John Howland, a public-spirited businessman who began his career as an apprentice
hairdresser, is often cited as the father of the Providence public school system. In 1799, the Newport-born civic leader organized an educational lobby which induced the General Assembly to pass a “free school act” on March 13, 1800. Pursuant to that act, Howland directed the town’s efforts to comply. Providence appointed its first school committee in August, with Howland as its dominant voice. On the last Monday of October 1800, the Providence tax-supported public school system, consisting of four schools, held its first session with 988 white pupils of both sexes in attendance.
Passage of the School Law of 1800 did not mandate free schools throughout the state, and except for Providence and Smithfield, the towns refused to implement the act fully and secured its repeal in 1803. Providence maintained its system, however, with Howland serving as school committee member until June 1822, and as a relentless crusader for the free school cause until his death.
In the final entry of his autobiographical Recollections, Howland noted with great satisfaction that “I did what Roger Williams never attempted or never had a disposition to do. I formed and brought into existence the public schools in this town, which Governor Hopkins once attempted but could not accomplish.” This work, he stated, will live “for ages after the world shall have forgotten that such a being ever existed as John Howland.”
Other positions of note held by this self-educated reformer included Providence town auditor, town treasurer, president of the Providence Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers, clerk of the First Congregational Society, and president of the Rhode Island Historical Society.
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