Access to Learning
Carrying Light and Knowledge
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.
Amistad Research Center, American Missionary Association Archives, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Were You Ever a Colored Boy?
Many textbooks of the era offered a negative view of African Americans. A contributor to the journal of the freedmen, The New National Era, describes a typical black boy's experience at school.
Reader, were you ever a colored boy? Have you ever gone to school and been obliged to walk around a crowd of white boys because they put themselves right in your path, and had "cuff that nigger!" yelled into your ears, and after doing all that one pair of fists could do against half a dozen pairs, were you unmercifully beaten (two or three policemen passing meanwhile) until some old woman came along and rescued you?
Released at length, have you made your appearance just in time to "hold out your hand, sir" for the reception of six or eight stinging blows from a heavy rattan in the hands of a white teacher whose one article of faith was "spare the rod and spoil the child"?
Have you ever studied Smith's Geography with that very worst type of Negro presented in painful contrast to the most perfect of the Caucasian on the opposite page? Have the words "superior to all others," referring to the latter, ever stuck in your throat and defiant pride made you "go down" while some other boy, no more ambitious but less sensitive, "went up"?
Have you ever tased the sweet revenge of sticking pins into the eyes of the soul-driver in the picture of a cotton field at the head of the lesson on Georgia? No! Then you don't know what a jolly experience belongs to nine-tenths of the colored men in this land of liberty.
Excerpt from Dorothy Sterling, ed., Trouble They Seen: The Story of Reconstruction in the Words of African Americans. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.
The People Are Daily More Enlightened
House Speaker S. J. Lee lists improvements to the state education system in this report to the nine black and thirty-four white members of the South Carolina House of Representatives at the close of the 1874 session.
Permit me, now to refer to our increased educational advantages. It is very pleasing, gentlemen, to witness how rapidly the schools are springing up in every portion of our State, and how the number of competent, well trained teachers are increasing.... Our State University has been renovated and made progressive. New Professors, men of unquestionable ability and erudition, now fill the chairs once filled by men who were too aristocratic to instruct colored youths. A system of scholarships has been established that will, as soon as it is practically in operation, bring into the University a very large number of students.... The State Normal School is also situated here, and will have a fair attendance of scholars. We have, also, Claflin University, at Orangeburg, which is well attended, and progressing very favorably; and in the different cities and large towns of the State, school houses have been built, and the school master can be found there busily instructing "the young idea how to shoot." [a quotation from poet James Thomson. He uses "shoot" to mean grow or advance.] The effects of education can also be perceived; the people are becoming daily more enlightened; their minds are expanding, and they have awakened, in a great degree, from the mental darkness that hitherto surrounded them....
Excerpt from Final Report to the South Carolina House, 1874. Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of South Carolina, for the Regular Session of 1874-1874 (Columbia, 1874), 549-53. Reprinted in William Loren Katz, Eyewitness. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.