Teaching Anti-Racism on the New York Frontier: Beriah Green’s Oneida Institute
When the fervent abolitionist Beriah Green took the reins as president of the Oneida Institute in Whitestown, New York, in 1833, he made it clear that his vision was to turn it into a school that would fight not just slavery in America, but racism itself.
The radicalism of the project in the context of the time cannot be overstated. Slavery had only recently been abolished in New York State and there was no end of it in sight in the South. Even among the strongest opponents of slavery, such as there were at the time, many firmly believed that Blacks were inherently inferior to whites and that emancipated slaves would never be able to integrate into American life. Philanthropists like Gerrit Smith, who lived nearby, threw their support (and wealth) behind the American Colonization Society, which aimed to “return” Blacks to Africa.
Green, by contrast, argued that Blacks and whites should live and work together in full equality. He wanted to use his school to prove what was possible. The Oneida Institute had been founded the decade before as a ‘manual labour’ residential school where students farmed and learned skills like carpentry and blacksmithing alongside their rigorous academic curriculum. Its main building was the house built by Hugh White, the first permanent Euro-American settler on that section of what had only recently been part of the Oneida Indian homeland.
When Green took over, he actively sought to convert Oneida into a training ground for abolitionists. This won him the odium of some of his neighbours in Whitestown and nearby Utica. His advocacy of immediate emancipation (as opposed to a gradual process with compensation for slaveholders for the loss of ‘property’ as was being tried in the British West Indies in the mid-1830s) was seen as dangerously divisive. Several trustees resigned due to Green’s activities. He was hanged in effigy in Utica after a debate with a leader of the American Colonization Society. Opponents derided what they called a “nigger school.” When he convened the first meeting of the New York Anti-Slavery Society, angry mobs rioted outside the building and forced it to disband.
Although the Oneida Institute only survived until 1843 when financial pressures became overwhelming, it had achieved some of its aims. Black and white students studied there in full equality and without segregation – it was the first school in the country where this occurred. Green managed to win over Gerrit Smith, who threw his immense fortune into funding antislavery activity in the years prior to the Civil War. Green’s students printed the abolitionist newspaper, The Friend of Man. Several of the students, like Jermain Wesley Loguen, were escaped slaves from the South who went on to become important abolitionists themselves. Some of them helped other refugee slaves escape from bondage on the Underground Railroad.
The only book written about Beriah Green and the Oneida Institute is Milton Sernett’s Abolition’s Axe: Beriah Green, Oneida Institute, and the Black Freedom Struggle (1986). From an educational perspective, what makes Oneida so interesting is the way that Green used his school as a model to prove that Blacks and whites could live, learn and work together in an atmosphere of full equality and mutual respect. He was not only teaching pupils to be anti-slavery in outlook, but to be anti-racist. He knew that discrimination and racism would continue to be problems even if the institution of slavery were dismantled. His mission – and that of his students – was to show that an alternative was possible. Schools now have a responsibility to teach all students to be anti-racist. In this mission, we are following a trail blazed at Oneida.
Published on the History of Education Society Blog, October