A New Field. The North’s victory in the Civil War opened up a vast new field for the application of educational reform. Laws prohibiting the education of slaves had been inscribed into the legal apparatus in every southern state for more than three decades, and the rejection of educational reform had left a large population of white Southerners with little experience of formal schooling; in fact, many of them were illiterate. In his address before the National Teachers’ Association in 1865, Illinois Normal (later Illinois State) University president Richard Edwards summoned educators to “finish what the soldier had so well begun.” In the view of like-minded northern educators, the extension of the common-schools ideal to the conquered South was an essential element in the democratic reconstruction of the region. Public education, Edwards declared, would be “the chief unifying process on which we can rely for a permanent peace.” His thoughts were echoed by the northern missionary societies set up during the war to oversee the education and “uplift” of freed slaves: The American Missionary Association (AMA) newsletter declared, “The war with bullet and bayonet is over at the South; the invasion of light and love is not.”
An Army of Teachers. Reform of the South’s education system did not wait until the end of the war, however. As early as June 1861, the AMA was anticipating that the war would create “one of the grandest fields of missionary labor that the world ever furnished” and began laying plans to educate approximately seven hundred freed slaves who had sought refuge behind Union army lines in Virginia. At Fortress Monroe, Rev. L. C. Lockwood and Mary S. Peake, a northern freed black, founded the first school for freed slaves in September of that year. Northern “schoolmarms” sponsored by the missionary societies followed close behind the Union army, establishing makeshift schools in the areas wrested from Confederate control. Gradually, the advance of the northern armies forced upon the national government the necessity of formulating a policy in regard to freedmen’s education. On the South Carolina sea islands much of the relief and educational effort remained in private hands, but in the Union-controlled area around New Orleans, the federal government played a more direct role, establishing school districts and appointing superintendents to oversee the work. The project of educational reform received a tremendous boost with the formation of the Freedmen’s Bureau by an act of Congress in March 1865. Its director, Gen. O. O. Howard, considered education a vital instrument in remaking southern society in the image of the free-labor North, and within four years some 150,000 pupils would be attending Bureau-affiliated schools. By the end of the 1860s some 1,500 women and men had gone South to teach in the black schools. The vast majority were women from a New England background; a third hailed from Massachusetts alone, and nearly all had received some training in normal schools, female seminaries, or colleges.
Freedmen. The southward march of northern schoolmarms would have been far less effective if it had not corresponded with a universal hunger for education on the part of emancipated slaves. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s remark in 1879 that freedmen had “cried for the spelling book as bread, and pleaded for teachers as a necessity of life” is almost universally borne out by the comments of teachers, military officials, and former slaves themselves. Union brigadier general Rufus Saxton, under whose jurisdiction some two thousand freed slaves attended schools along the eastern coast of South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia in the early stages of the war, observed that “they all manifested an intense desire to learn…. During harvesting and planting it is a common sight to see groups of children going to school after having completed their tasks in the field.” Schools were opened in the least likely places: the Old Bryan Slave Mart in Savannah served as a schoolhouse; in Atlanta the AMA conducted classes in an old railroad boxcar. Booker T. Washington described the scene among blacks after emancipation as “a whole race trying to go to school.” “Few were too young, and none too old, to make the attempt to learn,” he recalled, and throughout the South freedmen and northern reformers established night and weekend schools to extend the rudiments of formal education to working adults.
Black Institutions. African American men and women were not merely passive observers in this movement; in many cases their own, independent efforts had laid the groundwork for the campaign undertaken by northern missionaries. People only recently freed from slavery devoted a substantial amount of money to their schools. In Georgia the state superintendent of schools reported in 1867 that blacks themselves contributed some $3,500 per month to support the schools, compared to just $2,000 from the Freedmen’s Bureau itself and $5,000 from the northern missionary societies. At New Orleans in 1866, when the Freedmen’s Bureau announced cost-saving measures which included closing their schools, former slaves “could not consent to have their children sent away from study” and petitioned bureau officials “to levy an added tax upon their community to replenish the school fund.” In some areas Northerners found that an informal school system had been established by slaves well in advance of the Union victory, sometimes going back even to the prewar period, and that blacks were not always anxious to hand over control of these institutions. John V. Alford, superintendent of schools for the Freedmen’s Bureau after September 1865, reported on the system of “native schools” that he found in his travels across the South. At Goldsboro, North Carolina, Alford had found that one such school, run by “two colored young men, who but a little time before commenced to learn themselves, had gathered 150 pupils, all quite orderly and hard at study.” He estimated that there were at least five hundred schools of this kind operating throughout the South. In Savannah, Georgia, freed blacks established the Savannah Educational Association and built a system of public schools well before the arrival of AMA teachers, and the ultimately successful attempt of Northerners to take control of the Savannah
system caused bitterness between blacks and their erstwhile allies: “blacks desire assistance without control,” an astute AMA official observed. “They have a natural . . . pride in keeping their educational institutions in their own hands.”
