An Unexpected School and a Revolutionary Student: A Young James McCune Smith Meets Lafayette
The Children’s Table Podcast • Season One, Episode Three • 38:46
Victoria Ford Smith, Anna Mae Duane, and Kate Capshaw
Anna Mae Duane 00:03
Welcome to the Children’s Table, a podcast dedicated to the idea that young people have always been participants in history, in literature, in art, and in politics.
Victoria Ford Smith 00:13
As three professors have spent our careers studying the history and culture of childhood, we want to share the questions we have about how adults have imagined what childhood means, and how those ideas have shaped the lives of children, for better and for worse.
Kate Capshaw 00:28
Along the way, we will share the stories of some brilliant, brave and groundbreaking young people we’ve gotten to know.
Victoria Ford Smith 00:36
Anna Mae Duane 00:38
I’m Anna Mae.
Kate Capshaw 00:39
I’m Kate. And let’s head to the children’s table.
Victoria Ford Smith 00:48
Today’s podcast is focusing on one student at one school that we think should be better known in the history of the United States. This one little kid prompts us to ask some big questions. Why do we know so little about children in history? Is it because they didn’t do anything historically important? (Hint: they did.) Or is it because we don’t trust the records that children leave us? As so often happens when we examine our common-sense ideas about children and childhood, we find that our assumptions reinforce false, and even damaging, ideas about who counts as important, and whose ideas we should take seriously.
Kate Capshaw 01:25
So Anna Mae, who are we talking about today?
Anna Mae Duane 01:28
Okay. I’m gonna set the stage. It’s a September day in 1824. An 11 year old African American boy is making his way to the Five points neighborhood in New York City. He has an appointment with the Marquis de Lafayette, Revolutionary war hero, friend of Alexander Hamilton. And if the crowds were any indication, the 19th century equivalent about rock star. The child’s name is James McCune Smith; he was born to an enslaved mother. And thus, under the laws of New York City, technically enslaved himself. In spite of this start, young James goes on to become the first African American to earn an MD. He would write the introduction to Frederick Douglass’ second autobiography. And he would be a leader in rebutting the emerging racist scientific arguments of the early to mid-19th century. So he’s, he’s amazing. But before I go further, to add sort of what we know about his adult life and his later life, I want to stop for a second and reflect about what we don’t know about his childhood, or the childhood of lots of other children in the 18th and 19th centuries. Why don’t we have more stories like this of what children were doing, what their days were, like. Victoria, I know you’ve done a lot of work, researching the lives of 19th century British children who we wouldn’t otherwise know about and we absolutely need to know about. So what are your thoughts about why we still have all these surprises that when we find a remarkable child in history, everyone’s, oh, I had no idea that this person was there. This was something that we could find.
Victoria Ford Smith 03:09
Yeah, I think one of the first reasons we don’t know a lot about these kids — and I think all three of us know this — is that learning about them is really hard. So traditionally, adults haven’t found the lives of children important enough to preserve in the archives and what has been preserved. those documents are about really particular types of children who are living in particular contexts and situations. So for example, often when you see an image of a child, before the late 19th century, that child was probably dead. I mean, now they’re definitely dead because they were in the 19th century, but even at the time, they were probably dead. Paintings were commissioned by wealthy parents to memorialize their lost children. And if you find documents about a child in a library, or the archives of a historical society, then more often than not, that kid was really rich, or that kid was related to a celebrity. So wealthy families, or families of well known authors or artists, other cultural figures, those families might donate materials to local historical societies or archives or universities. And then later historians can recover materials related to childhood in particular from those family papers. So that happens sometimes ,too. And then sometimes institutions like schools or hospitals or orphanages keep records. And so we’ll have, you know, a collection of documents about children, so assignments, or health records or, you know, photographs of children who are part of these organizations. But for the most part, so unless a family was marked by loss or wealth or fame, or all of the above, a lot of people just didn’t find it necessary. to document the details of kids’ lives.
Kate Capshaw 05:03
Here, I mean, I think that’s all really true. It’s so difficult, especially when you’re thinking about children who lived in spaces that weren’t recognized by, you know, schools or authorities or wealth, to even register the details of their lives in any way. It’s just really hard. So I think we do need to talk about, you know, what gets preserved and what appears in the archive, especially, I mean, my own research interest is in communities of color. So, for instance, in the 19th century, the first black essayist is actually a 16 year old girl, Ann Plato, who was a black girl and I did a lot of research trying to find something about her childhood. And what we found, in addition to the book, is accounts from white people who were surveying her classroom, which when she was a student teacher, and assessing her as a teacher. So it’s really interesting, what, what doesn’t appear in the archives?
Victoria Ford Smith 06:00
Yeah, and I think that the idea of the documents are about a child, but interpreted by somebody else. Like, I think that’s something to really keep in mind. Like I just started looking at documents of poor children from the 19th century. And, you know, there’s really famous guy, Dr. Barnardo, who ran a lot of charitable organizations would take photographs of the children at his organizations. But, you know, there’s a lot of talk like, well, he would make them more ragged than they were in order to present a particular narrative of poor childhood, often, for benevolent reasons. But so like, is this actually a record of this child or not? I think is a difficult question.
Anna Mae Duane 06:41
Yes. I mean, it’s so often it’s whatever narratives adults want us to see in the records of the children that they’re preserving. And that certainly is the case with James McCune Smith, and his schoolmates, right, we know about them because they were doing things that adults thought were important and marked down.
Kate Capshaw 07:02
So to recap, we see that if you were not from a wealthy or historically prominent family, as Victoria was discussing, chances are that your childhood would pass with virtually no record left for us in the contemporary moment. Maybe birth records, maybe baptismal records, but very little trace of, of individual children. And if you were poor, and especially if you were the child of enslaved parents, or if you were enslaved, both of which, James McCune Smith was, there’s very little chance, right that historians will get to know much about you, especially your childhood, right? And so, we do have quite a bit of material about the childhood of James McCune Smith, who did go on to become wealthy and quite influential on the abolitionist movement, and in the scientific conversations of the time. But in James’s case, I think this is important is because his position as a free child, in a city poised to end slavery, placed him in the middle of some of the nation’s most heated debates, and they were carried out by some of the nation’s most influential political and historical figures.
Victoria Ford Smith 08:09
Yeah, like, like Lafayette, so why was he meeting the Marquis on the day that you, you’re talking about, Anna Mae?
Anna Mae Duane 08:15
This was part of Lafayette’s nationwide tour of the country. It’s 1824. The country’s coming up on its 50th anniversary. There’s lots of anxiety about how we’re going to remember the origins and the Revolutionary era. And so he gets invited back, and it just is incredibly exciting across the country. He visits each of the American states at the time. He travels 1000s of miles by stagecoach, horseback, steamboat, the works everywhere he goes, there are crowds, waving handkerchiefs and doing other various 19th century things like being very excited (laughter). And they held parades, they had military salutes and exercises. In Philadelphia, for instance, there was a 6000 man military parade to welcome him. If you’ve been to Independence Hall, it’s partially so beautiful because they refurbished it because Lafayette was coming
Kate Capshaw 09:15
Was he played by Daveed Diggs in this moment, or no?
Anna Mae Duane 09:18
In my mind, he is and everyone saying, “Lafayette!” (laughter) and it’s really fun. Yeah, so I mean, he was this, you know, this touchstone, this vision of what the nation’s ideals were, but of course, he’s also quite old. So it’s this really exciting moment of sort of looking back and looking forward at the same time and also, you know, historians see it as one of the first moments of real celebrity culture in the 19th century, like everyone wants to see him.
Victoria Ford Smith 09:50
So this is like a huge deal. Why did James McCune Smith, why was his school part of this moment?
Anna Mae Duane 09:56
Right this school and you know, lower Manhattan — not the greatest neighborhood gets a visit from Lafayette and James McCune Smith is the kid who gets to greet him and say hello and welcome to the school. For one thing, the school had been created not too long after the Revolution by Lafayette’s friend and colleague and I’ll not sing it, but it’s Alexander Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton and other members of what was called the New York Manumission Society, which was a group of elite, powerful white men who were dedicated to furthering anti-slavery laws. Part of that conversation at the time was this belief that school was really important, that education was deeply important for the process of manumission, for emancipation: you couldn’t have one without the other. And, you know, once we really start digging in on how it was first imagined in the north, how anti-slavery laws were crafted, we see that children, children like James, were at the heart of the debate and really animated how they were imagining what freedom might look like.
Kate Capshaw 11:05
Now, when we look back across history, we kind of think of anti-slavery laws as being pretty cut and dried. So what are you seeing about children at the heart of these kind of complicated laws?
Anna Mae Duane 11:17
Right, I think most of us think of the Emancipation Proclamation, or laws like that, that come much later, where, you know, boom, everyone who was enslaved is free. That isn’t, that’s not how it worked at all in the north at first, almost. Massachusetts is sort of an outlier. But states like New York, New Jersey, they put freedom in the future, they free newborn children first. So for instance, in New York, the law is anyone born after July 4th on 1799. I believe, anyone after that point is free. If you’re born before that point, too bad, right? They’re only invested in the young. But of course, the young aren’t freed immediately. Often, they have to stay in enslavement, often to their mid 20s. And the logic behind this, I mean, there’s one logic in which it was that everybody postponed the cost of emancipation, right, everybody got 25 more years of free labor. But the philosophical argument behind it. What they said was, the reason behind it was that they felt that freedom was something you had to be cultivated into, you had to be educated into. If you had had bad habits, by being in slavery as if that was your fault, right. But you couldn’t just be free. It was it had to be something that you were taught to do that you had to sort of ramp up to. Of course, this was never applied to white children. But that was the sense that children were all the potential were children were wearable, the hope was and children were also the test case, right? This is going to be the first generation how are they going to manage it?
Victoria Ford Smith 13:03
So how are children supposed to prove this?
Anna Mae Duane 13:07
I mean. and now we’re back to the New York African free school and why he’s meeting Lafaytte. Lots of schools in the 19th century, as schools do, to some extent today, would have events ,would have showcases the equivalent today might be school plays or talent shows. In the 19th century these were a bigger deal people would come just for something to do like it was part of your civic engagement is to come by and see what the local schools were doing. Ben Franklin talks about it, he would go to a school and sort of see how the youth were prospering.
Victoria Ford Smith 13:45
That would be so creepy now… if you just stopped by a school to see
Anna Mae Duane 13:50
Really. What, Ben Franklin? I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, that’s such an interesting point with the difference of sort of like, what child’s schooling is who’s who it’s for. There was definitely a bigger sense that children had to be used to public speaking, that was part of democracy. So they had to get used to big audiences. And that, yeah, that everyone was invested. And now Yeah, it would be so weird if you just started.
Kate Capshaw 14:15
Yeah, I mean, kids already feel a lot of pressure when they’re on the stage in front of just their families. These kids must have felt extraordinary pressure, because they were representing sort of the success of this freedom project, as well, as you know, entertaining Ben Franklin and Lafayette. There’s a lot of pressure on these guys.
Anna Mae Duane 14:35
Absolutely. I can’t… I mean, and that’s where in terms of the records, we I have the record of what James McCune Smith says to the Marquis de Lafayette. We don’t have any records of how he felt that morning, or what he said to his friends, which is you know, what I in some ways, I really would like to know, but the pressure was amazing. They had… they called them examination days, which gives you the sense of… it was a test and these kids who are middle school aged, James McCune Smith is 11 when he meets, when he greets Lafayette. Kids in the school were basically from nine to 14. And so you would have anyone from the neighborhood maybe Ben Franklin stopping by. So he’s gone by 1824. But you know, local politicians absolutely stopped by, local newspapers and national newspapers would stop by, because it was a deep sense that these children and what they were capable of, were a leading data point or leading piece of evidence in debates about freedom and education and the nation’s future. Just as one example, in 1824, a newspaper called the Commercial Advertiser runs a long piece and it reproduces, which again, like can you imagine, like the New York Times reproducing whatever speech was given at PS 54. It’s the equivalent of that, that’s how important that they felt this material was. And this was the commentary. So the Commercial Advertiser runs a long piece, after the performances, saying that they had “never seen a white school of the same age, where there was more order, neatness of dress, and cleanliness of person.” The editor points out that there “had been a few Southern gentlemen,” that’s the words he uses, in the audience and he wishes that there had been more right. But the implication that Southern gentleman would be convinced of the wrong of slavery by watching these kids. So yeah, the pressure is enormous. And they knew what there’s one moment in the archives where one of the younger kids talks about if I mess up, please don’t hold it against my race. When he’s nine years old, right?
Kate Capshaw 16:50
Yeah, that’s so tough.
Anna Mae Duane 16:51
Kate Capshaw 16:51
I mean, I remember in looking at Ann Plato’s school records or records where she was teaching, she’s the essayist, who’s, you know, 16 years old, and it’s kind of a student teacher in the, in the black school in Hartford, Connecticut. And the white examiner comes in, and the notes, obviously, are going to have racial bias. And there’s they’re charting how many kids were absent and how many kids are present, and really pejorative ways. And then his comment, and believe me, it’s been like 20 years since I looked at this, but it struck me — he said, they were well behaved and they sang like blackbirds. And I just felt like, ugh, it’s, it’s so hard to escape, there’s no escaping, right? That racial bias from the white examiner of the crowd of black children who are performing, but this sounds like very similar sorts of pressures and expectations on this on this group and even more because of the national spotlight with Lafayette and, and just the location of the school.
Victoria Ford Smith 17:49
I think to that, the idea that I noticed when you were reading that newspaper account, Anna Mae, was this idea of orderliness and cleanliness, too, which also has these biases underneath it, right, that how surprising it is that these children are well behaved and clean?
Kate Capshaw 18:04
Victoria Ford Smith 18:04
And it seems almost, I mean, I haven’t read the entire account, right. But I feel like there’s often these types of reports like an emphasis more on behavior than on academics, right, because the idea that this is like a, a docile population, in a way. I don’t know if that’s what’s happening here. But these are, these are children who can be well behaved and controlled and orderly, right?
Anna Mae Duane 18:30
Which is so much a part of it. The skits were often written by the white administrators. And often they would be about things like why it’s important to come to school on time and punctuality, and they would give notices to the parents about how they should behave. So there was a lot, you know, that these were the sort of well intentioned white reformers.
Kate Capshaw 18:55
(laughter) Can you imagine?
Anna Mae Duane 18:57
The Failure of imagination! This is as good as it got, that that’s what they were concerned about, like that was part of what was required for citizenship. But I think also there’s, this is, you know, coming up on Jacksonian America, that’s a big anxiety across the board, right for immigrants and for all these sort of new people. What, you know, how are they going to deport themselves? How are they going to manage the vote, right and have that kind of political power? So it’s both I think, absolutely a racial conversation, but it’s also an ongoing, larger conversation about what do we need to train children to do? And control is a lot of it.
Kate Capshaw 19:41
Yes, control, and it’s also documentation of, you know, white benevolence and patting themselves on the back and things like that. So what about Lafayette and how did that sort of performance of American back patting happen? (laughter) How did that go?
Anna Mae Duane 20:00
Well, by all accounts it’s a big success. The speech James McCune Smith gives is, you know, three or four sentences long and it’s recorded that Lafayette says “thank you my dear child.” And I can only imagine the crowd goes wild. But it gets recorded three different times in the records right they keep writing and over and over in nicer penmanship. So there’s a real sense that this was a historic moment. You know, again, it gives us a glimpse of this one moment. And when I came across this, I had no idea who James McCune Smith was. And if you didn’t go on to be famous and fairly wealthy and well known, I would never know anything else about it. But it was sort of these moments, it was such an invitation to do detective work, like what is going on here? Who is this kid? Why would they ask him to meet this revolutionary war hero and sort of like digging there, you sort of uncovered more and more of who he is. And I think one of the things, I realized that even with all the, as we’ve sort of discussed the bias and the constraints around what, you know, we’re getting what they say, on the examination days, we don’t get the notes that they pass to each other in class. But we do still get a sense that these middle school children were players in national conversations, were rubbing up against historical figures, you know, of national importance, right? That they were part of the conversation that . . How much freedom they had to sort of exert their own influence, we can discuss, but they were still there. Right, this conversation was happening because of them.
Kate Capshaw 21:41
It is totally fascinating in terms of their visibility in that kind of pivotal moment. And then sort of the absence in the archive for most of the people except for if they became famous, like James McCune Smith, on growing up. So we’ll keep that in mind as we take a break.
Victoria Ford Smith 22:04
So when we left James’s school, the students — basically middle schoolers — are demonstrating their talents at a school event that received national attention for examination day. But I’m curious, Anna Mae. what happened most of the time, like every other day of the year where they weren’t being visited by these enormous historical figures?
Anna Mae Duane 22:25
Yeah, they had, and we do have some records of this, again, from the schoolmaster, but they had a curriculum that was reading and writing and arithmetic. There were classes in navigation for the boys and classes and sewing for the girls. So in some ways, a very standard curriculum, and actually a pretty elite one, these kids were doing school work that lots of kids across the country weren’t getting close to. So they were the education itself was quite remarkable. But one of the things I find most exciting and remarkable about this school, the more I dug into, it is not necessarily what they were taught in class, but how they were taught it.
Kate Capshaw 23:04
So what do you mean by how they were taught?
Anna Mae Duane 23:06
So they used what was called a Lancasterarian method, which I think I’ve talked about on other episodes, cuz I’m obsessed with it. But it was in vogue, towards the end of the 18th century and throughout the first few decades of the 19th century. And the idea behind this method is that students should teach each other that someone has described it as sort of an ongoing spelling bee, which one kid is designated as the leader of a pod, right, a group of five or six kids. So you would compete to be a monitor, which is basically an assistant teacher, and then you as assistant teacher are responsible for getting your group through that day’s lessons. And there were it was very synchronized, you would sort of move around the class and do different things. But the monitor at examination day, they would have these really elaborate sort of handwriting plaques, or they’d have these really elaborate pieces of art that would were dedicated to the monitors, like the teller was a huge honor, they would get special badges or sashes saying that they were the monitor, but they were assistant teachers. And one of the things I think is remarkable about this is that these kids who no one thought, right, again, they’re poor. They’re black. They have no political power. They’re technically — many of them — still enslaved, but they’re getting to be leaders, right? They’re the ones teaching each other. And I just think that that whether that was the school’s intention or not, was sort of this remarkable democratic distribution of power.
Kate Capshaw 24:53
Do you have any sense of which children were allowed to go to this school? There have to be many, many more enslaved and free children at this time in that area. So do you know how the kids ended up there?
Anna Mae Duane 25:10
I mean, at its height, it had over 500 students on the rolls. So that’s big. Yeah. And there was more than one of these schools. James McCune Smith went to African Free School number two, but there were like five of them. But to answer your question about who was allowed to go, I think a lot of it was word of mouth. There was the first black newspaper. Freedom’s Journal was a big recruiter and cheerleader of the school. So they too, would publish the records of the examination days, but they would also reach out to parents, the editors of that newspaper would also go knock on doors. And that’s tricky, like historians aren’t quite sure what that involves, because I’ve read accounts in which knocking on the doors was to sort of evaluate whether students were worthy. Whether their parents were the right, yeah, yeah, a lot of that, whether they were the right sort of up and coming family. But then I’ve read other accounts where they were really recruiting people, and they really wanted kids in the door for their own numbers, among other things. So I don’t know how hard it was to get in, I think another, you know, real limiting factor is that it’s New York City, it’s a tough neighborhood. If you live too far, you can’t get to the school, right? You don’t have money for the public transportation, such as it was, and often you’re not allowed on it. So you have to be walking distance from the school. So if somehow your way uptown, you just don’t have access to the school.
Kate Capshaw 26:45
You have to have parents who can sacrifice your presence for the school day. That would be huge. Right?
Anna Mae Duane 26:51
Yes. So yeah.
Victoria Ford Smith 26:53
I mean, I’m interested too in, like, what the Lancasterian and method does for kids and to kids, sort of like I, in a way, I’m like, it’s super exciting, because it puts children in positions of respect and authority, you know, within their child community, and also that’s conferred by an adult. But at the same time, it’s definitely on the practical level, if I understand it correctly, a way to just manage a lot of children. And so it’s like, we don’t have the resources to have a teacher for everyone. And so you have to like find a way to make children work within the school space, which is, you know, definitely a double edged sword, I think.
Anna Mae Duane 27:45
No, I mean, it was free labor. This was sort of outsourced. It was always designed for poor children. And those are the schools it gets used in schools for indigenous people out west, it gets used in colonial schools and South America, the British colonies. Yeah, absolutely. Right. And so it’s both the free labor. And you know, he would boast that you only need one school master for school of 500 students. And that’s in the records of the of the school that that somebody came to visit. And the school was running like a Swiss railroad. And there was no, I always joke that like the guy was in the bar. Was the school principal that day? But who knows, right? He wasn’t
Victoria Ford Smith 28:28
Can you imagine being the one adult? Like, with 500 children?
Kate Capshaw 28:33
And I’ve one last question about this. The monitors, are they older than the people? They’re the kids, they’re supervising? Are they the same age, though? Like, what? They’re the same age?
Anna Mae Duane 28:44
Yeah. No, and it was competitive, like you could lose your spot. If somehow you know, whatever, test or, you know, examination is happening that day, and a kid who’s your student does better than you, boom, he’s the monitor.
Kate Capshaw 29:03
Anna Mae Duane 29:04
So there was also I mean, another part of this, it’s like, it’s training for capitalism, it’s training for factory labor, right? That you have these, these sort of autonomous, everyone knows their job, and they have to be trusted to do it. And if someone else can do it better, then they get your job.
Victoria Ford Smith 29:22
I mean, you can start to imagine the different types of relationships that that would create among children, right? Because in some ways, it’s like, I am invested in your success, because it keeps me where I am. If I’m a monitor, like, I want you to do well, because I want to remain in charge, but also like this sort of competitive hope that another child will not succeed, like it just creates these weird emotional structures within a school.
Kate Capshaw 29:52
Yeah, yeah. I want to read about that. Where’s the record of that? Let’s have the middle schoolers who were the mean, the guys who were the Heathers. (laughter)
Anna Mae Duane 30:02
Sorry, and it’s middle school. You know, that’s gotta be tough.
Kate Capshaw 30:06
I mean, yeah.
Victoria Ford Smith 30:08
I mean, who gets the sash? That’s what everyone wanted to know. Everyone wants the monitor sash.
Anna Mae Duane 30:14
Yes, they totally do. And there was also he called it a class of merit, which I’m imagining is like, all the monitors get their own special award. Yeah, those are the records that I really want. But I do know that one of James McCune Smith’s classmates was not a monitor, because he wasn’t a great student, he was kind of a rebellious student. But he would lead a group of which James McCune Smith was a part, in which they would basically make plans for what to do with their education. They were organizing, okay, we’re going to get our education, we’re going to go down South, and we’re going to spread freedom in our own way. So I do think right there is both this competitiveness with each other, but also the sense that they’re willing to leave, or they sort of are practicing leadership, and they’re willing to look up to each other. Yeah, and make their own plans.
Kate Capshaw 31:07
I’m really interested in the school in black schooling in general, during this period in terms of prefacing the emergence of a black middle class and this commitment to education, especially in the south. That happens later in the post Civil War. So I think it’s really fascinating. And I know that you’ve talked a little bit about what James McCune Smith accomplished, right? Could you remind us about his glories? And are there anybody else who achieved such glories after attending this school?
Anna Mae Duane 31:39
Yeah, I mean, that’s the other thing again, when I stumbled on these records, I was just looking for like, ” I want to look up kids in history, and this is a school so let me give it a try.” But then, once I, you know, started looking up these names, we have James McCune Smith, who again, goes to the University of Glasgow and gets an MD, no African American had done it. He his friend, Henry Highland Garnet, who again was sort of organizing when he was 14 years old, becomes a world famous orator. He speaks to 1000s of people, he becomes the first African American to address the House of Representatives. Ira Aldridge also went to the school, I mean, just this classroom was amazing. And these are all really within the same. They knew each other, they knew each other as kids, whether they were in the exact same grade is… I’m not clear about but Ira Aldridge, who was the first American of any race, but he was African American, to play Shakespeare in London. And he sort of tours Europe throughout and was famous throughout Europe. And then there’s other people like Alexander Cromwell, who W.E.B. Dubois talks about meeting, he was the statesman, he was also an orator and administer the girls that went to this school. And this is we haven’t talked about this, right, another limit on getting the records or the lives of children in history, excavated is gender, both because the odds of them going on to be being famous in their own right is much smaller, but also because of name changes, but the ones I have been able to trace often went into careers in education themselves. So you know, there’s artists, there’s college administrators, it’s just an incredible class of students that come out of here.
