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Eye On History: Henry Moxley sought a better education for blacks in the 1800s

Henry Moxley arrived in Buffalo in 1832, the same year that Buffalo was incorporated as a city. He was a fugitive slave born in Virginia in 1808, the son of African slaves. He worked hard and became a barber. Moxley established his own shop in 1839, and had almost $3,000 in property by 1870.

For the most part, blacks seemed to get along with the population in early Buffalo except for one thing. Whites drew a line in the sand when blacks demanded that their children be educated in the same manner as white students. The feeling among some in the white community was that black children were inferior to their children and therefore should not be allowed in the same classroom.

Moxley became an activist seeking education for his daughters and the rest of the black community. He went to the Common Council to have his children admitted to a school where his family lived. When his request was denied, Moxley went to several leaders of the black community to develop a plan of action.

A series of meetings were held with the most influential black members in the city. They met at the Vine Street A.M.E. Church. Leaders such as Peyton Harris, a businessman and church trustee, and Benjamin C. Taylor, a doctor and the second most affluent member of the black community, joined Moxley at the meeting. They devised a plan that would include asking black parents to withdraw their children from the African school set up to educate blacks and send them to district schools.

The African Vine Street School, located at Vine and Washington streets, was considered to be inferior to other schools in the district. The curriculum stressed only the basics and students were not taught any higher level subjects. Black students were not allowed to go to the only high school in the city.

According to an article in the Phylon Quarterly written by Arthur O. White in 1969, the school had three locations: a room in a tenement building, a black church hall and a basement under a central city market. In 1848, the African school was given a schoolhouse that the white community did not want. It was described as “unfit for a public school” because it was in need of repairs and the floor was uneven.

Frederick Douglass, well-known as an abolitionist and founder of the North Star newspaper in Rochester, described the African school as “a low, damp, dark cellar better fit for an ice house.” White noted in his article that the superintendent of schools expressed the feeling that the establishment of this school was the result of the liberal good will of the Council.

Transportation was also an issue because some black students had to travel long distances to get to the school. The stormy weather sometimes prevented them from reaching the school. In 1854, the superintendent stated that it was sad to see these students treading their way to school in cold weather, often with inadequate clothing and struggling to make the journey to get an education.

The inferior education that black students received resulted in low achievement rates as compared to their white counterparts. They were denied access to the best education possible. It must be clearly stated here that at no time did black parents accept this inferior education. They fought against it at every turn. They were encouraged by men such as Douglass, who wrote about it and often spoke out in Buffalo and Rochester against the injustices that blacks had to endure.

When Moxley began to implement the group’s plan, it was met with strong opposition not only from ordinary citizens but also from the white educational leaders. The plan to send black students to white schools resulted in these students being physically removed from classrooms. Black parents decided to withdraw their children from the African school in September 1867. Moxley and a man named John Dallas decided to send their children to schools in their districts. The education committee of the Council stated that the city charter prohibited the admission of colored children to public schools. It directed the superintendent, John S. Fosdick, to prevent these children from attending school.

Fosdick felt that the blacks who demanded equal education were troublemakers. On Sept. 24, 1867, he began to physically remove black students from the public schools, including one of Dallas’ daughters. According to his own words: “he took hold of her and led her out of the school.” The 13-year-old student, named Althia Dallas, stated that he “violently shoved, pushed, beat and struck her, and took away her books.”

Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for 35 years for the Buffalo Criterion newspaper, where this article originally appeared. It is the second of four parts.