Several milestones or important key dates in the education of Black children in Rochester have been nearly lost to history. The formal end of school segregation in 1856, for instance, was recorded only as a pause in the Black school “for the present term” because the school trustees were “entirely unable to procure a suitable room.” In general, details about the experience of Black children in Rochester schools before the Civil Rights era are available only in scattered anecdotes.
Such is the case with the identity of the first Black teacher in the Rochester City School District. There is no readily available source for that important detail. The only clue I’ve found is an article by Adolph Dupree in the August 1984 edition of about…time, a Black magazine that ran some tremendous local features in the 1970s and ’80s. In his four-part review of Black history in Rochester, Dupree wrote: “Around 1882, Florence Sprague and Viola Van Buren taught in the city.”
Dupree had the dates wrong but the names right. Viola Van Buren seems to have been the second Black teacher in the city. She graduated from West High School (now Wilson Magnet High School) in 1916 and began teaching at School 10 in 1918 after becoming the first Black graduate of the Rochester Normal School, a teacher training program. Here is Van Buren in her 1916 high school class picture, middle center:
Florence Sprague, meanwhile, was born in Rochester around 1870 to a prominent family in the Black community. She was the niece of Nathan Sprague, the husband of Frederick Douglass’ daughter Rosetta (Sprague) Douglass. Her family attended AME Zion Church, and she served over the years there as organist, assistant secretary and superintendent of its Sunday School program.
At the beginning of the 1889-90 school year, Sprague was hired as a “supply teacher” at School 24, at Meigs and Linden streets in what is now the Highland Park neighborhood. As far as I can see, a supply teacher is what we today would call a building sub — a full-time employee who received various assignments on different days. This made her the first Black teacher in Rochester history.* By coincidence, School 24 also saw the first Black principal in RCSD history when Alice Young was assigned there in 1962.
*There were several Black teachers at the segregated Black-only schools that existed in Rochester until 1856; Sprague was the first Black teacher at a non-segregated common school. The first Black teacher in the Rochester area (but not the city itself) was Patience Johnson, who taught in Lima, Livingston County, starting around 1878. According to Blake McKelvey, Johnson was the first Black graduate of Rochester High School in 1878, and her brother Harry “was perhaps the first Negro to practice law in Rochester.” Patience Johnson was also the first Black graduate of Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima and later became a missionary to Liberia.
Sprague apparently only stayed at School 24 for one year. She next trained as a stenographer and, in 1902, was hired by Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.
She worked for Washington for just two years. In 1904 she married William Fields, a prominent Black physician in Cairo, Illinois, and moved there with him. They had at least two children and remained in Cairo until at least 1924, when William Fields died.
Sometime thereafter, Florence Sprague Fields moved to Washington, D.C., where her sister Cora lived. She returned to Rochester on a few occasions, including in 1911 for a celebration of Frederick Douglass, her uncle’s father-in-law. (John W. Thompson, in his Authentic History of the Douglass Monument, lists her among those who helped raise funds for the statue of Frederick Douglass that was erected in 1899.)
Sprague Fields was still in Washington when she died in 1952, at which point she was brought back to Cairo and buried alongside her husband in a cemetery outside the city, according to an email from Cairo Public Library Director Monica Smith.
I have not been able to find a photograph, obituary or precise cemetery location for Florence Sprague Fields. There is also some confusion about her date of birth. She must have been near adulthood, at the minimum, when she signed on as a teacher in 1889, suggesting a birthdate around 1870. The 1920 U.S. Census, however, says she was born around 1875.
I suspect a research trip to Cairo would be very fruitful in uncovering more information about Florence Sprague Fields, as she and her husband seem to have been active members of the Black community there. For the moment, however, it seems clear that she deserves recognition as Rochester’s first Black teacher.