Josephine Silone Yates (286533)

Prolific and talented author Tonya Bolden has published another marvelous addition to her growing trove of books on African American history. “Changing the Equation—50+US Black Women in STEM” is an Abrams Books for Young Readers but the parameters of age have never confined this award-winning writer, and though targeting young readers her information is vital to all, particularly someone like me whose weekly classroom column thrives on Bolden’s menu.

From Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler, the first Black woman M.D. in 1864 to Jami Valentine, the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics in 2006, Bolden offers a galaxy of exceptional women to fill my column and I certainly plan to return to the book over the succeeding years.

But let me start with Josephine Silone Yates, who as Bolden writes, was the first Black woman to head a college science department (c. June 1886-1889). “This was at today’s Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, founded by Black soldiers after the Civil War. Yates began teaching there [botany, chemistry, physiology and more] in 1881.”

Given the list of remarkable women discussed in her book, Bolden’s profiles are rarely more than two or three pages, therefore her entries amount to notices or short bios, hoping to inspire and lead readers to longer biographies of the women.

Silone-Yates was born, 1852 or 1858, at a time when slavery was pervasive. She lived in Mattituck, Long Island with her maternal grandfather, a freed slave. The Silone family, according to one author, was proud of its ancestry claiming they were descendants of escaped slaves from a ship wrecked off the New England coast.

Taught to read by her mother, Yates was more than prepared when she began school and was rapidly advanced. By the time she was 11, after being sent to live with her uncle in Philadelphia, she was a student at the Institute of Colored Youth, which was run by the renowned Fannie Jackson Coppin; the curriculum focused on classic learning with an aim toward readying the students to teach.

Bolden picks up the biography from here noting that Yates was valedictorian in 1877 at Rogers High School in Newport, R.I. She was also the school’s first Black student and it was here that she began to immerse herself in the sciences, particularly chemistry. She was so proficient that her teacher encouraged her to spend more time in the laboratory, which she did.

Later, after graduating from the Rhode Island State Normal School in Providence, a teacher’s college, she became one of the first certified Black teachers in the state. Subsequently, she received her master’s degree from the National University of Illinois. Again, she was the only African American student at the school. After passing the Rhode Island State Teacher Certification, she moved to Jefferson City, Missouri to begin teaching at Lincoln Institute (later Lincoln University) and to head the Department of Natural Sciences. She resigned in 1889 to marry Professor W.W. Yates, then the principal of the Wendell Phillips School in Kansas City. Three years before Booker T. Washington had asked her to become a lady principal at Tuskegee Institute, but she declined.

She also taught at the Phillips School, and soon became known and admired as one of the best teachers in the state of Missouri. All while teaching, she was active as a journalist, writing a number of newspaper and magazine articles often under the alias R.K. Potter. 

There was no alias when she sided with Francis Willard, leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, in her feud with Ida B. Wells on the question of blaming Blacks for the defeat of the WCTU legislation in the South. Yates charged that Wells’ criticisms of Willard “were misleading and unjust.”

In a letter to W.E.B. Du Bois in May 1906, as a member of the National Association of Colored Women and the president of Lincoln Institute, it is not clear what she meant by “attacks” and asking Du Bois to send her more copies of what was possibly an article or editorial in The Crisis. However, when she asks his “judgment of the party who went up and down the continent denouncing lynching” it may have been a reference to Wells.

By 1900 she expanded her writing to include poetry. Some of her published poetry pieces include “The Isles of Peace,” “The Zephyr,” and “Royal To-Day.”

Yates was gifted too in languages, especially French and German, even writing several articles in German for publication. She also delved into Russian literature wherever there was an intersection between the conditions of similarity expressed by serfs and slaves. Aspiring writers often called on her skills in their quests for perfection.

Along with these interests and activities, Yates was involved in clubs and organizations that fought for racial and social change.  She helped to organize the Kansas City Women’s League and was its first president in 1893. After the National Association of Colored Women was established in 1896, Yates became one of its most dedicated supporters.  She served for four years (1897 to 1901) as treasurer and four years (1901-1905) as NACW president. 

After her husband’s death in November 1910, Yates taught at Lincoln High School until her own sudden death after a two-day illness on Sept. 3, 1912.