The Institute for Colored Youth was founded by Richard Humphreys, a Quaker philanthropist with a bequest of $10,000 in 1837, “to instruct the descendants of the African Race in school learning, in the various branches of the mechanic Arts, trades and Agriculture, in order to prepare and fit and qualify them to act as teachers….” In 1852 the first Institute for Colored Youth opened at 716-718 Lombard Street and provided a classical education to young African Americans (with a curriculum including advanced mathematics, sciences, English, philosophy, various social sciences, and classical languages) with a faculty entirely of African American men and women. A new Institute for Colored Youth building opened on March 9, 1866, capable of holding twice as many students as the original school and had facilities such as a lecture hall and chemistry laboratory. In 1902 the Institute moved to George Cheyney’s farm, 25 miles west of Philadelphia, and afterward the name “Cheyney” became associated with the school.
Over the years a remarkable group of faculty and students expanded the reputation of the Institute for Colored Youth, and demonstrated African-American educational achievement. Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett served as Principal for thirteen years beginning in 1856, before becoming Minister to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Bassett had a powerful influence on the intellectual quality of the Institute program, and he attracted many excellent students. Perhaps the most famous was Octavius V. Catto, 1858 class valedictorian and an accomplished instructor and civil-rights activist. Catto’s murder following an 1871 voting rights rally brought national attention on the fledgling institution. About the time of Catto’s death, Richard T. Greener, the first African-American graduate of Harvard University, joined the faculty. Five years later, Edward A. Bouchet, Yale’s first black doctoral graduate, accepted appointment. This early generation of outstanding black faculty instilled a measure of racial pride that added a sense of social purpose to the academic regime.
Fanny Coppin succeeded Bassett as Principal in 1869. She transformed the institution at each level (grammar, high school, and normal), expanding and modernizing the curriculum and improving outreach and fund-raising. It was Coppin who hired many of the distinguished faculty members that gave the Institute its character. And in an age of pervasive racial discrimination following Reconstruction, Coppin created a network of friendly benefactors across the country. On a personal level, Fanny Coppin combined the qualities of intellectual curiosity, religious piety, and practical duty she encouraged in the faculty and students.
The foundation laid in the nineteenth century served the Institute well in the twentieth. Over the next half century a veritable who’s who of notable African-American leaders and public intellectuals visited the campus. Booker T. Washington, Carter G. Woodson, Mary Church Terrell, and Mary McLeod Bethune all gave commencement addresses. W.E.B. Du Bois spoke at least three times over a quarter century’s time, and a distinguished lecture series was named in his honor. In more recent decades, historian John Hope Franklin, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, and former President Jimmy Carter have addressed the student body of the institution known since 1983 as Cheyney University.
What began as a private church-affiliated institution for poor children has evolved over time into a state institution of higher education with an international student body. The University occupies the land purchased more than a century ago. Now a full-fledged liberal arts institution, Cheyney draws students from throughout the Greater Philadelphia region and beyond. Ed Bradley, the recently deceased CBS news correspondent, is the most recent of a long line of distinguished graduates.