Ask A Librarian: Colored Schools

I heard we had a “colored school” in Napa, is that true?

Even though African Americans had won their freedom and, with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, gained full citizenship, they were still excluded from voting, accessing equal education, and homesteading, among other rights white Americans enjoyed unencumbered. Nevertheless, California African Americans strove to better their lives and the lives of their children. In 1865, they were required to pay school taxes like everyone else, but state laws barred them from enrolling in white schools, and any desegregated public school could have all state funds cut off. A separate school could be set up if there were at least ten Black children in the district, but no public funds would be available.[i] African Americans took matters into their own hands and opened colored schools to ensure the next generation had even more opportunities than the previous.

The first colored school opened in 1854 in San Francisco, the St. Cyprian Methodist Episcopal Church, a private school with twenty-three students.[ii] The problem with most colored schools is that while they separate, they were hardly equal. The Pacific Appeal lamented on the state of San Francisco’s Black schools in 1874:

There has been no improvement made in the condition of the main school on Russian Hill, which resembles a picture of Noah’s Ark landed on Mount Ararat, and the other, a small room rented by the Board of Education, in a dwelling house in the neighborhood of Fifth and Folsom streets. There are 43 or more splendidly built school houses in the city suited or adapted to every neighborhood, while colored children have to travel the two extremes of the city to gratify the prejudices of proscription…but not one step has been taken by the Republican Board of Education to make the least improvement in the condition of either colored school over that which was visible before the slaveholders rebellion in 1861.[iii]

Napa’s colored school, located on Randolph Street, began operating January 20, 1868, as evidenced by letter by Joseph Hatton printed in The Elevator, a Black newspaper whose slogan was “Equality before the Law”: “I am also happy to inform you that the school for the education of our children opened on Monday, with a white lady as teacher, and a fair prospect of continuing for some time.”[iv] A year later an advertisement was placed for “a colored teacher to take charge of a school in Napa city with a good recommendation. Apply to J.S. Hatton, Main Street, Napa City.”[v] Napa’s colored school was largely successful during its brief existence. Out of about a dozen or more children under the tutelage of Fannie Hackett, four made honor roll in 1875: Lizzie and Lilla Bowser, Edward Hatton, and Adeline West.[vi]

The state supreme court agreed to hear a case in 1872 about a Black girl named Mary Frances Ward who tried to enroll in the all-white Broadway Grammar School in San Francisco. The case was funded in part by African American families state-wide – including, possibly, William Veasey, a Napa barber born a free man in Pennsylvania who was Napa’s representative on the Executive Committee of the Educational Committee of the Convention of Colored Citizens of California.[vii] The state supreme court sided against Ward, stating that segregation had not violated her Fourteenth Amendment rights, a decision reminiscent of Plessy v. Ferguson, passed nearly two decades later. In essence, Chief Justice Wallace believed Ward “was entitled to an education and due equal facilities but did not have to be admitted to the regular schools to get them.”[viii] However, the ruling also specified that “In school districts where there was no school for black children (the law required no separate school for blacks if they numbered fewer than ten), the community was compelled to let the black children enroll in the white schools.”[ix]

As with what would happen half a century later, many white parents across California withdrew their children from their newly integrated schools in protest, but for the most part integration went relatively smoothly. The Vallejo school district was the first in the North Bay to desegregate its schools, although as Sharon McGriff-Payne notes, it had less to do with racial equality than frugality: “[By] eliminating the teacher’s salary and the ‘heavy rents’ [which] paid for the separate facility, the cash-strapped district was able to save on costs.”[x]

Irene Veasey, second row, far left, in a class photo, possibly of a school in St. Helena, ca. 1885
Irene Veasey, second row, far left, in a class photo, possibly of a school in St. Helena, ca. 1885

In July 1878 the Napa school district closed the colored school due to the financial strain of running segregated schools: “One important change which has been made is the abolishing of the separate school…for African children, who now go into the regular schools with the white children. The separate education of these 12 negro children has cost as much heretofore as the education of the fifty white children, hence the change.”[xi] There are no further references to segregated schools in the newspapers, and given how few Black children lived outside Napa city limits in the nineteenth century, it is doubtful there were any other Black-only schools elsewhere in the county. Regardless, the students in the colored school transferred with no issues to the white schools, and Napa was fully integrated. By the early 1900s, Black children were attending and graduating from predominately white schools in Napa City.

Although many African Americans in California went on to attend trade schools and prestigious universities, there is no evidence any Napa’s Black citizens perused such interests. The census records show no adults attending school until 1880, despite the presence of Napa Collegiate Institute (today Napa Valley College) and many secretarial and trade schools throughout the valley. Not until 1930 is there any record of a Black person attending the county’s only four-year institution of higher education, Pacific Union College, a private religious school. What can be gleaned from the changes in school attendance and literacy rates in the census records is that Napa’s African American young people graduated from grammar or high school and went straight into the workforce. By the early twentieth century, education was important but not as much of a priority as economic stability.

[Ed. note: this article is excerpted in part from the master’s thesis “There Are No Black People in Napa”: A History of African Americans in Napa County by Alexandria Brown.]




[i] B. Gordon Wheeler, Black California: The History of African-Americans in the Golden State (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1993): 136.

[ii] W. Sherman Savage, “Early Negro Education in the Pacific Coast States,” Journal of Negro Education 15, no. 2 (Spring 1946): 134,

[iii] Peter Anderson, “The Public Colored Schools of This City,” Pacific Appeal (San Francisco), July 11, 1874,——-en–20–61–txt-txIN-%22colored+schools%22——#.

[iv] Joseph S. Hatton, letter to the editor, Elevator (San Francisco), January 24, 1868,–1860—1900–en–20-EL%2cPA-21–txt-txIN-colored+citizens+napa——#.

[v] “Advertisements,” Elevator (San Francisco), August 13, 1869,——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——-.

[vi] “Colored School Report,” Napa County Reporter, January 2, 1875, microfilm.

[vii] Sharon McGriff-Payne, John Grider’s Century: African Americans in Solano, Napa, and Sonoma Counties from 1845 to 1925, (Bloomington, Ind.: iUniverse, 2009): 23.

[viii] Savage, “Early Negro Education in the Pacific Coast States,” 137.

[ix] Rudolph M. Lapp, Afro-Americans in California (San Francisco: Boyd & Fraser Publishing Company, 1987): 23.

[x] McGriff-Payne, John Grider’s Century, 26.

[xi] “Opening of the Public Schools,” Napa Daily Register, July 22, 1878, microfilm.