Who were the teachers of the freed people?

This is the central research question that guides my study of southern black schooling during the Civil War and Reconstruction era, 1861-1876.

Until very recently, the accepted image of the freedmen’s teacher was that of a northern white woman, or, to use the more common sobriquet, a “Yankee schoolmarm”. Although historical interpretations of Reconstruction have changed over time, ranging from the caustic diatribes of those associated with the Dunning school of thought to the glowing affirmations of revisionists, the image of the freedmen’s teacher as a northern white woman has remained remarkably unchanged.


St. James’ Plantation School. Image from Learn NC

In 2010, Ronald E. Butchart successfully challenged the Yankee schoolmarm image and found that three distinct groups of teachers worked in southern black schools: northern white, southern white and black people from the North and South. Butchart’s book, Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876, is a ground-breaking work of historical revision because it forces us to rethink what we think we know about freedmen’s education. Ultimately, this book has paved the way for fresh analyses and reinterpretations, particularly at state level.

Using North Carolina as a case study, my research focuses upon deconstructing the dominant narrative of northern white teachers in freed people’s schools. Thus far, I have found that most of the teachers in North Carolina were black. Although some of these teachers were from the North, the vast majority were from the South and many were probably former slaves.

White men and women from the North and South also played an important role in the construction of North Carolina’s freedmen’s schools and their stories are equally important to the study of black education. However, the real heroes of this narrative are the black men and women who engaged in freedmen’s education to extend and secure the boundaries of black freedom.

If you want to read more about my research on black teachers, you can check out my last blog post here as well as a paper that I presented at a recent conference here. In a couple of weeks, I will be presenting another paper on black teachers at the Irish and British Association for American Studies (IBAAS) conference. This paper focuses upon interrogating the teachers’ profile and investigating their motives for engaging in the work (the last paper focused upon the teachers’ educational background, as in what qualified them to teach, and their experiences of post-Civil War North Carolina).

Thanks for reading! 🙂