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Q&A: Schools and Education During Reconstruction

Historians describe the creation of schools and focus on education -- for both blacks and whites -- in the South during Reconstruction.

How was learning to read connected to the end of slavery?

Eric Foner: Freedom had many meanings to people coming right out of slavery. But one of the things that it critically involved was access to education. Most of the Southern states, before the Civil War, made it illegal to teach a slave to read and write. Now, some African Americans did learn to read and write secretly. Some... their master or mistress actually taught them to read and write. But the vast majority had had no access to education at all. And they realized that education was critical to advancement as free people in this society. As well as, many of them, being deeply religious, wanted to be able to read the Bible.

One of the ways that African Americans first begin to get access to education is in schools created by the army during the Civil War. Black soldiers get education through the army. The contrabands -- that is, runaway slaves who are now living in camps or other areas protected by the army -- schools are created there for them. So the first real impulse for black education comes out of the army in occupied areas of the South during the war, and then it expands outward greatly as the war is coming to an end...

At the end of the Civil War, even while the war's still going on in some areas, and then immediately after, there's this explosion of energy in black communities to create schools. Northern aid societies come down to help create schools. The Freedmen's Bureau puts money into creating schools. But most of the schools that spring up are actually created by blacks themselves. They pool their resources -- which are very meager at this time -- to hire a teacher, to find a building, to build a building, to use an abandoned building -- to create schools. And at these schools, everybody is going. It's not just schoolchildren. Adults, elderly people are seeking education. This is one of the critical definitions of freedom for black people, is the ability to get an education.

Eric Foner

Did former slaves need to become educated to gain political power?

Clarence Walker: Before the Civil War, maybe no more than ten to 15 percent of the black population of the South was literate. And so many of the people dispatched by Northern churches, be they black or white, go into the South with the stated purpose of establishing schools for the freedmen and the freedmen's children. In this sense, the mission embodies the great hope of the founders of the republic, that the country would have and be based upon -- its politics would be based upon a widely educated populace. This is the meaning of the word "republicanism."

For many black people in the South, to learn how to read and how to figure and how to somehow move in a world of letters, was a revolutionary act, because it now gave them the skills and the tools whereby they could combat the racism that had oppressed them for centuries. And reading, for example, a paper like the Christian Recorder, you see great enthusiasm on the part of the freedmen and their children with respect to education; that they understood that slavery had deprived them of a number of the tools that marked you as an American citizen; and that it was necessary, if they were to take their place as free people within the Union, that they have the rudiments and more than the rudiments of education to survive.

In some instances, the missionaries felt that it was also important that the children of poor whites be educated too, seeing in them a counterweight to the attitudes of the old slaveocrats and master class. There was a hope that this people, realizing that they also were the victims of slavery, would somehow want to work with these missionaries and work with these black people. This was not to be the case, though, because the sense of racial divide was so deep.

Clarence Walker

Was there government support for educating ex-slaves?

Ed Ayers: Some things the radicals and the moderates [in the Republican Party] can agree upon... "We've got to take care of freed people right now, with the Freedmen's Bureau. We've got to get food in the hands of people who have no food. We've got to get clothes on the back of people who have no clothes. We've got to get schools started, so that these children can learn to read and write."

Ed Ayers

Could former slaves educate themselves on their own initiative?

Russell Duncan: [Northern activist Tunis] Campbell understood that one of the elements of free labor philosophy included education. He himself was an example of what education could do. So early on, he established schools for black children. He had been establishing schools, actually, since 1841... in the North.

Once he arrived on St. Catherine's and Sapelo Island, he understood that schools would be of primary importance, not only to the people and the children that he was attending to, but also to the idea of community and a broader idea of American dream, uplift philosophy...

He takes over buildings, invites teachers from the North. It's the first time he's seen his wife and sons in about two years. He writes a letter to New York to Harriet, says, "Bring the sons down. We're going to establish the schools. We're on an island of our own and no white people here, and we're going to lift up children. Bring all the primers you have, and please join us."

...They begin to assign children to different hours of schooling and different classrooms. Of course they have a limited number of teachers, and so they're not going to teach 100 or 200 students at one time... Children come to school for three hours at a time and leave, and then another class will come in. The adults are being taught at night. They need to read and write as well. They need to understand Jeffersonian concepts of education. They need to understand labor contracts. They need to deal with white people more as equals. And to do that, they have to be literate. And so the children first, the adults second, and then it binds the whole community into a thriving enterprise, actually.

Russell Duncan

How did Freedmen's Bureau agents work to create schools?

Ted Tunnell: [Marshall Twitchell] was very proud of the role he played in creating black schools. The [Louisiana state] constitution required one school per parish. Twitchell is actually going to create ten schools in Red River Parish. Now, he doesn't try to create desegregated schools. Nobody, indeed hardly anybody in the South, is able to do this. New Orleans has a few desegregated schools for a brief time during Reconstruction, but nobody makes it work in the rural parishes. So Twitchell though, he does create black schools. He creates five schools for whites and five schools for blacks. He's very proud of this. When he first institutes this program, there are rumors that the black schools are going to be busted up, that white gangs are going to burn them down. He puts out the word that if the black schools are busted up, he will stop paying the teachers in the white schools. It works. They let the black schools alone.

Ted Tunnell

How challenging was it for a former slave to become literate and embrace citizenship?

David Blight: It's of course a confusing time... it isn't just white people in South or the North who are critical of or suspicious of the readiness, the preparedness of blacks for these liberties, for holding office, for running a legislature. Blacks themselves of course, have to work through these doubts. They have to live through their own sense of whether they're prepared, their own sense of the struggle for literacy, their own sense of [converting] their conceptions of leadership that come out of slavery -- ministers, church leaders, plantation leaders -- into now a new kind of elected political leader. These are very difficult transitions, and we should never underestimate the trauma they were themselves going through. But they didn't shy from it. Hardly. They embraced it. They embraced voting. They embraced education like nothing else. They lined up in droves, old and young, to go to night school, to go to morning school. They would work afternoons or work mornings, to enter all manner of buildings that became freedmen's schools, just to achieve basic literacy and then some education beyond that. What was at stake was a sense of a new future. Some of them, no doubt, were sort of crushed by that responsibility, that challenge, but most of them embraced it.

David Blight
 
page created on 12.19.03
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Reconstruction: The Second Civil War
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