For Black History Month, local historians Betty Slade and David Cole, delve further into the history of Paul Cuffe’s school, the first school in America open to people of all colors.
Captain Paul Cuffe, son of an emancipated slave from West Africa and a native American woman, set up, with his own funds, a school in about 1797 near his home on what was known as Drift Way in Westport, Massachusetts. No public school existed in Westport at the time. “Cuff’s School” as it came to be known was open to boys and girls of all races. There is no evidence that any charge was made for attendance. It may well have been the first integrated and co-educational school in America. There is no evidence to refute that claim that we have found. This claim is repeated in the many volumes that have been written about Paul Cuffe. Articles about Cuffe during his life by his friends recall his story of that school and the importance that he placed on it. Cuffe deeply felt the disadvantages of lack of formal education and was determined to give opportunities to his children and the children of his friends and neighbors. It is clear from deed records at that time that Cuffe’s neighbors were mostly white and known to be mostly of the Quaker faith. It is also likely that Michael Wainer, a Native American originally named Micah Quabbin who was Cuffe’s long standing business partner, in-law, and friend, was living in the area and had 3 younger children at that time who could have attended. The London Richmond family (of color) were also nearby.
This paper provides some information on the location of Cuff’s School and on the early establishment of public schools in Westport.
In the memoir about Paul Cuffe that was first produced by members of the Delaware Abolitionist Society and based on conversations they had with Paul Cuffe while he was visiting Wilmington in 1807, the first references to Paul Cuffe’s school appear in the following passage:
“Paul had experienced the many disadvantages of his very limited education, and he resolved, as far as it was practicable, to relieve his children from similar embarrassments. The neighborhood had neither a tutor nor a schoolhouse. Many of the citizens were desirous that a school should be established. Paul proposed a meeting of the inhabitants for the purpose of making such arrangements as should accomplish the desired object. The collision of opinion respecting mode and place occasioned the meeting to separate without arriving at any conclusion; several meetings of the same nature were called, but all were unsuccessful in their issue. Perceiving that all efforts to procure a union of sentiment were fruitless, Paul set himself to work in earnest, and had a suitable house built on his own ground. A master was procured, and the school open to all who pleased to send their children. Paul’s money paid for the house, but he never demanded rent for it, nor endeavoured to obtain any extraordinary authority in the control or regulation of the school.”
Painting of how Cuff’s School might have looked by Ray Shaw