Meet Maritcha R. Lyons –
Providence High School’s First Black Graduate
Maritcha R. Lyons, circa 1860
Maritcha’s Parents – Albro Lyons, Sr. and Mary Joseph Lyons
Providence High School, 1843 – 1878
Class of 1869, Maritcha R. Lyons and Lucia Tappan
Having existed since 1843, it’s no surprise that plenty of history has been made in Classical’s halls. Part of that rich history includes desegregating Providence’s only high school. Meet Maritcha Remond Lyons, the first black student to graduate from Providence High (now known as Classical High School).
Maritcha was born in 1848 in New York City into a world where slavery had yet to be abolished but the Underground Railroad was well underway. In fact, her parents, Albro Sr. and Mary Joseph Lyons, actively participated in the Underground Railroad and used their Colored Sailors’ Home as a stop for those traveling through.
Moving to Providence, RI
In 1863, the NYC Draft Riots broke out in Manhattan in response to the American Civil War draft. Rioters vandalized the Lyons’ home, causing over $2,000 in damages (an equivalent of over $40,000 in 2018). Seeking safety, the family relocated to Providence, RI in 1864. At 16, Maritcha was looking forward to furthering her education. However, not only were schools segregated in Providence, no high school existed for black students.
The Lyons family valued education and Maritcha was no different. After Providence High School denied her entry due to her race, the 16-year-old testified before the Rhode Island state legislature, urging them to allow black students to enroll in the local high school. George T. Downing, local abolitionist, activist, and business owner, was a vocal proponent of desegregating Rhode Island’s schools. By the time Maritcha arrived to the city, George had been lobbying for equality in Rhode Island’s schools for years. He became one of her strongest supporters.
Time at Providence High School
Even though Maritcha’s efforts with the RI state legislature paid off, her start at Providence High School was less than ideal. Other students were reluctant to interact with her and even sat away from her. However, as time went on, Maritcha excelled as a student, both socially and academically. She formed a lifelong friendship with fellow student Lucia Tappan, whose family included three notable abolitionists, and found a mentor in revolutionary feminist and Providence High School teacher, Sarah E. Doyle.
In 1869, at 21, Maritcha graduated as the first black high school student to ever do so in Providence. The school chose her, Lucia, and three other graduates to each write an essay to read at graduation. She titled hers ‘Which Furnishes the Better Subjects for Art, Methodology or Christianity?’.
After high school, Maritcha went on to become a teacher for the Colored School No. 1 in Brooklyn, NY. She passed away in 1929 at the age of 80, leaving behind her incomplete memoir, Memories of Yesterdays: All of Which I Saw and Part of Which I Was.
149 Years Later
Today, Classical is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse high schools in New England. As of the 2017 – 2018 school year, 1,126 students were enrolled in grades 9 through 12. Of those 1,126 students:
- 0.2% are Native American,
- 3% are Multiracial,
- 10% are Asian Pacific,
- 16% are Black,
- 25% are White, and
- 46% are Hispanic.*
In 1864, Marticha R. Lyons fought for her right as a black student to receive a high school education in Providence. She has since opened the doors of public education to thousands of Classical students and alumni.
*Percentages have been rounded.
- A Brief Sketch of the Establishment of the High School, Providence, Together with the Dedicatory Exercises of the New Building. Providence: J.A. & R.A. Reid, City Printers. 1878 (Book).
- Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl. Tonya Bolden. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers. 2005 (Book).
- The New York Public Library, Digital Collections.
- The New York City Draft Riots of 1863.
- Rhode Tour, George T. Downing.
- American Abolitionists and Antislavery Activists.
- Rhode Island Department of Education.
- Maritcha R. Lyons, circa 1860 – Harry A. Williamson Photograph Collection.
- Maritcha’s Parents – Albro Lyons, Sr. and Mary Joseph Lyons – The New York Public Library Digital Collections.
- Providence High School 1843 – 1878, Corner of Waterman St. and Benefit St. – Providence Public Library, RI Collection.
- Class of 1869, Maritcha R. Lyons and Lucia Tappan – A Brief Sketch of the Establishment of the High School, Providence, Together with the Dedicatory Exercises of the New Building. Providence: J.A. & R.A. Reid, City Printers. 1878.