Education in America – Part 4

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Education of African Americans in Post Civil War America

Freedman’s Bureau, 1865

In 1870 America, many Native Americans were forced onto reservations. The nation’s consciousness was centered more on what to do with its massive “refugee” problem, created by former slaves. Contrary to the stereotype, there were many African Americans who could read and write, even in the southern states. But even following the war, education for blacks was decidedly inferior, and opportunities were limited.

1870 CensusEthnicity in the United StatesPercentage
Native American (Reservations)357,981
Native American Not on Reservations*25,731
Total Native American*383,7120.99%
*Necessarily approximate
Source:  “1870 Census: A Compendium of the Ninth Census (June 1, 1870)”

There is much speculation among historians, but estimates of the pre-Columbian Native American population range from two to eighteen million, taking in North and Central America. While inexact, the above figures represent an approximate 87% reduction in Native American population over the period of European colonization and westward expansion, genocide on a massive scale.

In antebellum America, the Quakers were at the forefront of providing education to African Americans, since black children were largely excluded from schools, even in the north. In 1820, Maine led the way admitting black children to schools, but there was still significant segregation. Following the Civil War, the Congress recognized that a huge unskilled labor force could be an asset, if given the opportunity of education.

Even while the war raged, a battle took place in Congress over what to do with the emancipated slave population. The debate started in 1863, with Representative T. D. Eliot of Massachusetts proposed a bill establishing a bureau of emancipation. On March 3, 1865, Congress passed “An Act to establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees” to provide food, shelter, clothing, medical services, and land to displaced Southerners, including newly freed African Americans. The Freedmen’s Bureau was to operate “during the present war of the rebellion, and for one year thereafter,” and also established schools, supervised contracts between freedmen and employers, and managed confiscated or abandoned lands.

As with most things involving Congress, the Freedman’s Bureau became a political controversy. ” Senators disputed the role of the federal government in providing special treatment to a specific group of people at the exclusion of others. Some senators argued that the Freedmen’s Bureau would make former slaves and Southern refugees dependent on government bureaucrats who might take advantage of them. It would, in effect, prolong their servitude, Iowa senator James Grimes claimed. “Are they free men, or are they not? If they are free men, why not let them stand as free men?” he asked. Senator Sumner countered that assistance was a necessity during the transition from slavery to freedom. “The curse of slavery is still upon them,” he insisted. “Call it charity or duty,” he said, regarding the creation of the Freedman’s Bureau, “it is sacred as humanity.” Opposed by Andrew Johnson, the agency mustered enough support to survive until 1868.

Freedman’s School

It is estimated that the Freedmen’s Bureau spent approximately $5 million building freedmen schools. By the time the Freedmen’s Bureau closed, it had opened 1,000 schools for freedmen across the south. Initially, teachers were required to be white, but this was relaxed until blacks comprised about one-third of the teachers at freedmen schools. The schools and teachers gathered support from churches but suffered violent opposition from such groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the Golden Circle.

Eventually, the white Southerns, fearing that the freed slaves would get an education, started taking matters in their own hands. They began taking control of the administration for education in the South. The provisions of the Freedmen’s Bureau made integrated schools possible, but virtually all whites opposed this idea. The first integrated school during the Reconstruction era was in New Orleans; however, whites refused to attend.

Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume, 409

The opposition was telling. In Georgia, the state with the most former slaves, it is unlikely that more than 10 percent of the state’s African American population could find a seat in a schoolhouse during Reconstruction. – Butchart, Ronald E. “Freedmen’s Education during Reconstruction.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 13 April 2016. Web. 28 May 2020

Death; there is a feeling of deadly hatred towards the Blacks, and I have heard it expressed upon so many occasions, that I certainly believe that it is only the presence of U. S. forces that keeps anything like order or quiet in society.

The Blacks are universally willing to be guided by what the officers tell them, and the whites of course have to be governed in the same way. Hundreds of Freedmen have told me that the Masters were only waiting for the soldiers to be taken out of the state, and then it was their intention to rule, and enslave the Negro worse than ever, to resort to a system of starvation, and compel the government to support the Negroes or cause the race to die out. Many do not acknowledge the freedom of the Negro, and the same course of treatment is still in force upon some plantations as when slavery actually existed.

Orangeburg, S. C., Sept. 8th 1865
Bvt. Brig. Genl. Ely
Agt. of F. M. B.
Columbia, S. C.

In spite of the opposition, many African American children did learn, both in the north and the south.

Many African American children did not have parents with sufficient education to teach them at home. This factor, plus the ascendancy of the idea of government common schools, led America down the path of segregated schools with a professional teacher, and toward the idea of public schools assuming major responsibility for education.

The teachers from the Freedman’s Bureau were mostly either young unmarried women or widows, usually from churches. They labored tirelessly for little pay, sometimes to the point of breaking their own health. Women like Lucy and Sarah Chase, and Hannah Stevenson journeyed far from home and family.

In Charleston, we have a school very flourishing & very interesting. Arthur Sumner of Cambridge is its principal; he has eighteen assts. Of these 15 are natives, colored & white. We were to send to him in Oct. (about the 2d week) 3 skillful teachers from here, each to have charge of a floor; and had selected those who should fill that place…

We could not, of course, separate you, & we believe you can so share the work in the Dept. of the school which will be assigned by Mr. Sumner to you, that you will be as one. Teaching will pretty much demand & task all your energies; for it is very important in our program that the Charleston School should be a superior one. . .”

–Hannah E. Stevenson [1867]

Schools like Howard University, traditionally black, were started by the Freedman’s Bureau. By 1890, about eighty percent of African Americans were literate, compared with around forty percent in 1850.

But the struggle for equal education and opportunity for all races had a long way to go..

Next week: African American Education