The Ambidexter Institute was a private “industrial school” that operated from 1901 until 1908 at 902 S. 12th St. (As of 2014, the building, generally known as the Judge John Taylor House, was in disrepair, but the Springfield Project, a redevelopment group, had begun efforts to restore the structure.)
The institute was patterned after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, meaning students learned trades in addition to academic lessons. The institute was initiated by a group of black residents, but newspaper reports are contradictory about whether the student body included whites as well as blacks.
G.W. Murray, who described the school in a letter to the Illinois State Journal in April 1902, suggested the student body was integrated.
Here is an opportunity for young men and women to get what in this day is very necessary for the young man or young woman to get — a practical education. In this institute are taught the very branches of education which are so often neglected in the affairs of life. The citizens of our city especially should encourage this worthy object and give it practical support, that its worthy objects may be extended.
At the present time there are about twenty-five male students and about thirty female students belonging to the school, counting day and night school members. As this is the only school of its character in the central west admitting both white and black and having a mixed faculty and a mixed management it is perhaps a child of destiny.
However, other newspaper articles took for granted that the school was for African American children. For instance, here is a portion of a Journal report when Rev. George H. McDaniel resigned as the school’s president in November 1906.
During his five years administration of the Ambidexter Institute, Mr. McDaniel has raised the sum of $22,000, which has been expended on the educational institution for the colored youth of Springfield. The institute has recently been extensively repaired and remodeled and is now nearing completion. It will be one of the best buildings in that section of the city and is a decided improvement. The members of the board of directors declare that the future of the institute rests with the public, especially the colored people of this city, and that to continue in its present flourishing condition the cooperation of all citizens must be sought.
Some people were skeptical of the outlook for Ambidexter graduates even before the school opened. A Journal correspondent with the initials “J.H.J.” was candid in April 1901 about the problems African Americans were likely to face, even with the benefit of education.
What I am most anxious to know is this: Do the white citizens intend to open the doors of their factories and places of business to the graduates of this school? If so, I heartily indorse (sic) the movement, but if not I would like for some one of the indorsers to show to me in what way the negro in Springfield will be benefited. What we want and need is employment for things we know how to do, and not to know what we can’t get to do, simply for the sake of knowing.
McDaniel was succeeded as institute president by the Rev. James H. Magee, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, secretary of state employee and leader of a variety of local educational initiatives for blacks.
Fundraising for the institute ultimately fell short, and the board of directors could not keep up with the school’s $2,700 mortgage. Foreclosure proceedings began in January 1908, and the institute was legally dissolved a year later.
The idea of a trade school for African American youths, however, lasted for another dozen years.
Some of those involved in the Ambidexter Institute opened the Lincoln Industrial School at 15th and Washington streets in the fall of 1909. As many as 60 to 70 students attended “the workshop” in its early years, according to its white organizer, Episcopal Bishop Edward William Osborne (who initiated a variety of efforts to expand church outreach to blacks diocese-wide).
The school’s curriculum reflected the limited opportunities available to African Americans at the time. When the school opened, boys were taught carpentry, tailoring and shoemaking, although hopes were to add the trades of tinner, blacksmith and bricklayer in the future. Girls received instruction in sewing, dressmaking, cooking and laundry work.
However, the school closed in January 1914. Osborne told the Illinois State Journal enrollment had fallen sharply within a few years:
The reason for this is the almost entire failure of the colored people to appreciate the opportunity offered to them. …
One probable reason for the refusal to attend or send young people to attend the classes may be found in a fear that this industrial work was a precursor of an effort to obtain separate schools for black and white, a fear in this case without foundation.
In 1915, three prominent white residents — Susan Lawrence (Dana) Gehrman, Mrs. C.M. Stanton and Joseph Bunn — incorporated the Lincoln Industrial School for Colored Boys and the Mary A. Lawrence Industrial School for Colored Girls. The boys’ school, which remained at 15th and Washington streets, lasted into the 1920s. The girls’ school was incorporated into the Lincoln Colored Home, an orphanage at 427 S. 12th St., and, evidently, ultimately accepted boys as well. The home closed in 1933.
Mary Lawrence (1841-1905), Susan Dana Gehrmann’s mother, financed the founding of the Lincoln Colored Home, which opened the year before Lawrence died. The Lawrence family owned the home until 1944.
Major sources: Illinois State Journal and Illinois State Register articles, 1901 to 1920, available at Lincoln Library, Springfield. For more details, see Curtis Mann’s article in the Dec. 5-11, 2013 edition of Illinois Times.
Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society.