Kate Capshaw 33:27
So this returns to question I asked earlier, is this typical? Like, why do you think the school is producing so many exceptional people?
Anna Mae Duane 33:36
Yeah I mean, I’ve, I still wonder about that. Because there were other remarkable schools for African American students and Boston and Philadelphia and other places, I think it is partially the system and how they taught each other and relied on each other as leaders. But I also think, you know, it might be just one of those, you know, let you think of sort of the Revolutionary era, and you just had sort of this incredible rash of brilliant people showing up all at once. And that seemed to be what was happening with this school, a combination of the way they, they served each other, but also, maybe an awareness that you were the first generation to inherit freedom, and that you need to make the most of it, I think was also part of it. But again, that was the case, all over the Northeast. So I just think they were remarkable. And I think their friendship was a big part of helping each other succeed.
Victoria Ford Smith 34:30
I love that too. Because often when we think about famous people as kids, we think of them as these like, remarkable individuals who are different from everyone around them. Right, this idea that James McCune Smith was great from the beginning and went on to achieve great things. But the picture of the African free school that you’re suggesting is more like no, these were kids who were working together and collaborating and learning together and supporting one another. And so it just makes makes me think that for every child that we can find in the archive who becomes remarkable, they were surrounded often by other young people who helped make that happen, who we can’t sometimes can see, and sometimes can’t.
Kate Capshaw 35:13
Yeah, I agree with that so much, especially in terms of your comment earlier Anna Mae about gender, that there are so many really spectacular individuals in history who have been lost or erased or, or don’t register in the archive in the way that sometimes boys do.
Anna Mae Duane 35:29
Totally. Yeah. And I think, you know, perhaps more positive things we can take from this is that children, even if you can’t find them in the archives, right, that, in some ways, this is a remarkable cohort. But it’s another example of how young people support one another, are very aware of their political power, or are very aware of being kept from political power and are willing to organize to develop more. And I think we have, in our own moment, there seems to be this surprise, when we see people like Greta Thunberg, or Mari Copney, who is an advocate for clean water in Flint, and she started I think she was like 11, or 12. She’s a presence on Twitter… That somehow, oh, this is a new thing, kids today, what’s happening, you know, and this is big backlash. But I think, looking at this school, and again, that is, you know, you both pointing out with this collective of youth organizing and youth leadership and cooperation is something that has been there, and we just haven’t known how to look for it, or historians haven’t thought it was important. Or, again, we think of sort of the history as the end result. So you know, if it if they win the argument, or if they become famous, then it’s important. And I don’t think we do enough to, to sort of look at the social history of childhood and the way that that shapes whether or not they become famous, or whether or not they win their arguments that shapes the conversation shapes what’s possible, right? The school closes down by 1833. And they go on to other things. But that moment, I think, led to developments in abolitionist history, right? Because they talked to each other as children as political agents, they were that much more capable of making political change both as children and later on.
Kate Capshaw 37:24
Yeah, that’s just it’s just a fascinating story Anna Mae, thank you for your work on James McCune Smith and her introducing us to this important school in this community of children who are really, you know, helping to shape reshape the world. So I think it’s just a wonderful story. Thanks to you all, we’d love to hear your thoughts about school records about students teaching one another, or about the lives of other remarkable children we think we should know about. So tweet us at the Children’s Table Podcast. If you’d like to see some images of the New York African free school and James McCune Smith. Come check out Children’s Table Podcast on Instagram. Until next time, we’ll see you at the Children’s table.
Guest speaker 38:08
The Children’s Table is written by Anna Mae, Duane Kate Capshaw, and Victoria Ford Smith. They are grateful for the assistance of Carly Wanner-Hyde who wears many hats: editor, producer and collaborator and creative genius. Our theme music is by Ken Cormier. The podcast enjoys the support of Greenhouse Studios in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Connecticut.