Black History 365: Josephine Silone Yates

by Nicholas St. Fleur

Along with being a writer and civil rights activist, Josephine Silone Yates was the first Black woman to head a college science department. Born in Mattituck, New York, either in 1852 or 1859, Yates grew up living with her parents and maternal grandfather, Lymas Reeves, who was a formerly enslaved man. In grammar school, she was enthralled by physics, physiology and arithmetic, and excelled in her studies. At the age of 11, she moved to Philadelphia to pursue better educational opportunities at the Institute for Colored Youth.

She stayed at the school for a year until her uncle, Rev. John Bunyan, whom she was living with, got a job at Howard University. Yates moved in with her aunt in Newport, Rhode Island, and enrolled in Rogers High School in 1874. There, she was the only Black student. But she more than persisted—she shined. Yates developed an affinity to chemistry that impressed a professor, who encouraged her to further explore her interests through extra lab work. In 1877, just 3 years after enrolling, she graduated as class valedictorian.

Continuing on her educational journey, Yates next attended the Rhode Island State Normal School. There too, she graduated with honors. She passed the teacher’s examination and became the first Black person to be a certified public school teacher in Rhode Island. Yates taught chemistry, physiology, and botany, as well as speaking and English literature classes, at the Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, Missouri.

Yates soon became the first Black woman to head a college’s science department when she was put at the helm of the institute’s department of natural sciences. She was a civil rights activist, a writer, and a teacher until her death in 1912.