Education at Any Cost
The Old Brick School House
"I remember being much pleased with my nice clothes, and still more so, as I saw so many boys and girls of all sizes at the school, all dressed so nice and clean. … I thought it was one of the most charming sights I had ever beheld." - William J. Brown, 1883
For many free African Americans such as William J. Brown living in Providence in the 19th century, education was more than just a form of social mobility; it was a way of securing autonomy and dignity. Brown attended school at a variety of institutions around Providence, including the Old Brick School House. For most of his young life education was expensive and available primarily through private institutions or individual tutors. The financial burden of schooling was often too much for students, many of whom were also expected to work to help support their families.
Students of color had an especially hard time, as private institutions could legally deny enrollment to anyone they saw as "not fit" for their schools. Occasionally, philanthropic women of society endeavored to establish "African schools," but they were often short lived. Another popular option, Sabbath schools, taught literacy through religious lessons, but only for a few hours on Sundays. Quaker schools would sometimes accept black students, although doing so made it difficult for them to retain teachers. As Brown tells us, "it was considered a disgraceful employment to be a teacher of colored children," and pupils were punished for addressing their teacher in public.
Finally, in 1828, the Rhode Island Schools Act passed, providing state funding for a centralized public education system—but also legalizing its segregation. The city purchased the Old Brick School House—built in 1769 to house a private and a "public," fee-charging, grammar school—and refashioned the space into a separate public school for pupils of color called the Meeting Street Grammar School. The site was a great success, and in its first year had 100 registered students with 60-70 regular attendees, among them such notable alumni as Brown and Sissieretta Jones, the nation's first Black opera diva. A plaque commemorating Jones’ career can be viewed at the corner of South Court and Pratt Streets.
By 1836, attendance at the school had declined to between 15-35 after a disagreement between the black community and the current schoolmaster. A second school, the Pond School, on the west side of Providence, opened as an alternative for disgruntled students. Before long, both schools were thriving.
In 1865, Rhode Island outlawed segregated schools, and the Meeting Street School became public and integrated. Due to its placement in a predominantly black neighborhood, and the subsequent withdrawal of white children after the law passed, the school was still attended by mainly African Americans until it was discontinued in 1887.
William J. Brown made it his mission to obtain an education at any cost, often alternating attending school with working to pay off his tuition bills, until the age 20. He eventually set up a successful shoe repair shop, adding to the small but proud group of educated free black business owners in Providence. The Old Brick School House went on to become a cooking school and then a "fresh air school" for tubercular children. It also housed a school specializing in the needs of developmentally disabled children, before being turned over to the Providence Preservation Society in 1960. It now functions as their headquarters.