In 1894, Reverend John L. Dart, a graduate of the Avery Normal Institute and Atlanta University opened the Charleston Industrial Institute (later known as the Charleston Colored Industrial School and eventually Burke Industrial School in 1921) on the corner of Bogard and Kracke Streets in downtown Charleston. The original school building, Dart Hall, accommodated approximately 150 male and female students. As the student population grew, Reverend Dart organized the construction of additional buildings on the small campus. Dart envisioned the mission of this long overdue free public school as an institution of vocational and moral education.
As his original prospectus read: "In view of the startling fact that there are more than 5,000 colored children in Charleston without free public school advantages, and knowing that the many boys and girls who are now growing up in ignorance, idleness and crime must become, in future, a large criminal and dependent class, a number of the leading and progressive colored men of this city undertook the work of establishing a school for colored children, where they could be taught not only reading and writing, but the lessons of morals, temperance, sewing, cooking, nursing, housework, carpentering, etc."
Based on this prospectus, the Charleston Colored Industrial School sought to educate African American students with technical skills that would help them secure gainful employment in the local economy. The intended curriculum mirrored the vocational or industrial structure encouraged by many white leaders that sought to shape black educational policy during the post-war period and into the early twentieth century.
African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington were also prominent advocates for this industrial labor focus in black education. As a former slave, Washington endorsed the notion that African Americans could gain racial equality in the United States through gradual economic mobility. Washington and his supporters argued that vocational training assisted in this endeavor better than a classical education curriculum. Schools like Reverend Dart’s Charleston Industrial School mirrored Washington’s philosophy by providing courses that emphasized technical skills, strong work ethic, and moral character development. These vocational education goals for African Americans generated controversy within black communities. Though the school was established through the initiatives of black Charlestonians, there were concerns that the school's industrial focus was a strategy for white elites to develop a subservient black class trained in manual labor once institutionalized slavery had ended. They believed that a professional and college preparatory curriculum better served African Americans by generating racial uplift and social, economic, and political equality.
In contrast to the model of education emphasized at the Charleston Industrial School, the Avery Normal Institute in Charleston encouraged a classical liberal arts curriculum that facilitated access to higher education and professional development for African Americans. Avery’s mission was closely aligned with W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of the “Talented Tenth,” which sought to educate the upper echelons of black society to become civil, political, and economic leaders for promoting racial equality in the United States. The divergent educational philosophies between Avery and the Industrial School were apparent in their initial course offerings. While the Industrial School provided classes in carpentry and domestic sciences, Avery emphasized college preparatory classes aimed to train schoolteachers or students entering colleges and universities upon graduation.
As historians Bernard Powers and Lee Drago explain, Avery initially catered to a specific segment of the black community in Charleston. During the antebellum period, the city featured a three-tiered racial hierarchy with a small but significant number of free people of color, who often had mixed African and European ancestry. After Emancipation, the descendants of this group often became the primary beneficiaries of Avery’s classical education focus, while formerly enslaved African Americans regularly attended vocational schools like Burke.
During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the early educational goals and mission statements at Burke and Avery were regularly contested and debated within the local African American community. As a result, the class divides and distinction between the vocational and classical education goals at the schools became blurred. By the mid-twentieth century, Burke offered academic curricular programs and Avery offered vocational classes.
Reverend Dart initially gained funding for Charleston Industrial School through local private donors and northern philanthropists. For years, he regularly petitioned the city of Charleston to assume responsibilities for the school. The city government finally responded in 1911 by constructing a new building at the school’s present location at the corner of Fishburne and President Streets. Once the Charleston Industrial School operated as a public school, city officials enforced an ordinance that only white teachers could be employed to teach in coveted city school positions. Even though the industrial school was a segregated black school, African American teachers from Charleston had to find work in private institutions, or in rural African American public schools outside of the city. In 1919, local activists successfully petitioned to overturn the ordinance, and only black teachers could join the faculty of black public schools in Charleston, until the city desegregated its public school system in the 1960s. In 1921, the school district changed the name of the Charleston Colored Industrial School to Burke Industrial School, in memory of the death of city board member James E. Burke.