Regular readers of this blog may remember that my grandmother’s 1898 Battin High School (Elizabeth, NJ) graduating class had two African-Americans among its ranks. Battin High School was recognized at that time as the best high school in the state.
I wrote at length about the class photo I found that included them and went to great lengths to label everyone as best I could; I also posted newspaper articles on the graduation event itself. Click here for that post. I did not, however, look beyond that event to see what was happening at that time in the field of education for members of the African-American community. So I thought I would try to see if I could find out what happened to these two students and also look at newspapers of that period using the Library of Congress’s digital newspaper archives.
As for trying to learn more about the students:
I found a James Morris (b. June 1878, VA) in the 1900 census who was 22 at the time and living with his wife Nannie and two small children, Margaret and Harold, at 10 1/2 Center Street in Elizabeth. His occupation was listed as ‘coachman’; this census asked all citizens whether they could read and write. Both this James and his wife checked ‘yes’. Whether this was the same James, I don’t know. If it was, perhaps he was working as a coachman while going to college. He has such a scholarly look about him, I am inclined to think that he went on to pursue a profession requiring a degree or two.
I found a Mattie Thomas (b. Jan 1879, VA) in the 1900 census who was living and working in the home of a physician and his wife, Harry and Daisy Washington, in Middletown, Monmouth Co., NJ, which is 30 miles south of Elizabeth. I found the same Mattie in the 1880 census as a 1 year old living in Samuel Miller, Virginia, with her parents Alexander (laborer) and Lucinda (homemaker) Thomas and 4 older siblings. At some point she probably got married and changed her last name so finding her in records further down the road may be difficult.
My quick newspaper search resulted in a variety of articles, many from African-American newspapers. Did you know there were 400 in existence across the country by the end of the 1800s?
Some interesting stats from the Wisconsin Weekly Advocate, August 10, 1899, are bulleted below. Note: dollar amounts have NOT been converted to today’s dollar; but bear in mind that in 1898, $1,000 would be $30,072 in today’s currency; also, I have substituted ‘black’ for ‘n—-‘:
- Blacks had reduced their illiteracy rate by 45% in just 35 years
- 1.5 million black children were enrolled in the common schools
- 40,000 blacks were enrolled in higher educational institutions
- 30,000 black teachers were at work in schools
- 20,000 blacks were learning trades
- 1,200 blacks pursuing classical courses
- 1,200 were pursuing scientific courses
- 1,000 blacks were pursuing business courses
- Black libraries held 250,000 volumes
- There were 156 black higher educational institutions
- 500 black doctors
- 300 books written by blacks
- 250 black lawyers
- 3 black banks
- 3 black magazines
- 400 black newspapers
- Value of black libraries: $500,000
- Value of black church property: $37 million
- Value of black-owned farms: $400 million
- Value of black-owned homes (besides farms): $325 million
- Value of personal property: $165 million
- As of this date in 1899, blacks had raised $10 million towards their own education.
- Blacks “are more eager for their education than whites. The whites enrolled 14 percent of their population in 1870, and only 22 percent in 1890”; blacks enrolled “3 percent in 1870 and 19 percent in 1890.”
- Whites “have .61 of 1 percent divorces; blacks .67 of 1 percent…”
- “In the whole country, there are 25 blacks to 75 whites who own their own homes. The proportion should be 1 black to 6 whites.”
- “Of the black homes, 87 percent are freeholds; of the white homes but 71 percent.”
- “Of farms owned by blacks, 89 percent are unencumbered; of those owned by whites but 71 percent.”
- “Forty-one percent of blacks are engaged in gainful pursuits, while only 36 percent of whites are thus engaged.”
- “Government reports show that the [black man] is the best soldier in the regular army.”
Surely this is history worth exploring and celebrating. I never knew James or Mattie or any of the American people behind all these factoids, but boy am I proud of them! I encourage anyone wanting to get a true picture of what was happening at any given time in our history to go to the newspapers of that day. Here is one more gifted lady I discovered in an article published in Montana’s Republican newspaper, The Philipsburg Mail, dated October 7, 1898: