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Charles L. Reason

charlesreasonCharles L. Reason was born July 21, 1818 in New York City to West Indies immigrants Michiel and Elizabeth Reason. Charles attended the African Free School along with his brothers Elmer and Patrick (both who are important historical figures in their own right).

An excellent student in mathematics, Reason became an instructor in 1832 at the school at age fourteen (this became a striking matter for the news), receiving a salary of $25 a year. He used some of his earnings to hire tutors to improve his knowledge.

Later, he decided to enter the ministry but was rejected because of his race by the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal church in New York City.

Reason rejected such “sham Christianity” and resigned in protest from St. Philip’s Church, the congregation sponsoring his application. Undaunted by Episcopal racism, he studied next at McGrawville College in McGraw, New York.

Reason aided in drafting a call to the first New York State Convention of Negroes in 1840 and advocated in New York City a manual-labor school to provide training in the inductrial arts. He created a normal (teaching) school as a remedy to the charge that black teachers were inefficient and incompetent. He decided to pursue a career in teaching, believing strongly that education was the best means for black advancement. In British abolitionist Julia Griffiths’s Autographs for Freedom (1854), he wrote that a black industrial college would prepare free blacks, who were shut out of the “workshops of the country,” to become “self-providing artizans [sic] vindicating their people from the never-ceasing charge of a fitness for servile positions.” In 1847 Reason and Charles B. Ray founded the Society for the Promotion of Education among Colored Children, a black organization authorized by the state legislature to oversee black schools in New York City. Reason served as superintendent of P.S. 2 in 1848, and Frederick Douglass wrote in the North Star of 11 May 1849 that, under Reason’s leadership, the school became a rigorous refutation of the calumnies of John C. Calhoun about the potentials of free blacks.

In 1849 Reason became the first African American to hold a professorship at a predominantly white American college when he was hired as professor of belles lettres, Greek, Latin, and French and adjunct professor of mathematics at the integrated New York Central College in McGrawville (Cortland County), New York only to resign in 1852 in order to become the first principal of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth (1852-56) [now Cheyney University of PA]. The Institute was a Quaker institution that had earned a reputation for high academic standards since its founding in 1837. (It should be noted that in 1850 Central College also had the Blacks George B. Vashton and William G. Allen on its faculty. This ended when Allen was tarred and feathered for his attention to wed Mary King, a white woman. Allen later became the first Black Headmaster in England.).

[Note: Anton Amo, from Ghana, held a position at a German University in 1730.]

In 1852 Reason left Central College and became the principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia (now Cheyney State University), and where Edward Bouchet taught 25 years later). Reason expanded the enrollment from six students in 1852 to 118 students in 1855, improved the library, and made the school a forum for distinguished visiting speakers.

In 1855 Reason returned to New York City permanently to begin thirty-seven continuous years as a teacher and administrator in city schools. In 1856, he was appointed Principal of School No.6 in New York. In 1873 he headed the successful movement to outlaw segregation in New York schools. In 1882 teachers, superintendents, and principals of the New York City school system honored him for fifty years of service. He was chairman of the Committee on Grammar School Work of the Teacher’s Association in 1887. When Reason resigned in 1892, he held the longest tenure in the school system.

Reason was also active politically throughout his life. He was committed to the antislavery cause and worked unceasingly for improvement of black civil rights. In 1837 Reason, Henry Highland Garnet, and George Downing launched a petition drive in support of full black suffrage. He was also secretary of the 1840 New York State Convention for Negro Suffrage. Reason founded and was executive secretary of the New York Political Improvement Association, which won for fugitive slaves the right to a jury trial in the state. In 1841 he lobbied successfully for the abolition of the sojourner law, which permitted slave owners to visit the state briefly with their slaves. He also lectured on behalf of the Fugitive Aid Society. An active reporter on education to the black national convention movement of the 1850s, he was secretary of the 1853 (July 6-8) convention in Rochester, New York. He spoke out against the American Colonization Society and Garnet’s African Civilization Society. In 1849 Reason, along with J. W. C. Pennington and Frederick Douglass, sponsored a mass demonstration against colonization at Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York City. At the meeting, Reason quoted a former American Colonization Society agent in Africa, who claimed that the president and secretary of the society’s colony of Liberia had business dealings with European slave traders on the African coast. During the Civil War, Reason served on New York City’s Citizen’s Civil Rights Committee, which lobbied the New York legislature for expanded black civil rights. After the conflict, he was vice president of the New York State Labor Union. At a union meeting in 1870, he delivered a paper in which he gave statistical proof that education helped New York City blacks gain prosperity.

Reason was also a writer. He contributed verse to the Colored American in the 1830s and was a leader of New York City’s Phoenix Society in the 1840s. He wrote the poem “Freedom,” which celebrated abolitionist Thomas Clarkson and was published in Alexander Crummell’s 1849 biography of Clarkson.

Reason’s personal life is obscure. He was married and widowed three times; only the identity of his third wife, Clorice Esteve, is known. He died in New York City in 1893.

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