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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

A New Home at Cheyney

Dear Uncle Hugh,
I expect to leave Hartford Monday morning and will arrive in Cheyney Monday evening. I am anxious to begin work again and believe that my summer studies coupled with last year’s experience will enable me to do better…”

Laura Wheeler to Hugh M. Brown, Sept. 19, 1908

Humphreys Hall and two other buildings, early days at Cheyney
Early site of Institute for Colored Youth (Cheyney School for Teachers) circa 1909

The site of the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) was still evolving from a farm of 117 acres to

an educational campus when 20 year-old Laura Wheeler first arrived in the fall of 1907. Founded in Philadelphia in 1837,  the school had recently located about 23 miles west of the city to rural Chester County on farm land owned by George Cheyney, a member of the Society of Friends. Mr. Hugh M. Browne, a respected educator and associate of Booker T. Washington, was hired as principal at ICY in 1902, and had overseen the move from Philadelphia to the area called Cheyney Station, after a stop on the Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington Railroad line.

Laura Wheeler Waring landscape at Cheyney, PA
Laura Wheeler, Cheyney, Early Fall c 1921 image courtesy Madeleine Rabb

Though still officially named the Institute for Colored Youth, the school was already intermittently referred to as the “training school for colored teachers.” At the beginning of his tenure in 1902, Hugh Browne had announced that ICY would be reorganized from a privately managed institution comprising a preparatory and high school to “a special training school for teachers, [for] pupils who may have finished High School courses.”

Hugh Brown was a dear friend of Rev. Wheeler’s from their Howard University days. Called “Uncle Hugh” by the Wheeler children, he used his influence with the ICY Board of Managers to hire Laura Wheeler as an art instructor. Laura immediately saw the benefit to being at ICY, as the school was just a short train ride to Philadelphia. There she could pursue her art education in the one place of her choice: the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.

Laura Wheeler Waring painting, winter landscape at
Laura Wheeler Waring, Winter Landscape, image courtesy Madeleine Rabb

Her new surroundings at Cheyney were quite different from the somber, commercially bustling cityscape of Hartford, Connecticut. Laura would have travelled from Hartford on the Pennsylvania Railroad to Broad Street Station in Philadelphia. From Philadelphia she would have spent another hour on the PB&W line to the outer regions of the city, disembarking at Cheyney Station, a tiny country depot. There she would have been met by someone from ICY and transported to her new home by horse and buggy—it would be another 10 years before the school owned a car. The thick woods flanking the winding dirt roads made evening travel to the school darker than normal at twilight, and pitch-black as the hour grew late, except on nights when the moon and stars would flood the sky. In a few months heavy snows would make these roads nearly impassable. No wonder many graduates of the formerly city-based ICY had protested the school’s relocation to Cheyney. It was a far-flung and insulated locale.

Faculty at Cheyney Training School for Teachers, circa 1910
Laura Wheeler at Cheyney, 2nd from left

Although she’d graduated from one of the finest high schools in New England, Laura Wheeler at that time had no teacher training herself. During the 1907-08 school year, she did her best to relay some pointers in drawing and perhaps sewing and needlepoint. Moving forward, Laura Wheeler would also contribute to the musical experience of the students at Cheyney; for several years she would lead and develop The Cheyney Singers, modeling the group after the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers. But initially, in order to be deemed qualified to train teachers, she would need to acquire some training of her own. To augment her hands-on experience, Laura spent much of the next few summers taking courses at Harvard and Columbia that would put the budding artist and choir leader a few steps ahead of the students she’d been hired to teach.

It was the belief of the school’s Quaker Board of Managers, that “the trained teacher is the effective missionary to lead the race to realize the progress that is possible for it.” Though Laura’s primary aim in coming to Cheyney was to attend art school in Philadelphia, ICY’s mission of educating Negroes to teach was one that she could relate to. Laura’s mother had been a teacher, as was her older sister. The connection that Laura Wheeler formed with the school at Cheyney—its  traditions, the family-like relationship among the faculty, the students, and the institution’s civic involvement with the surrounding community—would be a life-long one.

Laura Wheeler Waring painting of house in countryside of Cheyney, PA
Laura Wheeler Waring, House Near Cheyney, image courtesy of Madeline Rabb

It’s likely, too, that the serenity and vibrant colors of the surrounding countryside at Cheyney held an aesthetic appeal for the developing artist.

© 2023-2026 Valerie Harris.




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