Independent Colored School System Board Members: John I. Gaines, Wm. H. Parham and Peter F. Fossett

T. M. Berry Project: African American Education in Cincinnati

My discovery of the photo to the right was the cause of a fair bit of head scratching for both myself and Theodore Berry’s daughter, Gail Berry West, last week. The envelope it came in is labeled “Faculty of Caines High School, September 1866” but Gail and I didn’t know anything about such a school; nor does the almighty Google recognize that name. Fortunately, Kevin Grace, head of the Archives and Rare Books Library, returned to work after a conference this morning and recognized that the smudge over the “C” in Caines is actually hiding the crossbar of a capital “G.” Gaines High School was the first high school for African Americans in Ohio and Berry somewhere, somehow acquired this photograph from the time of the school’s founding.

In 1849 John Isom Gaines, an African American from Cincinnati, helped pass a law which made possible the establishment of public schools for African Americans in the state of Ohio. Peter H. Clark was the first teacher hired for the newly created Independent Colored School System later that year. Gaines died in 1859, but left the newly created school system in such capable hands as Peter H. Clark; William H. Parham, who in 1874 became the first African American to receive a Bachelor of Laws from Cincinnati Law School (predating Berry’s degree by 60 years) and Peter F. Fossett, a well educated former slave of Thomas Jefferson.  As a child, Fossett looked forward to James Madison’s visits to Monticello and liked to listen in as the two former Presidents talked in Jefferson’s Green Room. In an 1898 interview for New York World he recalled “A peculiar fact about his house servants was that we were all related to one another, and as a matter of fact we did not need to know that we were slaves. As a boy I was not only brought up differently, but dressed unlike the plantation boys. My grandmother was free, and I remember the first suit she gave me. It was of blue nankeen cloth, red morocco hat and red morocco shoes. To complete this unique costume, my father added a silver watch.” Little did he know (or maybe he did) that he was related not only to the other slaves, but as a cousin of Sally Hemings, he was, in a round-about way, related to Thomas Jefferson himself.

Independent Colored School System Board Members: John I. Gaines, Wm. H. Parham and Peter F. Fossett

Cincinnati Independent Colored School System Board Members: John I. Gaines, Wm. H. Parham and Peter F. Fossett

In 1865 Peter H. Clark, who was by then superintendent of the Independent Colored School System in Cincinnati, pushed for creation of a high school for the city’s African American youth.  The school, named for John H. Gaines, opened in 1866 and Clark left the superintendent’s post to Wm. H. Parham and became principal. Clark can be seen in the middle of the front row in the photo above.

As difficult as I know it must have been for African Americans during the mid 1800s, I can’t help but feel that the African American youth of Cincinnati had something of an educational edge over those elsewhere and even most white children. To have as educational guides such people as I have mentioned here must have offered a great deal. I would bet that there weren’t too many school board members, no matter their color, who could say that they had studied the stars with Thomas Jefferson on the roof of Monticello.

For more information about the Fossett and Hemings families visit:

In 2010, the University of Cincinnati Libraries received a $61,287 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission of the Archives and Records Administration to fully process the Theodore M. Berry Collection in the Archives & Rare Books Library.  All information and opinions published on the Berry project website and in the blog entries are those of the individuals involved in the grant project and do not reflect those of the National Archives and Records Administration.  We gratefully acknowledge the support of NARA.

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