Edmonia Highgate, the daughter of freed slaves, grew up and was educated in New York. During the Civil War, in 1864, she traveled South to establish schools for the American Missionary Association (A.M.A.). This letter describes her experience with eager students and hostile surroundings.
Vermillionville, Dec. 17th, 1866
Rev. M. E. Strieby, Sec. A.M.A.:
Perhaps you may care to know of my work here for the Freed people. After the horrible riots in New Orleans in July, I found my heart getting impaired from hospital visiting and excitement so I came here to do what I could and to get stronger corporally, that I might enter fully into carrying light and knowledge into dark places. The Lord blessed me and I have a very interesting and constantly growing day school, a night school, and, a glorious Sabbath School of near one hundred scholars. The school is under the auspices of the Freedman's Bureau, yet it is wholly self-supporting. The majority of my pupils come from plantations, three, four and even eight miles distant. So anxious are they to learn that they walk these distances so early in the morning as never to be tardy. Every scholar buys his own book and slate, etc. They, with but few exceptions are french Creoles. My little knowledge of French is just in constant rise in order to instruct them in our language. They do learn rapidly. A class who did not understand any English came to school last Monday morning and at the close of the week they were reading "Easy Lessons." The only church of any kind here is Catholic and any of the people that incline to any belief are that denomination. It has not been safe to have a church of Protestant faith for the colored people. The priest talks of having a Catholic Church built for them. If he succeeds, I fear my efforts will for a while be lost. There is but little actual want among these freed people. The corn, cotton and sugar crops have been abundant. Most of the men, women and large children are hired by the year "on contract" upon the plantations of their former so called masters. One of the articles of agreement is that the planter shall pay "a five percent tax for the education of the children of his laborers." They get on amicably. The adjustment of relations between employer and former slaves would surprise our northern politicians. Most all of them are trying to buy a home of their own. Many of them own a little land on which they work nights in favorable weather and Sabbaths for themselves. They own cows and horses, besides their raising poultry.
The great sin of Sabbath breaking I am trying to make them see in its proper light. But they urge so strongly its absolute necessity in order to keep from suffering -- that I am almost discouraged of convincing them. They are given greatly to the sin of adultery. Out of three hundred I found but three couples legally married. This fault was largely the masters' and it has grown upon the people till they cease to see the wickedness of it. There has never been a missionary here to open their eyes. I am doing what I can but my three schools take most of my time and strength. I am trying to carry on an Industrial School on Saturday, for that I greatly need material. There are some aged ones here to whom I read the bible. But the distances are so great I must always have conveyance and although I ride horseback I can seldom get a horse.
There is more than work for two teachers yet I am all alone, God has wonderously spared me. There has been much opposition to the School. Twice I have been shot at in my room. Some of my night-school scholars have been shot but none killed. A week ago an aged freedman was shot so badly as to break his arm and leg -- just across the way. The rebels here threatened to burn down the school and house in which I board before the first month was passed. Yet they have not materially harmed us. The nearest military Jurisdiction is two hundred miles distant at New Orleans. Even the J. M. Bale agt has not been about for near a month. But I trust fearlessly in God and am safe. Will you not send me a package of "The Freedmen" for my Sunday School? No matter how old they are, just send them by mail, for there has never been a Sunday School paper here. Please send me the American Missionary for six months enclosed please find 25 cents commencing with January. Please remember me to Bros. Whipple and Whiting and any others who may remember me. I should be very glad to hear from you.
Yours for Christ's poor,
Edmonia G. Highgate
P.S. I notice by your Annual report that you have two missionaries in this state. Please tell me who they are and where located.
Source: Amistad Research Center, American Missionary Association Archives, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana.