Saturday, October 07, 2006

Avery College (1849-1914)

“To the south, at Nash and Avery Streets, stood Avery College. Founded in 1849 by Charles Avery (1784-1858), Methodist lay preacher, philanthropist, abolitionist, to provide a classical education for Negroes.” —Text from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commissions Historical Marker

Avery College was chartered by Act # 194 of the Pennsylvania General Assembly of 1849 as the “Allegheny Institute and Mission Church.” Its stated purpose was “. . . promoting the education and moral elevation of the colored population, by the establishment of a seminary, for the education of colored youth in the various branches of literature and the sciences . . .” The founder of the school was Rev. Charles Avery, a wealthy white abolitionist, industrialist, philanthropist and leader of the Methodist Protestant Denomination. Avery hired fellow Alleghenian, John Ingham to design and build the combined school and church on the corner of what would later be known as Avery & Nash Streets in the area now known as East Allegheny. The building was said to have cost $30,000 to build. It is believed that the building was used by Avery and other Pittsburgh/Allegheny abolitionists as a site to hide runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.

Members of the Board of Trustees at the time of the charter were: Charles Avery (White), Joseph P. Gazzam (White), William M. Shinn (White), Samuel Johnston (African-American). John Peck (African-American), Morrison M. Clarke (?), David Stevens (?), Spencer Watts (White), Edward R. Parker (Africa-American). It is important to note the race of the board members, because the charter calls for the presence of three white men to be members. Later, this stipulation would result in the dissolution of the school.

Although the school was intended to have a college curriculum and has been recognized as perhaps the first college formed exclusively for the education of African-Americans in the United States, it struggled throughout its existence and rarely offered course that would be considered college level. After the death of founder Charles Avery in 1858 the school appears to have gone through a restructuring and the name was changed to Avery College. During the final days of its existence, the school was known as the “Avery Trade School.”

Important Figures Associated with Avery College:

Philotus Dean—A white Educator from Oberlin College, hired to be the first President and professor in 1852, he left the school to become the first principle of the newly organized Pittsburgh High School in 1855.

Martin Freeman—Beginning as the junior professor at the Allegheny Institute, Freeman gained a reputation for his knowledge in mathematics and science. Upon the departure of Philatus Dean, Freeman becomes the President of the Allegheny Institute. In 1864 he departs the United States for Africa, where he became the President of Liberia College.

Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner—Perhaps the most famous of the graduates of the Allegheny Institute/Avery College was Bishop Tanner. A native of Pittsburgh, he would become one of the leading figures of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. His diaries are included in the Carter G. Woodson Collection at the Library of Congress. Tanner was the father of Henry Ossawa Tanner, one of the most famous African-American painters in 19th Century America.

George Boyer Vashon—Son of founding board member, John Vashon, George is the first African American to graduate from Oberlin College (1844). He goes on to create a career as an educator and later a lawyer. He returned to Pittsburgh in 1857 to become the principle of the black public school. In 1863, Vashon becomes the President of Avery College. For additional information on Vashon, please read a later posting on this blog.

Henry Highland Garnet—A former slave, Garnet became a well known Presbyterian preacher and holds the distinction of being the first African American to preach in the U. S. House of Representatives. After the reorganization of the Allegheny Institute as Avery College, Garnet was appointed President of the school. He held this position for a single year in 1869. For additional information on Garnet, please read a later posting on this blog.

Mrs. Rachel Jones—A member of a prominent African-American family in Pittsburgh, Jones is the only women who has been identified as a member of the Board of Trustees of the school. Jones is recognized at one of the founders of the Aurora Reading Club of Pittsburgh.

William R. Thompson—A prominent banker and the son-in-law of wealthy railroad magnet, William Thaw, is member of the Board of Trustees at the turn of the 20th Century. Thompson dies about 1905. It is perhaps upon Thompson’s death that Board is left without the presence of a white member which will contribute to its charter being pulled by government officials.

By 1910, the time of the famous “Pittsburgh Survey,” Avery College or Avery Trade School is clearly in bad shape. The dormitories are cramped and over crowded. The African-American community, including Robert Lee Vann—editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, are critical of the educational offerings.

Financially, the school was in bad shape too. Charles Avery had willed stock in the Monongahela Navigation Company to provide sufficient operating funds for the school. However, by the late 1870’s the Federal Government broke-up the company. The school was paid $67,000 for its shares. However, the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas directed that $65,000 of the fund be invested in Allegheny County Real Estate. This investment was a complete loss for the college. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provided some operating funds which also dried up in 1913.

Sometime after 1914, the school closed and thus Charles Avery’s dream of providing a college education for America’s citizens of African decent ended. At the time of the closing of the school, the congregation that was connected to the school secured the building and property for its exclusive use. The congregation became known as the Avery Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. This congregation continued to occupy the building until 1969 when the structure was demolished for the construction of Interstate 279. Efforts by Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and leaders of the African-American community to save the building because of its rich history as a site of the Underground Railroad were unsuccessful. Today, the only remnants left of the site are now a parking lot for “Pittsburgh’s Grand Hall at the Priory.” However, the congregation has survived. After the demolition of the building at Avery and Nash, the congregation purchased the former California Avenue United Methodist Church in the Brighton Heights section of Pittsburgh. The congregation celebrated its 150th Anniversary in 1999-2000.


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