Public Education in the South

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Public Education in the South


Power Shift. The electoral campaigns of 1874-1876 returned the southern states to the control of the Democratic Party. The leadership was much the same as it had been prior to Reconstruction primarily members of the elite classes who had never been sympathetic to public education. However, during Reconstruction people in the South had embraced the idea of public education, so in order to be elected the Democrats had to include maintenance of public schools, one system for each race, in their political platforms. The schools may have been maintained, but they did not prosper during the last twenty-five years of the century. Enrollments grew by more than 150 percent while educational revenues, derived primarily from taxes on property that had lost most of its value during the Civil War, plummeted. True values of property in the South averaged less than one-third of those of the North or Midwest. Post-Reconstruction legislatures made it difficult to improve education because they refused to permit local taxes for schools and so only a limited rate of taxation at the state level was available to support the two separate school systems.

Teaching Conditions. Every facet of education in the South suffered terribly during this period. Fewer than 5 percent of the teachers had college training; more than 60 percent had no definite professional training of any kind. Although the average annual salary for female teachers during the 1870-1900 period was about $300, average salaries in the South for the same period actually dropped from $175 to $159. Not only were salaries low, but in some cases the payment of them was uncertain. In South Carolina in the 1880s teachers routinely received vouchers on payday instead of a check. It was considered a progressive step when teachers were paid (much later) the face value of those vouchers rather than a reduced amount.

A Failing System. While illiteracy ranged from 30 to 45 percent of the total population (three times that of other areas of the country), only one pupil out of ten who enrolled in school reached the fifth grade and only one in seventy reached the eighth grade. Poorly equipped teachers worked with almost no supervision, merely keeping school, as it was referred to at the time. Each small, isolated school was left to itself as county superintendents jobs routinely went to incompetents as reward for political service; no qualifications were legally prescribed for any positions. The state superintendent in South Carolina in 1900 reported that Each district has as poor schools as its people will tolerate, and in some districts anything will be tolerated. Rural schoolhouses in the South during the 1880s and 1890s were valued at less than $100 each.


The Chautauqua movement originateci from a Methodist camp meeting at Chautauqua Lake, New York, under the leadership of Bishop J, H-Vincent in 1874, Chautauqua outdoor summer meetings usually featured educational and inspirational lectures to educate adulta. These meetings soon became widely popular all over the United States. A description of the movernents philosophy from an 1886 publication defmes in lofty goals:

Chautauqua pleads for a universal education; for plans of reading and study; for all iegkirnate enticements and incitements to ambition; for all necessary adaptations as to time and topks; for ideal associatlons which shali at once excite the imagination and set the heart aglow. Chautauqua stretches over the land a magnificent temple, broad as the continent, lofty as the heavens, iato which homes, churches, schools, and shops may build themselves intó a splendid university in which people of all ages and conditions may be enrolled as students.... Show people that the mind reaches its maturity long after the school days end, and that some of the hest intellectual and literary labor is performed in and beyond middle Me.

Source: Theodore Morrison, Chautauqua: A Center for Education, Religion, and the Arts in America (Chicago & London: University of Chicago, 1974).

Meager Reform Efforts. Northern philanthropists did not abandon their antebellum efforts in the South. George Foster Peabody, whose Peabody Fund remained active throughout the century, donated one million dollars to be held in trust to promote intellectual, moral or industrial education in the most destitute portions of the United States. A major accomplishment of this endowment was the establishment of the Nashville, Tennessee, Normal College in 1875 (the school became the George Peabody College for Teachers in 1909). By 1897 more than $365,000 had been given in scholarships to southern teachers for training. In the late 1890s some reforms stirred in the public sector. The economy of the South grew: production of cotton increased; industrial investments multiplied; and railroad building expanded. The increase in wealth during this decade was nearly 50 percent. A foundation of substantial increases in school revenues and a new attitude toward the importance of education was present at the close of the century. However, the South entered the twentieth century with public school systems that were inferior to those in the rest of the United States, and the question of segregated Negro public schools was settled by a separate but equal doctrine that in reality meant only separate. In many parts of the South, public education as late as 1900 suffered in comparison with conditions of 1860.


Harry S. Ashmore, The Negro and the Schools (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954), pp. 1252;

Edgar W. Knight, Public Education in the South (Boston: Ginn, 1922) pp. 422450;

Truman Pierce, White and Negro Schools in the South: An Analysis of Biracial Education (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1955), pp.1742;

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Public Education in the South

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