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A Pioneering Science Educator

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Today’s post was written by Denise Dempsey a Science Reference Librarian who has previously written about the women featured in the motion picture “Hidden Figures” and the post “A Family of Pharmacists”.

Seated photo of Josephine A. Silone Yates holding a fan
Josephine A. Silone Yates, educator and activist, seated before studio backdrop.

Among the photographs in the Picture This blog post, Portraits of Nineteenth Century African American Women Activists Newly Available Online, is one of a pioneering African American educator, Josephine Amelia Silone Yates.  Mrs. Silone Yates was born in Mattituck, Southold, Suffolk County on Long Island, New York, on November 17, 1859; the second daughter of Alexander and Parthenia Reeve Silone.  Josephine showed an early aptitude for science and studied physiology, physics, and mathematics while still in grammar school.  When she was eleven, her mother’s brother, Rev. John Bunyan Reeve, sent for her to come to Philadelphia to attend the highly regarded Institute for Colored Youth, headed by Fanny Jackson (Coppin).

After she had studied at the Institute for a year, her uncle was offered the position of dean of the Theological Department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Josephine went back to her family in Long Island, where she remained for the next two years.  Then when she was fourteen, Josephine traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, to live with her maternal aunt and her husband, Keturah Reeve and Francis L. Girard, and she attended grammar school there for a year.  In 1874, she entered Rogers High School in Newport, where she was the only African American pupil in her class.  While in high school, she demonstrated an interest in chemistry, and when she graduated as valedictorian in 1877, she became the first African American graduate of the school, and had completed the four year program in only three years.

Although Josephine was encouraged to further her education by enrolling in a university, she was determined to become a teacher and entered the Rhode Island State Normal School in Providence, where she was again the only African American in her class, and graduated in 1879.  She took the teacher certification examination, made the highest score on the test in Newport to that date, and became the first African American certified to teach in public schools in Rhode Island.

Women and men working in a lab with a number of jars and tubes.
Chemical Laboratory at Lincoln Institute. Image from Thirty-sixth Annual Catalogue, 1907-1908.

After teaching in public schools for a few years, she was hired in 1881 as a “female assistant” with a yearly salary of $500 on the faculty of Lincoln Institute, a college established for African American students in Jefferson, Missouri.  Her first assignments were teaching chemistry, botany, physiology, and drawing, and by June 1886, she was the head of the Natural Science Department, becoming the first African American female head of a college Science Department.  In 1886, Booker T. Washington offered Miss Silone a position as “lady principal” at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but she declined and remained at Lincoln, where her salary eventually reached $1000.

Photograph of Josephine Silone Yates in profile surrounded by a frame with three drawings related to slavery and progress of African Americans in the United States and an eagle on the top
Mrs. Josephine Silone Yates. Image from Twentieth Century Negro Literature.

Josephine Silone resigned her position at Lincoln Institute in 1889, when she married Professor William Ward Yates, principal of the Phillips School in Kansas City, Missouri.  The couple had two children, Josephine Silone Yates, Jr., and William Blyden Yates.  While in Kansas City, Mrs. Silone Yates was an active member of African American women’s clubs and civil rights organizations.  She was an organizer and the first president of the Women’s League of Kansas City, was a correspondent for the league to the Women’s Era, a monthly magazine for African American women, and was a regular contributor to several other publications.  Mrs. Silone Yates was an active and energetic member of the National Association of Colored Women and was elected as fourth vice president in 1897, treasurer in 1899, and served two terms as president from 1901-1906. She traveled around the country making speeches on behalf of the NACW and had a reputation as an eloquent author and lecturer.

Josephine A. Silone Yates returned to Lincoln Institute in 1902, and in addition to teaching drawing, became the chair of English and History as well as the women’s advisor, and earned an M.A. from the University of Illinois in 1903.  She offered her resignation to Lincoln in 1908, but the school refused to accept it.  After her husband died in 1910, Josephine returned to Kansas City where she taught at Lincoln High School and worked for the Kansas City Board of Education.  Two years after the death of her husband, Josephine Silone Yates passed away in Kansas City, Missouri on September 3, 1912 at the age of 52.

To read more about African Americans in science consider these titles:

Comments (3)

  1. What a rich site filled with resources on such a valuable topic. Thank you for the list of titles for African Americans in science.

  2. Thank you for the work you do. For Black History Month this year. My daughter and I decided to honor our ancestors that are not celebrated in every Black History celebration and in various genres. Today’s category is educators. I was able to find Mrs. Yates in less than a minute. Again Thank you.

  3. Hi, I’m Jamaya Glover. I really like this report of Josephine Silone Yates, and I was really hoping I could use it or use it to help me with a piece of information on Josephine Silone Yates that I have to write. I really love this report. It’s excellent, and it helped me learn something about her. Thank you.

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