Documenting higher educational opportunities for African Americans during the twentieth century, the records of the American Church Institute (ACI) have been processed and offer new opportunities in African American research. This organizational archive of approximately 12.5 cubic feet spans the dates 1867-1968 to include the beginnings of ACI as the Protestant Episcopal Freedman’s Commission to Colored People, established in 1865 under the auspices of the Board of Missions. The bulk of material falls between 1906-1967, the operating years of the ACI organization. The collection represents a comprehensive record of ACI during its lifetime and, a much briefer synopsis of the life of each of the schools ACI administered. Consisting of correspondence, reports, legal documents, financial ledgers, publications, building plans, and photographs, these records open up the story of the Episcopal Church's efforts to advance the education of African Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era. The ACI archive represents one of several cornerstone collections in the African American Archives of the Episcopal Church.

For over sixty years, the American Church Institute administered schools and colleges dedicated to the education of African Americans in the South as a means of fulfilling the Church’s mission to close the gap between educational opportunities for African Americans and whites. The organization’s years of operation coincided with an era of seminal events in civil rights history: ACI began its work in 1906 as the American Church Institute for Negroes, three years prior to the founding of the NAACP, and later dissolved three years after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. During that span, ACI witnessed a major shift in American society’s approach to rights for African Americans, from an inherently discriminatory "separate but equal" segregation-based policy, to a growing movement toward a racially-integrated society at all levels, including education. While ACI’s decision to cease its oversight of the schools arose from concern that it was supporting segregated education, its positive contributions to higher education for African Americans remain as four of its schools continue to operate as historically black colleges, and another has been absorbed into a mostly Latino-attended junior college system.

Continuing the legacy begun in 1865, ACI assumed oversight of Church-affiliated African American schools, the first and largest of which are now St. Paul’s College, Lawrenceville, Virginia; St. Augustine’s College, Raleigh, North Carolina; and Bishop Payne Divinity School, which closed in 1949. Later additions include today’s Fort Valley State University, Fort Valley, Georgia and Voorhees College, Denmark, South Carolina. ACI made it a practice to give support to only one school in any state, and eligibility required that the school be located in the area of greatest concentration of African Americans in its state and receive financial support from all of the dioceses in its state.

ACI leadership positions were first filled by white churchmen, the longest-serving of whom was Rev. Dr. Robert W. Patton, initially appointed as Special Representative in 1914. ACI later elected African American officers, most notably, the Rev. Dr. Tollie L. Caution, who served as assistant director and later as secretary. In addition, the Presiding Bishop served as honorary president of the Board of Trustees.

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