The Common School. Given the vast cultural differences between northern teachers and their pupils, and the powerful impetus given to black institution building by emancipation, some tension between teachers and their new constituency was inevitable. Some of this derived from the paternalist ethos at the center of missionary efforts: the idea that they were the agents of civilization sent to bring enlightenment to a “backward” race. In more than a few cases, the racial prejudice of individual teachers and officials struck freed blacks as reminiscent of their treatment at the hands of their former masters. But the more general problem was the incongruity of the northern middle-class values with the former slaves’ condition: if industry, thrift, sobriety, and deference were no guarantee of personal success in the North, they were even less useful as guides in a society that still contained vast inequalities and had not begun to eradicate the stigma of race. “The tenet of individualism was worthless, rarely if ever rewarded by the master class and potentially threatening to group solidarity,” writes historian
Jacqueline Jones. “The slaves’ religion was one of joy and collective hope, not self-denial and personal guilt.” Occasionally individual teachers resigned in frustration and packed their bags to return northward, but others adapted admirably and won the respect of freed men and women in the process. For some, the experience was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to racial equality. For others, whose commitment to freedmen’s education had grown out of a long-standing commitment to abolition, the postwar South presented a new arena for advancing their ideas: Lydia Maria Child, for example, designed The Freedmen’s Book (1865) for use in the southern schools, a textbook that “sought to develop a sense of racial pride through brief biographies of black figures from Benjamin Banneker to Toussaint L’Ouverture.”
TEXTBOOKS AND RACE
With the beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, Southern schools could no longer depend on receiving textbooks from the North. For educators and school administrators in the Confederacy, this development presented them with a unique opportunity to compile schoolbooks that reflected Southern attitudes and values. Typical arithmetic assignments included problems involving “servants” or “slaves,” as: “If 5 white men can do as much work as 7 negroes, how many days of 10 hours each will be required for 25 negroes to do a piece of work which 30 white men can do in 10 days of 9 hours each?” M. B. Moore’s The First Dixie Reader (1864) contained comparisons between the life of the black slave laborer in the South and the white wage laborer in the North. The slaves were supposedly so well fed that “many poor white people would ht glad of what they [the slaves] leave for the hogs.” As for “Old Aunt Ann”: “When she was young she did good work, but now she cannot work much. But she is not like a poor white woman. Aunt Ann knows that her young Miss, as she calls her, will take care of her as long as she lives. Many poor white folks would be glad to live in her house and eat what Miss Kate sends her out for her dinner.”
Terror. Although Northerners had experienced some modest success in their attempts to “soften and allay [white] antipathy against colored schools” by extending their work to include the instruction of indigent white children, efforts to defuse white Southerners’ hostility toward freedmen’s education fell far short of success. Even among those whites who might have been favorably disposed toward public education, the stigma of sending their children to black schools left all-embracing reform stillborn. Generally speaking, the white South was violently opposed to freedmen’s education and had only been reconciled to it by northern military occupation. Planters feared that education would “ruin” blacks as willing, obedient laborers and were outraged at the presence of northern schoolteachers, whom they imagined (sometimes, but not always, correctly) to be filling the heads of their pupils with dangerous notions of racial equality. Within two years of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, whites were organizing underground resistance to the Reconstruction governments through organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, and freedmen’s schools became one of the principal targets of those who, through force and intimidation, hoped to restore the state of affairs that had existed prior to the war. In Mississippi, for example, where “many of the school buildings in use had been constructed by Negroes themselves,” the Klan engaged in a virtual “crusade against public schools,” a campaign in which “even some white schools suffered.” Many schools were “burned or torn down in large numbers, and an even greater number of teachers of both races . . . were called upon by bands of disguised nocturnal visitors. Some received warning to stop teaching, others were whipped or driven away or both, and a few were killed.” In Winston County not a single freedmen’s school was left standing by 1871, while in Monroe County twenty-six were closed and school superintendent A. P. Hughes was whipped by the Klan.
Abandonment. The most devastating blow to black education in the South came with the withdrawal of federal troops from the region in 1877 and the overthrow of the Reconstruction governments. Over the next decades, black primary-school enrollment, which had reached levels approximating those found among white northerners at the height of Reconstruction, would decline considerably, and the Supreme Court’s enshrining of the doctrine of “separate but equal” would seal the retreat from equal access to public education until the middle of the next century.
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988);
Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Knopf, 1979);