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Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 12:01 am

Another kind of schoolhouse

Historic east side home, now facing demolition, once housed the ‘Tuskegee of the North’

Students and staff of the Ambidexter Institute, which operated at the Taylor House, 902 S. 12th St., from 1901 to 1908.


The 150-year-old Taylor House at 12th and Cass streets in Springfield now faces possible demolition after numerous attempts to save it. New efforts to preserve the structure are focusing on the building’s importance to the history of Springfield’s east side and its African-American community.

The building once housed the Ambidexter Industrial and Normal Institute, which was created to provide education and training to African-American children in order for them to be better equipped for employment opportunities. Springfield clergyman G.H. McDaniel founded the school to “accomplish for the negroes of the north what Booker T. Washington’s great school is doing for the colored people of the south.” The name of the school was selected by McDaniel to reflect the use of both mind and muscle in educating students to improve themselves. McDaniel began the school in early 1901 with the support and encouragement of several prominent Springfield residents including attorneys, bankers and religious leaders, many of whom served on its board.

School officials initially asked the Springfield Public School Board to use the old high school building at Fourth and Madison streets but were turned down. The institute opened in June 1901 in temporary quarters at 12th and Miller streets with an enrollment of 150 students, including several from the neighboring states of Missouri and Iowa. The use of Springfield public school facilities was denied again when McDaniel requested permission to use the Palmer School during summer vacation. Five teachers were reported to be in charge of different classes, including music and elocution. In a short time the Taylor House, 902 South 12th Street, was purchased by the institute as its new headquarters. Classes opened on the first Monday in September, 1901.

In time classes would be offered in domestic science, millinery and dressmaking. Within a few years a glee club and literary society were formed. By 1906 a newspaper account noted Ambidexter was providing instruction in trades such as painting, carpentry, bricklaying, shoemaking and general mechanics.

Raising funds to operate the school was a major difficulty for McDaniel and the board throughout the existence of the institute. McDaniel made many extended trips throughout the Midwest to raise both awareness of the school and financial support. He would often speak to congregations on these trips, as many as a dozen churches in a single city. Newspaper accounts from other cities often noted McDaniel’s visits. By 1903 McDaniel was attempting to raise $10,000 by informing residents of Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas that if they would raise contributions of that amount, an anonymous citizen of Springfield would match it. 

The house as it looks today.

In 1903 fundraising was planned to pay for indebtedness and purchase of adjoining lots for the purpose of building a chapel, dormitories and workshops. The following year the Springfield Businessmen’s Association was approached about helping to assist in the purchase of a farm on the south side of the city. This plan apparently never came to fruition. A basement and addition were reported to have been added to the Taylor House in 1904, along with the erection of a chapel. James Callanan, described as one of the wealthiest men in Iowa at the time of his death, left the school a bequest of $10,000. The institute spent several years trying to obtain this bequest but was ultimately unable to receive it.

In the fall of 1906, G.H. McDaniel resigned as president of the institute and shortly thereafter Dr. J.H. Magee was appointed to replace McDaniel. Magee announced plans to reorganize the school to focus more on manual training. Within a year though, the school was in trouble. A Springfield merchant filed a foreclosure suit against the Taylor House for money owed him by the institute. An agreement was reached to end the suit. By April of 1908 the institute was close to closure. A newspaper article noted the “president outlined a plan to interest one or more of our state and national colored fraternal societies to purchase and use the institute for a home and school for dependent orphan children of deceased members of the order.” This plan did not attract any takers.

Rev. Edward A. Osborne organized the Lincoln Manual Training School in 1909 for the purpose of teaching everyday trades to African-American children. Osborne intended to use the Ambidexter Institute buildings but opened the school in a different location. Within a short time the Taylor House was used as a rooming house.

Once spoken of as “the Tuskegee of the North,” the Ambidexter Institute reportedly had upwards of 300 students enrolled at its peak. But more likely it averaged between 25 and 50 students during its brief existence. Newspaper reports indicate some students graduated and became teachers while others worked in manufacturing. Its existence makes an interesting footnote in the history of Springfield.

Curtis Mann is manager of the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library.

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