Kalamazoo’s Colored School
A Separate School for African-American Children (1861-1871)
Bird’s-eye-view lithograph, 1867-1868. Kalamazoo Valley Museum
One of the more puzzling events in the history of Kalamazoo’s public school district is the story of Kalamazoo’s “Colored School.” We can only infer from the historical records at our disposal as to the motivation behind why some members on the school board pushed for the building of a racially segregated school that would house only black children. Given the generally accepted attitudes and prejudices of white-dominated institutions in 1860, the school’s formation can be viewed as the product of a paternalistic mindset that regarded the education of black children differently than that of white pupils. These separate, and not at all equal, nor scientifically-grounded approaches to schooling, were deeply rooted to generally accepted 19th century notions of intelligence and acumen, of which, the school board were to a certain extent, likely swayed. Frustratingly for researchers, the first volume of schoolboard minutes has been missing for some time. It’s possible that this missing ledger that chronicled the early years of the Kalamazoo Public Schools would likely provide additional information and context about the reasoning behind the actions taken by the board of education in the Fall of 1860.
In 1833, the Village of Bronson (later Kalamazoo) built their first school house along East South Street, just a stone’s toss from Burdick Street. This school was called District No. 1, and was administered by a teacher named Eliza Coleman (aka Eliza Seymour). The school building was also used for religious gatherings, a courtroom and as a secular meeting place where discussions and debates could transpire. Over the years, several other district schools were built as the village grew in size, including No. 2, 11 and 12.
“The early Kalamazoo schools were district schools in the full meaning of the term. Each district elected its own officers, provided a school-house, hired teachers, and conducted its affairs entirely distinct from the others.”
Narrative History of the Public Schools of Kalamazoo (1877), p.4
The 1873 Kalamazoo County Atlas shows the school building at Walbridge and North streets. Local History Room Consolidation of District Schools
It wasn’t until 1851, when the effort to consolidate the several township schools into one village district finally took place, providing for more collective uniformity of schools and jurisdictional control. In 1858, the Union School was built on the corner of South Westnedge Avenue and West Vine Street. A year later, the Board of Education was established, consisting of six elected trustees and a superintendent. Despite its size, not every student in Kalamazoo attended the brand new Union School. There were several “ward” schools that served particular neighborhoods. There were three ward schools–North, South and East, all of them racially integrated prior to the Fall of 1860, when the proposal to build a separate school for black pupils was first proposed.
The 7 September 860 issue of the
Kalamazoo Gazette published the school board meeting proceedings, and where the following motion was approved.
It was with this motion by Dwight S. May that was unanimously adopted that preceded the following year’s board meeting on 6 September 1861, where a discussion took place regarding where the school was to be located and how much to pay the teacher. The discussion at this meeting described the “expedient” nature of removing black children from their current schools despite not having yet built a school or located an unused one. Eventually, it was decided to build the school on the southeast corner of North and Walbridge streets, where it remained until it was closed in 1871.
Over the course of its time as a segregated school, several young women were employed as teachers, including Mary Baker, Elizabeth Thayer,
Anna Jannasch, Eliza Ensign, Ellen Bell, Elmira Patch, and E. Swaddle. The average age of a pupil at the school was between 6 and 11 years old. According to census records, 23 of the parents of the black students were originally from southern states. Their occupations were listed as laborer, farmer, teamster, seamstress, washerwoman, barber, well digger, saddler, and waiter. Before migrating to Kalamazoo, many of the students had been born in other parts of Michigan, or from the states of Indiana and Ohio, with a few having come from Canada. The following years of operation include the number of students who attended:
1861-1862 – 60
1862-1863 – 91
1863-1864 – 87
1865-1866 – 86
1866-1867 – 79
1867-1868 – 70
1868-1869 – 72
1869-1870 – 101
1870-1871 – 52
Why was the school closed in 1871, with the black students “distributed among the other schools”? The closing was due to the board of education being forced to comply with a state law that prohibited black students from being excluded from an integrated educational setting. This law came about from the 1869 court case
. Joseph Workman v. the Detroit Board of Education
“It was voted that the Committee on Buildings and Grounds be empowered to dispose of the so-called “Colored School house” and lot and the school lot over the Portage formerly occupied by the District.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 13 April 1877
For more information and analysis about this topic, view the presentation (see: Sources) given by Lynn Houghton (Regional History Curator of the Zhang Legacy Collections Center) and Regina Gorham (Collections Manager of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum).
Written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, February 2024
George, Austin Narrative History of the Public Schools of Kalamazoo (1877)
Call Number: H 379.774 G347
Dyksterhouse, Peter H. Development of the Public School System in Kalamazoo from 1830-1875
Call Number: H 379.774 D99
Publisher: Board of Education Kalamazoo Public Schools Catalog, 1860, 1862-1872, 1874-1877
Call Number: H 379.774 K14
“The Workman Case: racial equality in nineteenth-century Michigan”
Michigan Bar Journal, December 2008
“Kalamazoo’s Colored School (1861-1871)”
Lynn Houghton, Regional History Curator at the Western Michigan University Archives & Regional History Collections, and Regina Gorham, Collections Manager at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, share what they have discovered in trying to piece together the puzzle that has intrigued many people for years. Presented at Kalamazoo Public Library on Tuesday, 27 February 2018.