played, and the other, like a precentor, led the school in singing. There was evident culture in the singing and playing, and none of the melody was wanting. My friend's eyes moistened; but he whispered: “They always could sing”

Next, we had a class of reading. It was grateful to cultured ears to have sentences well read and words correctly pronounced. Spelling and defining followed, with very few mistakes. The recitations at the blackboard in arithmetic that next came on were remarkable. To test the pupils beyond their text, I went forward and placed some hard problems there. With readiness and intelligence they were solved. The politeness and bearing of these young people to one another, to the [393] teacher, and to us, struck my good friend with astonishment. Such a school, even of whites, so orderly, so well trained, and so accomplished, Mr. Raynor had seldom seen. As we returned across the street, arm in arm, he said to me: “General, you have converted me!” This fine seminary was tantamount to a normal school. It was preparing many excellent teachers for their subsequent work.

Miss M. R. Mann, a niece of the Hon. Horace Mann, through the aid of Massachusetts friends, had a handsome school building constructed in Washington, D. C., and it had the best possible appliances furnished-all for her own use. She charged tuition, except for those whose purpose was avowed to become teachers. She commenced at the foundation of instruction, and led her pupils step by step on and up, class by class, as high as she could conveniently take them. She began the enterprise in December, 1865. Pupils of different ages were admitted, so that teachers, still in embryo, might learn by experiment. It became before long the model school of the District of Columbia. The neatness and order, the elegant rooms for reciting, and the high grade of Miss Mann's classes in recitations always attracted and surprised visitors. From this school, also, several teachers graduated and proved themselves able and worthy in their subsequent successful career.

There were various other schools, as we know, in the United States which had been long in existence, preparing colored teachers, physicians, ministers, lawyers, and others for the coming needs of the new citizens-notably Oberlin College; Wilberforce University, of Xenia, O.; Berea Academy, Ky.; The Theological Institute (Baptist) at Washington, D. C., and Ashmun [394] Institute at Oxford, Pa. The institute also for colored youth in Philadelphia, founded in 1837 by the bequest of a Friend, Richard Humphreys, was designed to teach agriculture and mechanical arts, and prepare teachers for their profession. By other gifts, and by the help of benevolent and friendly associations, this institute had come, in 1866, to have a capacity for three hundred (300) pupils; it was fairly endowed and doing well, giving excellent results. Its teachers were all colored persons. It had that year 48 graduates, 31 of whom became teachers. Still, notwithstanding these sources of supply, the need for more teachers was constant, and if any general system of free schools should be adopted, the demand would be a hundred times beyond the possibility of meeting it by competent instructors.

As the work of carrying forward the schools developed, the old negro clergymen of every name became inadequate for the religious instruction of the more enlightened people. Many ministers felt themselves to be unlearned, and so sought such knowledge of books as they could get. Negro pharmacists and other medical men were soon required, and contentions with white men in the courts demanded friendly advocates at law.

Under the evident and growing necessity for higher education, in 1866 and 1867, a beginning was made. Various good schools of a collegiate grade were started in the South, and normal classes were about this time added, as at Hampton, Charleston, Atlanta, Macon, Savannah, Memphis, Louisville, Mobile, Talladega, Nashville, New Orleans, and elsewhere.

In every way, as commissioner, I now encouraged the higher education, concerning which there was so [395] much interest, endeavoring to adhere to my principle of Government aid in dealing with the benevolent associations. These, by 1867, had broken away from a common union, and were again pushing forward their denominational enterprises, but certainly, under the Bureau's supervision, nowhere did they hurtfully interfere with one another.

Each denomination desired to have, here and there, a college of its own. Such institutions the founders and patrons were eager to make different from the simple primary or grammar schools; these, it was hoped and believed, would be eventually absorbed in each State in a great free school system. The educators naturally wished to put a moral and Christian stamp upon their students, especially upon those who would become instructors of colored youth. My own strong wish was ever to lay permanent substructures and build thereon as rapidly as possible, in order to give as many good teachers, professional men, and leaders to the rising generation of freedmen as we could, during the few years of Governmental control.

One of the institutions for the higher education of the negro which has maintained ample proportions and also bears my own name, warrants me in giving somewhat in detail its origin and my connection with it.

The latter part of 1866, a few gentlemen, at the instance of Rev. F. B. Morris, who held an important Governmental office at the capital, and was a benevolent and scholarly man, came together at the house of Mr. A. Brewster, on K Street, Washington.

There had been two or three of such informal meetings, consisting mainly of residents of Washington, when Senators Wilson and Pomeroy, B. O. Cook, Member of the House, and myself were invited to this respectable [396] self-constituted council, November 20, 1866. Nearly all of the dozen or more gentlemen who were present, and among them Rev. Dr. C. B. Boynton, the pastor of the Congregational Church of the city, were Congregationalists. A preliminary organization was already in existence. The subject under discussion for this time was a place for a theological school for the colored preachers and those who were to become such, that their teachings should be of value. Mr. H. D. Nichols moved that the new institution be entitled “Howard Theological Seminary.” That name was adopted. Mr. Morris and some others were in the outset in favor of connecting with the seminary some industrial features; and, to show my good will, I made the same offer, being authorized by the law, that I had been making to other educational associations, that if they would furnish a proper lot, I would cause to be erected thereon, by the Bureau, a suitable building. I believed it wiser not to use my name, but it was remarked sportively “there are other Howards.”

At a meeting December 4, 1866, there was in ideas and proposals considerable progress manifested. At first, I had desired delay, thinking that the time was hardly ripe for a large institution at the capital; but, seeing the enthusiasm and fixed purpose of this body of some fourteen gentlemen, a few of whom I now observed were Presbyterians and two or three of other persuasions, I participated in their discussions. “Howard Normal and Theological Institute for the Education of Teachers and Preachers,” was the new title adopted.

On January 8, 1867, at another gathering, Dr. Boynton was elected the president of the preliminary board. At this session my brother, General C. H. [397] Howard, then assistant commissioner of the district and vicinity, moved a committee to plan a law department--a medical department having already been favorably canvassed. Thus, little by little, the idea of a university grew upon the preliminary board, the project of an institution which should have many separate departments acting together under one board of trustees. At this January sitting, an important committee was named to obtain a charter. It consisted of Senators Wilson and Pomeroy and Hon. B. C. Cook; and in anticipation of funds, General George W. Balloch was elected treasurer of the university. The institution had already stepped up into the dignity of another name, to wit: “Howard University.” I had, during the discussion, continued to oppose that name, not only from modesty, but from my feeling that I could do more privately and officially for an enterprise that did not bear my own name; I did not wish to be suspected and accused of raising a monument to myself. But the universal voice was against me; in fact, the naming did little harm, for it was not long before the name, even in a public address to the students, was imputed by a distinguished English divine to John Howard, the philanthropist. The charter was easily obtained, having seventeen charter members. The incorporation title was: “An Act to incorporate the Howard University in the District of Columbia.” It was approved by the President of the United States March 2, 1867.

The enactment required a board of trustees of not less than thirteen members to be chosen by the incorporators.

The scope of the university, in keeping with my own plan for that institution, is indicated in the charter: to consist of six designated departments and such [398] others as the trustees may establish-first, normal; second, collegiate; third, theological; fourth, law; fifth, medicine; sixth, agriculture. Under this charter, Howard University was set in motion.

General Whittlesey and I were very soon appointed a committee to look up a site. We had visited various parts of the District of Columbia without being able to get an option for our purpose, when, one day, we were standing near the place where the largest structure of Howard University now is. Whittlesey had been there before and liked the site. It was now evident to us both that we could not find a more appropriate place. The outlook, taking in the city of Washington, the monument, the Capitol, the White House, and other public buildings, and a grand expanse besides, including miles of the Potomac, could not be better. To locate good structures there would make weight for the manhood of those whom we especially purposed to benefit by a university education.

Together we went to the house of the owner of the estate, Mr. John A. Smith; it was situated just beyond the present location of the President's house. The cottage Was almost hidden by a small grove of trees. We found Mr. Smith, with his wife and two or three members of his family. As we sat together, I tried to get Mr. Smith to promise a third of his farm. He claimed to have 150 acres. Some time before this the Bureau had purchased a small lot nearer the city of this Mr. Smith, with an old dance house on it, to use it for educational purposes, and had rented the same to the trustees for the first university school. It would unify the proposed departments if we could now make a favorable bargain with Mr. Smith. But he insisted on selling the whole at one thousand dollars ($1,000) per [399] acre, or none at all. General Whittlesey was of the opinion that in a few years' time enough of such a property could be sold to pay Mr. Smith's price, and still leave us a reasonable portion as a reserve for our use. I, too, felt sure of it. Suddenly, I said: “Mr. Smith, what terms will you give us on the whole tract”

He answered: “One third down and the balance in one and two years.”

“All right,” I answered, “we will take the land provided you give us a clear title.”

His wife turned pale at the suddenness of the bargain, and there was evident excitement in all the company present. After we had left the house, General Whittlesey, who was a good business man, remarked with a smile: “Well, general, if the trustees do not sustain us in this purchase, we can handle it without them.”

We were sustained by our board, though the question of money troubled them. Time was gained by finding that there were several incumbrances which required negotiation and settlement. At last, Mr. Smith deducted on this account two thousand dollars ($2,000) and the settled price became one hundred and fortyseven thousand five hundred dollars ($147,500). General Whittlesey and Mr. R. M. Hall were constituted our land agents with power to advertise and convey. The trustees authorized them to make surveys and maps, and instructed them to sell all the lots over and above the University Reservation.

Later, in his report to our board, which unkind criticism had drawn out, Whittlesey made several interesting statements; for instance he wrote: “When appointed the agent of the board the task was set [400] before me of solving the financial problem of making one half or two thirds of the land purchased pay for the whole. This I have done. My success has been a happy surprise to myself. My work is open to fair criticism, but I am not willing to be subjected to unjust censure.” He just then demurred at the yoke of extraordinary surveillance that was sought to be imposed upon him, and he asked them to find another agent in whom they could repose ordinary confidence exercised among business men.

In the same paper, Whittlesey said:

The truth is, the board of trustees have had very little to do with the purchase of this property. They did not encourage it. Several members expressed opposition to the whole project.

The work was done by General Howard and by me, acting under his authority. The entire responsibility was thrown upon us. Had it been a failure, we should have borne the disgrace, and the board would have declared itself free from all blame. It has not failed, and every person in the land, who has at heart the welfare of the university and the good of those for whom it is designed, must rejoice.

How to meet the primary payment was my first problem. Some gifts had come to our university treasury, but they were not enough. The university treasurer showed that the first amount to be paid to Mr. Smith was twenty thousand dollars ($20,000). To meet that and other expenses in starting this enterprise, there was in the hands of the Bureau disbursing officer a residue of “the refugees and freedmen's fund.” And as I had the authority of law in the Appropriation Act for March 2, 1867, to use it at my discretion for education, after reflection, I resolved to [401] transfer thirty thousand dollars ($30,000) to the Howard University treasury, and did so by a carefully drawn order dated April 15, 1867. The university treasurer, being duly authorized by the trustees, receipted for the same. Thus the treasurer now had ample means to meet the first payment.

July 2d of this same year the executive committee of Howard University wrote to the board: “The number of lots sold is 245, and their average value, as estimated by Mr. R. M. Hall, their agent, is six hundred dollars ($600) each, and the total value one hundred and forty-seven thousand dollars ($147,000),” so that the university treasury was fairly well supplied, as the deferred payments from lots, from time to time, came in.

Able instructors, meanwhile, were selected. A normal department and a preparatory to fit young men and women for teachers and for college courses were well under way before the end of the year. More than 100 pupils were enrolled, and a small college class formed. Theological lectures and careful teaching were given to an assembly of colored ministers of various denominations, who had been but partially prepared for their work in their churches. The task of planning suitable structures, and of erecting them, went steadily on. Applications were numerous for the admission of students from all parts of the country.

Thus I have indicated the beginnings of that large institution, which has already given to intelligent youth at the nation's capital, whatever might have been their previous condition, the benefits of a complete collegiate course and of a thorough professional training.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: