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A Pioneering Science Educator

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”.

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.

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.

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:

Susan Fenimore Cooper: The First American Woman to Publish Nature Writing

This post was authored by Stephanie Marcus, Science Reference & Research Specialist, in the Science, Technology, and Business Division of the Library of Congress. She is also author of the blog posts “Kebabs, Kabobs, Shish Kebabs, Shashlyk, and: Chislic” and “The Potato Transformed.” Years ago, I was wandering in the book stacks of the Library […]

Hidden Figures No More: African American Women in Space Exploration

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The Rise of the Broom Brigade

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