By Patricia Raub
Roger Williams and Thomas Dorr are well known in Rhode Island, but few people have heard of Maritcha Lyons. Yet this woman won a significant civil rights victory in 1865 when she argued before the RI legislature that African American students should be admitted to any public school in the state— and won. When she graduated from Providence High School in 1869, she was the first African-American person to do so.
Maritcha Lyons was born in 1848 into a Manhattan family that held education in high regard. Her father had attended the first African Free School in the city. Her parents enrolled Lyons and her older sister in a segregated Manhattan school, the only school open to African-Americans in Manhattan in the 1850s; finding it inadequate, their parents transferred the girls to an integrated school in Brooklyn.
After a severe illness forced Lyons to miss several years of school, she attended Colored School No. 3 in then-uptown Manhattan, where the school’s principal, Charles Reason, a friend of her parents, helped her catch up for the time she had lost.
As a child, Lyons was quite aware of the slavery controversy and the efforts by abolitionists to end slavery— and, in the meantime, to help those enslaved in the South to escape. Reason was associated with the abolitionists; he was “one of the first blacks to earn a college degree and also one of the first to teach mixed-race college classes, both at the abolitionist Central College in New York State.” (Notable Black American Women, Vol. II: 419). Lyon’s parents’ boarding house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Her parents estimated later that they had helped 1,000 people along their journey to freedom. Lyons’ grandmother treasured the memory of a visit by escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass to her home. After he told of his life in slavery and his escape from bondage, she “pledged that when- ever he came to town, ‘you will find a seat at my table, a place to sleep and I will keep your linen laundered for you.’” There is no record, however, that Douglass took Lyons’ grandmother up on her offer.
Lyons’ childhood, her long illness notwithstanding, seems to have been a happy one. She and her three siblings attended fireworks displays in City Hall Park, visited New York’s first world’s fair, and watched early baseball games across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey. When Lyons was forced to leave school because of her health, her father bought her a piano.
These days of relative security and peace abruptly ended with the New York Draft Riot in July of 1863. Mobs protesting the national draft took to the streets. Although their anger would have been more justly targeted at the wealthy elite who were able to buy their way out of their military obligations, the rioters instead aimed their wrath at the city’s African Americans, reasoning that the abolition of slavery was the real reason why the North was fighting the war. The white working-class immigrants who participated in the riots preferred African Americans to remain as slaves in the South. Why should Northern workmen risk their lives in order to free people who would then move North and become competitors for scarce jobs? The rioters looted and burned homes throughout the Manhattan African-American community. The Lyons family escaped without physical harm, but their house was vandalized.
After a stay of several months with friends in Salem, Massachusetts, the family moved back to their restored house in Manhattan. Like many others in the African-American community, though, the Lyons felt uncomfortable in the city, and they left again in 1864, this time for Providence, Rhode Island.
The Lyons family may have settled in a city in which they would encounter less overt racial violence (the Olney Lane riot had taken place three decades earlier), but Providence was equally racist. When the Lyons tried to enroll their younger children in the city’s public elementary schools, their application was denied— since there was a separate “colored” school for the lower grades. There was no “colored” high school, however, and state law forbade African-
Americans students from entering public schools, so where was sixteen-year-old Maritcha Lyons to continue her education? She made her case before the General Assembly and eventually won the right to enter Providence High School.
Much like those young people who first integrated public schools in the South during the Civil Rights era a century later, Lyons at first found few white students who would befriend her. The desks at this time were designed to accommodate two students sitting side by side. Despite the school’s over- crowded conditions, Lyons occupied her desk alone during her first year at Providence High. Eventually, some students, including Lucia Tappan, from a family of abolitionists, and teacher and women’s rights advocate Sarah Doyle befriended her.
After graduation she considered going to Oberlin College, the Ohio school that was the first to admit women and was also a nineteenth-century leader in African-American education. However, Lyons decided against college and in favor of getting a job. She returned to New York City and began a half-century education career in Brooklyn, first as a teacher at Colored School No. 1, which later became a public school, and then as an assistant principal at Public School No. 83.
Even though most in Rhode Island have long forgotten Maritcha Lyons and her role in integrating the state’s educational system, New Yorkers have commemorated her by naming the Lyons Community School in Brooklyn after her because, as the school states on its website, “she embodies the kind of full, well-rounded life we want for all our students.”