Negro students were initially educated in a one-room schoolhouse in the basement of “Mother Zion” church on North Duke Street where one teacher, James Smallwood, taught all of the elementary grades. Later this school was expanded to two rooms located again in Zion church which had moved to East King Street near Queen Street. It was not until 1893 that the first school house for Blacks were built which was the three room Water Street School whose name was later changed to Smallwood.
For years more than 200 students were crammed into this four room building then as more Blacks moved to York as a result of World War I, the intermediate grades were transferred to the old York High building on Philadelphia and Beaver Street a dilapidated structure which had been abandoned for use by white students.
A new eight room Smallwood building was completed in 1929 and something closer to “equal” facilities were made available to Black students for the first time.
James Smallwood was an Educator. The architect of York’s Black educational History. He was one of only two Blacks to have a school named after him. He was borne in Philadelphia July 28, 1844. He began his educational journey attending the schools of that city and at 10 was sent to the Settlement Schools at Buxton, Canada West, which was one of four organized black settlements to be developed in Canada to educate free Blacks and promising escaped slaves.. The founder of Buxton, William King, believed that blacks could function successfully in a working society if given the same educational opportunities as white children. “Blacks are intellectually capable of absorbing classical and abstract matters” he said. Young James spent three years there and then returned to Philadelphia to complete his studies at the colored school there where he graduated as Valedictorian. He then began working for the U.S. Government as a clerk at Camp Chilton, near Philadelphia.
Inside a Smallwood Classroom showing Principal Mr. Henry Hopewell standing in the Rear
In 1867 he was elected teacher of the colored school in York, Pa. and held that position until his death from paralysis in 1885 at the young age of 46. Mr. Smallwood joined with the likes of Aquilla Howard, Merriman Cupit and John Noble to petition the local school board to provide a school building for the colored children of that time who were being educated in one room at the local A.M.E. Zion church. Mr. Smallwood was universally loved by his students and the colored people of this community. He was the very first person of color to sit on a Jury in York County. His first case involved a charge of fornication and bastardy bought upon a colored man named Milton Chambers by Lovenia Hess a white woman. No person has exercised so much influence for good among his race in York. He was very active worker in his church the A.M.E. Zion Church. Mr. Smallwood was an intelligent, courteous, Christian Gentleman and was highly respected by all who knew him. His remains are interred at York’s Lebanon Cemetery of which He was an original Charter member of the Lebanon Cemetery Board who helped purchase the cemetery.
Mr. Smallwood was ahead of his time. Even before W.E.B. Dubois used the term “talented tenth” to describe the likelihood of one in 10 black men becoming leaders of their race in the world, through methods such as continuing their education, writing books, or becoming directly involved in social change, men like Smallwood, Aquilla Howard, Merriman Cupit and William Goodridge were stepping forth taking responsibility for uplifting their race and community. Smallwood felt, as did Dubois that blacks needed a classical education to be able to reach their full potential. They said that “we shall make manhood the object of the work of our schools — intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it” — this is the curriculum that Higher Education must pursue. On this foundation we may build bread winning men, with skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear that the child or man will mistake the means of living for the object of life. Who knows where our dysfunctional schools would be today if we had followed their lead
Miss Ella Robinson was another of York’s Finest Educators. She was born here on January 25, 1868, the daughter of William T & Eliza H. Robinson. She graduated from William Penn High School June of 1886 and was the First Negroe, as we were called during that period, to graduate from York High. She began teaching that year in September at the colored school located in the A.M.E. Zion church on East King Street. When the new Smallwood School was built she became one of the first teachers there teaching first, second and third grades and remained there until the end of her teaching career. She was credited with 48 years of continuous teaching by the Employees Retirement Board in Harrisburg, Pa. Miss Robinson also served as Principal of the Smallwood School for several years. She did postgraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, Pa. She was a life-long member of A.M.E. Zion church and served as Superintendent of the Sunday School there for 18 years. Miss Robinson died in 1935 and is buried in the Lebanon Cemetery.
Of course no account of Black Education and Educators in York would be complete without recognizing the contributions of Mrs. Helen Reeves Thackston
Wife of longtime Smallwood School principal William Felton and a fine Educator in her own right.
Esteemed female teachers include Front row; Julia Harris, Joalto Ackward Daniels, Virginia King Hunter, Betty Mitchell Crenshaw and Drucilla Jenkins . Second Row; Christine Mitchell Bracey, Doris Chase McNiel, Mary Beattie, Hildegard Breeland, Marilee Jones