In 1811, Christopher McPherson, a free Negro of considerable talent and modest wealth who also styled himself “Pherson, the first son of Christ,” hired Herbert H. Hughes, a white schoolmaster, and opened a night school for free Negroes and slaves who had the consent of their master. Classes began at dusk and ran until nine-thirty, and Hughes taught “the English language grammatically, Writing, Arithmetic, Geography, Astronomy, &c. &c.” for a fee of about $1.25 per month. The results were most promising. The school opened with twenty-five pupils, and McPherson noted that “from frequent application since, ‘tis expected the number will shortly be doubled.” McPherson was so pleased with his initial success that he publicly boasted of the school in the Richmond Argus, and recommended “to the people of colour throughout the United States (who do not have it in their power to attend day schools) to establish similar institutions in their neighborhoods.” Excited over the new possibilities, he hoped “that everyone who loves his Country, and has it in his power will generously further and foster every institution of the kind that may be established throughout this happy Union.”
Richmond whites were less enthusiastic. Within days after McPherson’s notice appeared, several leading citizens confronted Samuel Pleasants, the editor of the Argus, and demanded that the advertisement be withdrawn. “They deem it,” Pleasants reported, “impolitic and highly improper that such an institution should exist in this City.” Pleasants disagreed, but dutifully yielded to public pressure. Herbert Hughes, the white schoolteacher, was made of sterner stuff. He took space in the Argus, defended the school, and attacked the idea that it was impolitic to educate Negroes as Rousseauistic sophistry. Reiterating his support of the school, Hughes declared “without Education in some degree they are in a state of bastard civilization,” and he pledged to teach until authorities closed the school.
That apparently was not long in coming, for soon after Hughes made his appeal, Richmond officials summoned McPherson to court to show why his school should not be declared a nuisance. The case was delayed, but the police continued to harass McPherson and probably drove Hughes out of town. Despite the greater threat implicit in the police action, in April, when the court again delayed his case, McPherson advertised his desire to establish “a seminary of learning of the arts and sciences” as soon as he could find a “proper tutor.” But before he could act, the police again jailed McPherson and shipped him to the Williamsburg Lunatic Asylum. McPherson doubtless had “mad” religious delusions, but these had not prevented him from functioning for years in a manner acceptable to Richmond whites: only when he established his school was he thrown into the madhouse. His lesson was obvious: any black man who would attempt to found a school was “crazy.”