For many decades the first African American teacher in the Albany School District was thought to be Harriet Lewis Van Vranken who began teaching in 1915, and who subsequently became the first African American social worker in the city. However, new information has come to light and we’ve found that Helena R. Goines started teaching in the district two decades earlier in 1895. We couldn’t have corroborated what we found without the help of School District staff; Alicia Abdul – Librarian, Albany High School and Paula Tibbitts, Assistant to the Superintendent.
In the late part of the 19th century African American women began to emerge as a force to be reckoned with. Some doors opened and others were pushed open. Increasingly their voices were heard, and they entered fields previously denied to them; education, law, medicine, and science. They began to organize and mobilize to create institutions to serve their communities, including day nurseries, old age homes, and hospitals. Helena Goines would become part of this group.
Helena was born in 1868, likely in New York City (because her father, John Butler, is listed in NYS Civil War registration records in the City in 1863.) John was probably from the Mohawk Valley (Schoharie or Oneida County), and her mother Eliza Goines Butler from Pennsylvania. It’s quite possible John and Elizabeth met in Philadelphia where she lived and he had family. The family first appears in Albany in the City Directory and the 1875 Census living at 352 Hamilton St. between Dove St. and Lark St. – John Butler, Eliza Butler, Jim Butler and Nellie (Helena) Butler. When Helena began school, she would have attended an integrated school – probably District School 16 at 201 Hudson Ave. below Swan St. It was the same school building which her brother Jim, five years older, had attended, but until Fall, 1873 when Albany integrated its schools, it had been the Wilberforce School, a segregated school for African American children.
Within a couple of years, the family moved to the 100 block of Third St. in Arbor Hill and the children attended attend District School 22 just around the block on Second St. When Helena was about 11 her father died. Mrs. Butler and the children moved to Elm St. between Dove St. and Swan St. Around the time of their father’s death there appears to be have been a major family break. Jim and Helena started using their mother’s maiden name, Goines, as their surname – which they would retain for the rest of their lives. At the time of his death John Butler appears to have been living apart of from his family. (Further evidence of the break is John Butler ‘s burial in Albany Rural Cemetery, while Mrs. Butler, Helena and Jim are interred elsewhere.)
Albany High School
In 1883 Helena passed the admission test for Albany High School, then located on the corner of Eagle St. and Steuben St. (The County Courthouse is there today.) Only a decade before Arabella Chapman, older sister of Helena’s best friend Harriet, was the first African American child admitted to the High School in 1873 when Albany schools were integrated. Helena graduated in 1887 from the English Division from the High School (we think she may have only been the third African American to graduate in that first decade.) She then pursued a yearlong course at the High School and was awarded a Graduate Teaching Certificate in 1888. (Again this may have been a first.) Her accomplishment was so significant woman it was reported in the New York Age a newspaper that focused on African American life and accomplishments across the country.)
Teaching in Delaware
In 1889 Helena became a teacher in a “colored” school in the Wilmington, Delaware segregated school district, where she remained for at least 4 years. (Wilmington seems to be an odd choice, but, based on some old census data, quite possibly some of her mother’s family may have lived in Wilmington.)
Return to Albany
In 1895 Helena returned to Albany, becoming part of the corps of substitute teachers for the school district. In 1896 she was appointed to a permanent position in School 14 at 70 Trinity Place. The following year she appears in District records as a teacher in School 12 on the corner of Washington Ave. and Robin St. Helena remained at School 12 for about a year.
In Fall, 1898 she took a position in Jamaica, Queens at a much enhanced the salary. Jamaica was still a segregated school district. It wasn’t until late 1900 when Governor Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation that prohibited children of any race from being excluded from any school in New York State.
Her brother and mother soon joined her in Queens. Helena continued to teach in Queens schools in Jamaica and Flushing for another 25 years or so.
Newspaper accounts of the time document Helena’s activities among a group of African American women who were creating new social and political institutions for the Black community in New York City and the country, including the wives of W.E. B, Dubois, one of the founders of the NAACP, and Mrs. Adam Clayton Powell, wife of the immensely influential reverend of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Manhattan. These women were the supporters of the first “Colored” YWCA in New York City, and the Utopia Neighborhood Club that supported the development of what is today’s Urban League. They were the women who were members of the National Association of Colored Women, a driving force behind the activism of African American women across the U.S. at the local level. Many were supporters of the African American contingent of the Equal Suffrage Party in New York City that worked to secure the vote for women.
Helena passed away in Queens in 1944. She’s buried in Ballston Spa Cemetery, along with her brother Jim who died in 1906 and her mother who passed away in 1922.
Note: There is compelling evidence that Helena was also Native American. Her mother’s death certificate lists her race as Native American. When Helena died there was a single heir, Jennie Brock in Philadelphia. Jennie identified as Native American in the 1940 census. It appears that the surnames Goins/Goines is closely associated with the Native American population in Philadelphia dating back to the early 1800s.
Julie O’Connor M.L.S
(Special thanks to Lorie Wies, Local History Librarian, Saratoga Springs Library who found the original newspaper article that indicated Helena received a teaching certificate.)
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor