Claiming an Education: Early Black American Humanists

Albany Enterprise Academy: The Institution of Higher Learning 10 Miles from Athens

Albany Enterprise Academy building, circa 1940s
Albany Enterprise Academy building, circa 1940s. Courtesy of Ohio University Archives.

An Important Stop on the Underground Railroad: From about 1850 to 1863 Albany, Ohio, located about ten miles from Athens, served as an important station on the Underground Railroad. The town became a regional educational hub as well as a safe place for free Black Americans, including freedom seekers and recently freed Black Americans, to settle, and soon a community was established. 

A Community School for Black Students: A community requires a school. First the Albany Manual Labor Academy served that purpose. When it no longer allowed Black students to attend, the Black community raised funds to build a new school by selling stock shares, gathering community donations, and later receiving $2,000 from the Freedmen’s Bureau. With those combined funds the local Black residents established, then built by hand and fully operated, the Albany Enterprise Academy. The Reverend Thomas Jefferson Ferguson, a Black educator, writer, and activist, was one of the key founders who went on to serve as the first principal and teacher at the academy. 

A Black-Owned Institution of Higher Learning: The academy opened its doors to students in 1863, making it one of the first Black established, owned, and run institutions of higher learning in the country. It welcomed "all persons of good character” and women students as well as men, but predominantly served the local and regional Black community. The academy initially trained students to become teachers. Eventually the curriculum expanded to include a variety of other subjects. During its early years, as many as 100 students were enrolled, about the same number as at Ohio University during the same time period.

THE OBJECT OF THIS INSTITUTION IS TO FURNISH TO ALL PERSONS OF GOOD CHARACTER WHO MAY WISH TO AVAIL THEMSELVES OF ITS PRIVILEGE A SOUND CHRISTIAN AND LITERARY EDUCATION PARTICULARLY COLORED PERSONS WHO WISH TO PREPARE THEMSELVES FOR TEACHERS OR EDUCATORS OF THEIR RACE OR TO FILL WITH HONOR OTHER USEFUL POSITIONS IN SOCIETY.

With Prominent Alumni: The Academy was located in a two-story single building structure. Classes were held on the first floor, and the upper story was used as a chapel. In 1870 a dormitory was added, turning the building into an L-shaped structure. Female students lived in the dormitory while men were housed with nearby families. 

The Academy claims a number of graduates who went on to become prominent, both locally and beyond. For example, Olivia Davidson, Martha Mattie Madrey (Berry), and Edward Berry, whom you can read about on neighboring panels, as well as author, poet, and teacher A.J. Jackson.

 

“Negro Education: The Hope of the Race” by Thomas Jefferson Ferguson:
“Negro Education: The Hope of the Race” by Thomas Jefferson Ferguson. Courtesy of Ohio University Archives.

And a Short but Significant Impact: The Academy remained in operation until 1885 when a fire destroyed much of the structure. Already facing financial challenges, the death of founder and advocate Ferguson, and a declining Black population in the area, the school was forced to close the following year. Nevertheless, over the course of its short tenure, the Albany Enterprise Academy had a significant impact on Black student education and activism.