Updated: Jan 19
*Disclaimer: All research was conducted independently by me and mentioned in my paper entitled Black Women: Literacy and Education as Pathways to Equality which was presented at the Pennsylvania Historical Association Annual Meeting in October 2022*
The Gilded Age in Pittsburgh was booming with commerce, possibility, and steel. A man could elevate himself by getting involved in this industry, and immigrants flocked to the city to secure jobs and build a better life for their families. African Americans also came to Pittsburgh with these same hopes and desires. However, 19th century, Pittsburgh and Allegheny City (what the North Side was called before being annexed in 1907) were segregated in terms of Black and White, meaning that the same opportunities were not always afforded to African Americans.
What's that, you say?
Pittsburgh did not have segregation because it was a Northern city, was part of the Union Army, and had a sizeable abolitionist population?
Well, I hate to break it to you. Despite being staunchly abolitionist, Pittsburgh participated in the enslavement of African Americans, and yeah... we had segregated churches and schools. Spoiler alert: we still, in some cases, have segregated schools.
In the 19th century, Pennsylvania had this thing called the Common School Law, and in 1854, it was adapted to say that municipalities had the right to establish separate schools for Black and White children. It was bad enough that most Black children, especially in Pittsburgh, had to attend schools through their churches because there wasn't one available. With separate schools, school districts were only required to establish one school for Black kids if there were 20 or more Black students in the community. This led to schools shoddily erected with minimal resources for Black students and insufficient teachers. Furthermore, most of the teachers were White, and Black parents in Pittsburgh and Allegheny City felt that their kids should be able to see teachers who looked like them and could better empathize with their needs.
So now I introduce you to one of those teachers who taught in Pittsburgh and Allegheny City Schools: Mary Mathilda Ware.
Mary Mathilda Ware was born in Martinsburg, Virginia (remember: this was pre-Civil War) in 1814. Her father, George Ware, was a friend of the abolitionist, preacher, and merchant Rev. John Peck. The details of her early life in Virginia are unclear; however, at some point, she moved to Carlisle, PA, and then later to Pittsburgh, PA, where she lived with members of Peck's family.
Mary, or Mathilda as she commonly went by, advocated for Black education from a young age. One story from August 25, 1901, Pittsburgh Daily Post recalls that when she was a child in the 1820s, she won an award from the Wesleyan Avenue Sunday School of Carlisle for "having learned 1,900 verses of scripture." Since she was the only Black student in the class, there was " a little disturbance in the church." Ware became acutely aware of what it meant to be a Black child pursuing education and dedicated her life to teaching.
During the 1830s, efforts were underway in Pittsburgh by Black abolitionists such as Lewis Woodson and Jon B. Vashon to enhance the educational opportunities of Black children. Woodson, a preacher, had opened a school for Black children in the basement of his Hill District Church on Wylie Avenue and formed the African Education Society in 1832 alongside Vashon. Below is the preamble found in the February 10, 1832, Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette:
Mathilda Ware arrived in Pittsburgh in 1837 and began getting involved in these efforts to create spaces for Black children to be educated. She began teaching at Robinson Hall, a Baptist Church in Allegheny City. Like Lewis Woodson's church across the Allegheny River, Robinson Hall functioned as a school for Black students. It is unclear whether she had been enslaved herself at some point in Virginia. Still, Ware became interested in the abolitionist movement and became well-connected in the Greater Pittsburgh area through her surrogate family, the Pecks.
In the 1860s, Ware was elected as an assistant to Principal Samuel A. Neale at the Negro Public School of Allegheny City.
Pittsburgh's first Black school, Miller Street School, was built in the Hill District during this time. Mary Mathilda Ware left the Allegheny City School District and was elected as an assistant teacher in 1867 under principal Jacob B. Taylor. However, just three years later, she resigned and returned to the Allegheny City Schools, where she continued to teach Black primary school students at the Negro Public School of Allegheny City.
By the mid-1870s, the promises of Reconstruction encouraged African Americans to push for equality in all areas of life. This meant a challenge to the ideas of "colored schools." By 1879, Mathilda Ware was forced to resign from Allegheny City Schools. She would later become the matron of the Home for Colored Children in Allegheny City, where she would continue her work with the city's Black children. In the 1890s, she retired and relocated to the Homewood-Brushton neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
Ware's contribution to Pittsburgh and Allegheny City's Black children would not go unrecognized. After her retirement in 1898, her former students gave her a purse containing $57.55 ($1,993.48 in today's money). In 1900, she was profiled in the article Five Colored Pittsburgh's Who Have Had Notable Careers, in the Pittsburgh Press. In addition to outlining her fifty-year career in education, the report stated
"...she instructed the young people of her race, making it her life…All up and down this country are men and women with families of their own who received what education they possess of her hands and revere her memory as fondly as they do that of a mother."
Mary Mathilda Ware spent her remaining years at the Home for Aged and Infirmed Colored Women, later known as Lemington Home. She died of pneumonia on March 28, 1903, and was buried in Allegheny Cemetery in the John Peck family plot. In October 2022, I visited the cemetery to locate this fantastic woman's final resting place. While I found the area she and the Peck family members were buried in, I did not find a stone for any of them as they may have sunken deep in the ground of the cemetery after over 120 years.
Mary Mathilda Ware's legacy is vital to Pittsburgh because she represents an early example of Black women working to uplift the African American community through education. Furthermore, she was one of the first Black women teachers hired by the Pittsburgh Board of Education, then known as the Central Board and Allegheny City Schools. Her dedication to her students inspired many to seek careers in education and form clubs for Black intellect. Mary Mathilda Ware showed Black kids that they could be more than domestics or work menial jobs that society said they had to take because of their race. She showed them that with education, anything could be possible.
Stay tuned for our next Black and Gilded pioneer: Sadie Hamilton Cottam.