Black History month asks us to remember some of the most influential members of our history. Some of these people are closer to our school than you may think. Mary Elizabeth Miles was the first African-American woman to enter and graduate from Framingham Normal School when it resided in Lexington, MA in the early 1840s. She was born in Rhode Island around 1820 to free parents in the Quaker community. Miles was educated at Prudence Crandall’s Female Academy by Crandall herself, a white abolitionist who was the first to teach exclusively black children. By the time Miles was a young adult she had proven herself capable enough for Rev. Samuel J. May and Horace Mann to petition the school committee to allow her access to higher education.
Miles entered the school on May 26th, 1842 as a twenty-two year old woman and graduated in April of 1843. Back then, an Education major had requirements that could be achieved in one or two years, a fact that shocks many present day Education students. The 1861 school catalogue states that students were only required to attend three consecutive terms (roughly a year and a half) to complete their courses of study in Reading, Spelling, Writing, Defining, Grammar, Geography, and Arithmetic. Miles already had some teaching experience working in public schools before she entered the Normal School giving her an edge in her studies.
After her graduation in 1843 she began her teaching career. She moved from Boston to Albany to Cincinnati before meeting her future husband Henry Bibb, a fugitive slave from Kentucky and ardent abolitionist. They formed a bond at an abolitionist convention in New York City in 1847 and married a year later in Ohio before moving back to Boston. They resided in the North until the federal government passed the Compromise of 1850 and the dreaded Fugitive Slave Act. Since Bibb himself was a fugitive slave and Miles’s family had been free for generations with little way to prove they were not slaves, the couple emigrated to Canada and lived in Sandwich.
Unfortunately, much of Miles’s career was overshadowed by her husband’s. He established Canada’s first black newspaper, Voice of the Fugitive, and continued the abolitionist movement while in Canada until his death in 1854. During his lecture tours, Bibb left the job of editing and publishing the paper to his wife making Mary Miles the first ever woman in Canadian history to publish a newspaper.
Meanwhile, Miles was doing more than her part in trying to promote education in the black community. She opened her first school in their home in 1851, the year that Canada segregated its public schools. Miles’s school was the first opened in Sandwich for black children. Attendance swelled she had no choice but to find a bigger space to accommodate all of her students. Unfortunately, the community was too impoverished to afford the meager six cents a week per student she was asking to be paid, and Miles was forced to close the school.
In a way, Miles’s story should make us present day Rams very proud because she continued her fight despite the odds against her. She opened a second school in 1852 in Windsor for both black and white children to attend with no prejudice about race. She also opened a third school later on in her life as well that promoted the same model.
At the same time that the Bibbs were running the newspaper and opening schools, they were also acting as the final stop on the Underground Railroad. They accepted American refugees into their home as a part of the Windsor Anti-Slavery Society and the Refugee Home Society. They worked to give the fugitive slaves enough of a foothold to survive and thrive in a new country.
Thanks to her dedication to education, Mary Elizabeth Miles forever changed the lives of the children she taught as well as the fugitive slaves she bravely sheltered. She was someone who sought to brighten the future by teaching new generations while trying to help fugitive slaves find a new life beyond the border. This is a woman who each Framingham State student should find strength in as well as an immense sense of the pride.
For more information on Mary Elizabeth Miles, check out the exhibit in the foyer of the Henry Whittemore Library.
2017 English Intern