The Phillips School

four story brick building with arched windows on the second story. Façade slightly juts out in the center entryway.
John P. Phillips School

Boston African American NHS/NPS

Built in 1824, this former school building originally served as the Boston English High School. It became the Phillips Grammar School in 1844, named after Boston’s first mayor, John Phillips.1

Until 1855, the Phillips Grammar School only educated White students. Black students attended segregated schools nearby, including one in the basement of the African Meeting House that moved to the Abiel Smith School on Joy Street in 1834.

Equal School Rights activists such as William Cooper Nell, Lewis Hayden, Benjamin Roberts, and others led protests and petition drives that compelled the state legislature to finally outlaw segregated schools in Massachusetts in 1855. Following this landmark victory, the Phillips School become one of the first public schools in Boston with an interracial student body. The Boston Herald reported on the first day of school in 1855, “In the Phillips School fifteen colored children have been admitted…The colored pupils show a commendable neatness in their dress, as well as correctness of deportment.”2 The Liberator, the radical abolitionist newspaper, also reported on the day:

The introduction of the colored youth in the schools, we are happy to say, was accomplished with general good feeling on the part of both teachers and white children. At the Phillips School, at the West End, one or two of the white boys were making a little merry sport at the colored pupils as they came up, but the principal, Mr. Hovey, stayed it at once by the quiet remark: “Is that your politeness to strangers?”… The appearance of the colored children in the heretofore by them unfrequented streets leading to the school houses created a “sensation” among the neighbors, who filled the windows, probably in anticipation of trouble. So far as we can hear, there was none, however, in any part of the city.3

In 1863, the Phillips School moved to a new building on Phillips Street (formerly Southac Street) and became the Wendell Phillips School, named after the famed abolitionist and son of the school’s original namesake. In the early 1870s, Elizabeth Smith, daughter of abolitionist John J. Smith, started teaching at the Phillips School, likely becoming the first African American teacher in an integrated Boston public school.4

Note: The Phillips School, a site on the Black Heritage Trail®, is a private residence and is not open to the public.

Footnotes:

  1. "Phillips School (1824)," Historic Buildings of Massachusetts. Accessed January 2021. http://mass.historicbuildingsct.com/?p=68.
  2. "Affairs About Home," Boston Herald, September 5, 1855.
  3. “Reopening of the Schools,” The Liberator, September 9, 1855.
  4. Kathryn Grover and Janine V. Da Silva, "Historic Resource Study: Boston African American National Historic Site," Boston African American National Historic Site, (2002), 120.

Last updated: February 22, 2021

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