Founded in 1837 as the African Institute, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania is the oldest African-American institution of higher learning in the country.
Photo: Photo courtesy Cheyney University of Pennsylvania
Photo: Photo courtesy Cheyney University of Pennsylvania

AJC Sepia HBCU of the Week: Cheyney University of Pennsylvania - A History

AJC Sepia HBCU of the Week is an occasional series that looks at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The founding of Cheyney University was made possible by Richard Humphreys, a Quaker philanthropist who bequeathed $10,000, one-tenth of his estate, to design and establish a school to educate the descendants of the African race.

Born on Tortola, an island in the West Indies, Richard Humphreys came to Philadelphia in 1764. Having witnessed the struggles of African Americans competing unsuccessfully for jobs due to the influx of immigrants, he became interested in their plight.

In 1829, after race riots occurred in Philadelphia, Humphreys wrote his will and charged 13 fellow Quakers to design an institution, “…to instruct the descendants of the African race in school learning, in the various branches of the mechanic arts, trades and agriculture, in order to prepare and fit and qualify them to act as teachers.”

From its initial founding on Feb. 25, 1837 until 1852, the African Institute, as it was known, was located on a 136-acre farm seven miles from Philadelphia on Old York Road.

In 1849, the farm school closed for reevaluation and the farm was sold. On Oct. 22, 1849, the board authorized the re-opening of the school, and on Nov. 5, 1849, an evening school opened on Barclay Street in Philadelphia where it continued to operate through the spring of 1851 until suitable quarters could be found to resume a day school program.

Toward the end of July 1851, the board found a better location for the school on two contiguous lots on the south side of Lombard Street. The board authorized the purchase of the lots for $3,244 and directed the committee to prepare a plan for the building as soon as possible.

When the school opened in 1852 as the Institute for Colored Youth, a foundation had been laid for many years until the Lombard building was sold and the school moved to a new building at 915 Bainbridge Street in 1866 where a Pennsylvania state historical marker now stands.

In November of 1902, a committee of the Board of Managers recommended the purchase of a farm owned by Quaker farmer George Cheyney at Cheyney Station, about 25 miles west of Philadelphia.

The move to the expansive country location was deemed necessary in order for the Institute to increase academic offerings and attract more students. In December, the Institute purchased the farm for $11,199.

At the June meeting of the Board of Managers in 1913, the board accepted the resignation of Hugh Browne as principal, a position that he had held since 1902. But, by July, the board extended an offer to a young Harvard graduate, Leslie Pinckney Hill, who was principal at the Manassas Industrial School, in Manassas, Va.

On July 10, Hill accepted the offer to lead the Institute for Colored Youth. One of Hill’s first official actions came in January of 1914 when he proposed to the board that the name of the school be changed from the Institute for Colored Youth to Cheyney Training School for Teachers to better reflect the purpose of the school and the nature of its work.

The board concurred and in July, 1914, the school officially became Cheyney Training School for Teachers. Hill would go on to lead the school until 1951, a longer tenure than any other president. During that time, the name of the school would change several times to reflect the evolution in its status.

In 1920, it became the Cheyney Training School for Teachers: State Normal School (also known as Cheyney State Normal School). Records reveal that as early as the fall of 1919, the board, upon Hill’s recommendation, displayed interest in the establishment of Cheyney as a standard normal school.

A high level meeting was arranged by influential members of the board for them to meet with Gov. William Sproul and the state education superintendent, Thomas E. Finegan, to discuss the matter of a “closer union” of Cheyney’s work with that of the state system.

The meeting took place in April of 1920.  Events moved rapidly after this pivotal meeting. Sen. Albert McDade of Delaware County visited the school and came away impressed enough to sponsor Senate Bill 338, forming section 2040 of the Pennsylvania School Code, the statute which authorized the purchase of Cheyney by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

SB 338 passed both chambers and the governor signed it into law. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania paid $75,000 and assumed management and all expenses of Cheyney Training School for Teachers on January 1, 1922.

On October 3, 1930, the State Council of Education approved an extension of the curricula at Cheyney in elementary education, home economics, and industrial arts, all leading to the degree of Bachelor of Science in education.

Thus, on May 30, 1932, the first baccalaureate degrees were awarded. By June of 1951, the school had completed the implementation of certain recommendations of the first Middle States Association accreditation committee, one of which was to change the name of the school from Cheyney Training School for Teachers to the State Teachers College at Cheyney (also known as Cheyney State Teachers College). Cheyney became fully accredited shortly thereafter.

By legislative act in 1959, the name of the school was changed to Cheyney State College.

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education was established by statute on July 1, 1983. As a charter member of the system, Cheyney State College became Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in 1983, the oldest of the fourteen member institutions and the oldest Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in the nation.

Today, Cheyney University students represent a variety of races, cultures, and nationalities who receive educational instruction far beyond the vision of Richard Humphreys. Cheyney graduates still become teachers, but students also enter careers such as journalism, medicine, business, science, technology, law, communications, and government service.

The university offers baccalaureate degrees in more than 30 disciplines and the master’s degree in education and public administration.   

Cheyney University is proud of its more than 30,000 graduates.

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