A History of Black Americans in California:
Phoenixonian Institute Site
The Phoenixonian Institute, a residential secondary school, was organized in San Jose in 1861. For more than a decade, this school operated at several different sites in the city. At the time Reverend Peter William Cassey founded Phoenixonian, there was no other California institution where a Black person could receive secondary training. For that matter, only a few secondary schools had been established to prepare White students. California's constitution, until 1875, forbade Black students to attend regular state-supported public schools. After 1865, the constitution did provide for a separate system that could be established with common school funds at the discretion of local school districts. In districts where school trustees did not vote to establish a separate "colored school," Black children could not attain a basic education unless they attended a private institution.
Given the educational conditions that prevailed, it is no surprise that Phoenixonian received statewide support from Black people. Prestige and financial backing were given the school through Rev. Cassey's organization of a Convention of Colored Citizens of California which had its initial meeting in San Jose December 11, 1863. Further support for the institute was garnered when the Third Statewide Convention of Colored Citizens of California (1865) passed a resolution to tax each Black person in the state one dollar to support the school.
Support through school registration came from Black families in many cities throughout California and as far away as Portland, Oregon. Male and female students were accepted. Board and tuition per term of four weeks cost $16 to $20 in 1867. All English curricula and vocal music were taught without extra charge, while music classes with the use of instruments such as piano or melodian required an extra $6 fee per month.
Common school funds provided another means of school income. The local school board entered into an agreement with Rev. Cassey and gave the institute a concession to matriculate Black students who applied for admission to the regular public school system. However, in 1874, the annual appropriation (which then was $125) was discontinued because the San Jose Board of Education decided to open a "colored school."
While administering the Phoenixonian Institute, Rev. Cassey also labored to establish a Christ Episcopal Church for Black people in San Jose. Although this missionary effort received no financial support from either the California or Eastern churches, Cassey's St. Phillip's Mission struggled along desperately for two decades. Given the history of Cassey's involvement with these two institutions, it is no surprise that their resources were at times mingled. For example, the mission in 1869-70 used the hall owned by the institute for its Sabbath services.
Little is known about Peter Cassey's personal life. He was born in 1831 in Philadelphia, son of Joseph Cassey, a noted abolitionist and anti-colonizationist. While well educated in his youth, Cassey as a young man learned the barber trade. This trade proved lucrative in San Francisco when he arrived in 1853. Cassey and Charles H. Mercier are listed in an 1859 San Francisco Directory as partners in a shaving saloon in the basement of the Union Hotel at 642 Merchant Street.
While engaged as a barber in San Francisco, Cassey became acquainted with other politically active Blacks who were involved in the network of the Executive Committee of the Convention of Colored Citizens. The support and astute leadership of these men helped in the organization and administration of the Phoenixonian Institute of San Jose. In fact, the year before the school opened, some of these men came together at Bethel A.M.E. in San Francisco and created the Livingstone Institute. This first attempt to establish a secondary school for Black people in the West ended in 1863 when the trustees decided to return the stockholders' money, stating that conditions had so changed that the need for the institute no longer existed. The Livingstone Institute creators, unlike those of the Phoenixonian, never formally established a school. Therefore, the Phoenixonian Institute was the first Black secondary school in the western United States.
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