Black Teachers in Reconstruction North Carolina

During the American Civil War and Reconstruction era, 1861-1876, formerly enslaved men and women demanded access to education. Aided by northern white missionaries, free blacks from the North and some southern whites, freed men and women throughout North Carolina built schoolhouses, hired teachers and purchased textbooks. Some former slaves even taught in the first black schools. Yet, the prevailing interpretation of post-Civil War southern black schooling is clouded by the misconception that the teachers of the freed people were predominantly northern white women, 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 the so-called Dunning School to the glowing affirmations of revisionists, the image of the freedmen’s teacher as a northern white woman has remained remarkably unchanged. As Sandra E. Small wrote, the freedmen’s teacher is ‘one of the most persistently stereotyped Americans’ of the Civil War and Reconstruction period.

Between 1861 and 1876, over 1,400 teachers taught the freed people in North Carolina. Over half of these teachers were black. This post, which forms part of my doctoral dissertation, examines the reasons why these teachers engaged in black education. A list of the sources I’ve used are included at the bottom of the post and if you’d like any more information please feel free to get in touch.

Not surprisingly, many black teachers spoke of their work amongst the freed people in terms of racial elevation. In his letter of application for a teaching position, twenty-four-year-old Robert Harris wrote that he wanted to assist ‘in the noble work of elevating and evangelizing our oppressed and long abused race’. Likewise, in a letter to North Carolina’s governor, William W. Holden, Mary A. Best from Duplin County pleaded for assistance because her students could not afford to pay their tuition. ‘I feel it is my duty to try to elevate the mindes of my color [sic]’, she wrote before continuing that she hoped ‘to elevate the poor colored children so they would not always be troden underfoot [sic]’. Ex-slave Robert Martin also perceived his work as a form of racial uplift and in an application to the Freedmen’s Bureau for aid, he wrote, ‘without help we can’t begin to be elevated and prepared for the duties that seem to await us’.

Other black teachers were moved to engage in freedmen’s education by a sense of racial solidarity. As Sallie Daffin wrote in 1865:

I presume my interest in the freedmen, and the motive that induces me to leave my home to labor for them, will not be questioned, when it is remembered that they are my people. And how much soever those of other races may sympathize with them, yet none can fully experience the strength of their needs, nor understand the means necessary to relieve them as we are who identified with them. And while we fully appreciate every effort on the part of our friends for the elevation of our race, yet it is my desire to contribute something to our cause.

Sallie, or Sarah Louise, Daffin was from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She taught the freed people for fourteen consecutive years in four different states between 1862 and 1876.

Like Daffin, many black people felt that they were best suited to teach the freed people. As Ellen Garrison Jackson from Newport, Rhode Island, wrote in her letter of application for a teaching position, ‘I have a great desire to go and labor among the Freedmen of the South. I think it is our duty as a people to spend our lives in trying to elevate our own race…And who can feel the sympathy that we can who are identified with them?’. Jackson taught the freed people for nine years between 1864 and 1875 across three different states.

Some black teachers began teaching at the behest of the freed people or other concerned individuals. One such teacher was Charles Hunter, a former slave from Raleigh. In 1875 Hunter was asked by Reverend Morgan of the Methodist Episcopal Church to teach the freed people in Shoe Hill, Robeson County. According to Hunter, Morgan had been ‘requested by the school committee to secure for them a teacher who could meet the requirements’, which Hunter seemingly met. Although Hunter did not specify what these requirements were, it is likely that his conservative stance on race relations made him appealing to the southern white patrons of the school. As John Haley concluded in his biographical study of Hunter, by 1874 ‘Hunter was easing into the role of a passive accommodationist’, a person who ‘idealized native whites, adopted their values, sentiments, and attitudes and eventually professed love for those whom they at first feared and resented’.

There was also a religious element to freedmen’s education and some teachers perceived their work amongst the freed people as a form of religious duty. Two such teachers were Robert Fitzgerald and Robert Harris. Although Ronald E. Butchart found that black teachers rarely ‘fret about their race’s spiritual condition’, Harris and Fitzgerald were two particularly pious teachers and both were committed to their students’ religious, as well as intellectual, development. ‘Two of my Sabbath School pupils have recently embraced religion and several more are now seeking the savior’, wrote Robert Harris in 1866. ‘I am laboring for their conversion as well as their enlightenment’. In 1868, Robert Fitzgerald expressed a similar interest in the former slaves’ religious instruction, reporting that he had distributed religious books and tracts amongst the freed people in the hope of encouraging them to attend Sabbath school.

Some black people began teaching the former slaves incidentally, particularly as the demand for black teachers grew. London R. Ferebee, a fifteen-year-old former slave from Currituck County first attended school in 1864. His progress was so rapid that his teacher, a white woman from the North, hired him as her assistant. When the Civil War ended 1865, Ferebee returned to his home in Elizabeth City with his father, enrolled in a school and was quickly asked to teach the freed people in Nixonton. After teaching in Nixonton for three years, Ferebee attended teacher training institutes in Mississippi and Virginia. He taught the freed people for a total of six years.

Other black teachers engaged in freedmen’s education because teaching was a source of employment. Former slave and single mother Lucy Brown, for instance, revealed that she took up teaching ‘to support and educate my little ones’. However, Brown could not afford to continue running a school because her students were too poor to pay the tuition fees. Thus, during the spring of 1868, she pleaded with the Freedmen’s Bureau for assistance in paying the rent of her school building. Brown did not resume teaching the following year so it is unlikely that the aid she received from the Bureau, if any, was enough to support her work in a freedmen’s school.

These are just some of the reasons black teachers gave for engaging in freedmen’s education. I have recently presented a conference paper on this subject so be sure to keep an eye out for it on my academia site.

 

Sources:

Sandra E. Small, ‘The Yankee Schoolmarm in Freedmen’s Schools: An Analysis of Attitudes’ in The Journal of Southern History, vol. 45, no. 3 (1979), pp 381-402.

Ronald E. Butchart, The Freedmen’s Teacher Project, 2013, used with permission.

American Missionary Association Archives, Tulane University, LA.

Charles N. Hunter, ‘Review of Negro life in North Carolina’, available here.

Records of the Superintendent of Education for the State of North Carolina, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.

John Haley, Charles N. Hunter and Race Relations in North Carolina.

Diary of Robert G. Fitzgerald, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Ronald E. Butchart, Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876.

London R. Ferebee, A Brief History of the Slave Life of Rev. L.R. Ferebee, available here.