James Edward O’Hara: A Black Teacher in Reconstruction North Carolina

How awesome is the digitisation of sources!?

Today I was researching black teachers in Reconstruction North Carolina for an upcoming manuscript and I came across an interesting character by the name of James Edward O’Hara. When I did a little digging, I was excited to find that many of his papers, located at the University of Chicago Library, have been digitised! Although I always look forward to potential US research trips, digital sources make my work a hell of a lot easier. For those of you who are interested, O’Hara’s papers can be found here.

So what did I find out about James Edward O’Hara?


James Edward O’Hara. Image: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Well, as the name suggests, O’Hara was the son of an Irish father and West Indian mother. Born in New York City in 1844, he was just 19 years old when he began teaching the freedpeople in New Bern, North Carolina, in 1862. Unable to find employment with an aid or missionary society, O’Hara taught black students in his own home, largely at his own expense.

While teaching the freedpeople in New Bern and later Goldsboro, O’Hara became active in local politics. As an educated and well-respected member of the community, he served as a delegate to North Carolina’s 1868 constitutional convention and between 1868 and 1869 he served in the state house of representatives.


The O’Hara Family Home in New Bern, North Carolina. Image: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

After teaching the freedpeople for a total of five years, O’Hara moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a clerk in the Treasury Department while also studying law at Howard University, a private institute of higher learning for black men and women. Upon being admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1873, O’Hara established a private practice in Enfield. 

After a long struggle and no less than four previous attempts, O’Hara finally won a seat in the 48th Congress (1883-1885) and was easily re-elected in 1884.


O’Hara and the New Bern Bar Association, 1905. Image: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

One of the most inspiring aspects of O’Hara’s career was his dedication to the promotion of black civil rights. In spite of rising opposition, he succeeded in briefly ending segregation on interstate steam trains. After serving in Congress for four years, he returned to North Carolina to practice law with his son. 

So that’s just some of the story of James Edward O’Hara! In other news, I passed my viva exam on September 2nd, with no corrections (!) so I’m looking forward to graduating at the end of October.

An article I wrote on representations of race and racism has also been published in Paedagogica Historica. It can be found here for anyone who’d like a read – if you do not have access feel free to get in touch with me and I’d be happy to send you on a copy.


James Edward O’Hara Papers, 1866-1970, University of Chicago Library.

O’Hara, James Edward, United States House of Representatives: History, Art, & Archives.





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.



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.



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! 🙂

Irish History Students’ Association Conference, 2016

Hello again!

Last weekend I attended the Irish History Students’ Association (IHSA) conference in Galway, Ireland. This is the second time that I’ve presented at this particular conference and I really enjoyed it. Unlike some of the major academic conferences, the participants at the IHSA are all students so the atmosphere is really relaxed, informal and supportive. It’s a great opportunity to present your work, get good feedback and meet some interesting people. I would definitely recommend presenting at this conference because everybody is so supportive and there’s very little chance that your work will be slated by someone in your field!

This year, I presented a paper on black teachers. In particular, I looked at what qualified southern black men and women to teach the freed people and their experiences of post-Civil War southern society.

Essentially, I found that most of the southern black teachers in North Carolina’s schools for the freed people received their education in some of the first freedmen’s schools. This explains why most of the black teachers did not enter the classroom until the fall of the Confederacy in 1865.

Some of the southern black teachers attended northern schools during the antebellum period. Mary Jane Patterson from Raleigh, North Carolina, was one such teacher. Around 1852 the Patterson family either bought their freedom or escaped from slavery and relocated to Oberlin, Ohio. In 1862 Mary Jane graduated from Oberlin College with a Bachelor of Arts degree – she was the second black woman in the country to accomplish such an achievement. In 1869 Mary Jane began teaching the freed people in Washington, D.C.

Some of the formerly enslaved teachers in North Carolina acquired an education during slavery, mostly through surreptitious means. This is particularly significant considering that North Carolina prohibited slave education in 1831. Although few of these enslaved people acquired anything more than a rudimentary education, they eagerly passed on their knowledge to other members of the slave community –  a tradition that continued during Reconstruction.

As you can imagine, life in post-Civil War North Carolina was challenging for southern black teachers. Poverty and white hostility were two of the greatest challenges these teachers faced. Most of the southern black teachers were not employed by an aid or missionary society so they received very little funding. Generally, these teachers worked in schools that were supported by a combination of aid from the Freedmen’s Bureau and private tuition fees (which often did not amount to very much).

White opposition to black education caused many problems – schools were frequently burned down and teachers and students were often attacked by hostile members of the white community. These issues became more prevalent as the Reconstruction era progressed with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

In addition, many southern whites refused to lease or sell land or property for the use of a school, making it very difficult to grow and sustain a viable system of black education.



AHA 2016

Hello there! Last week I attended the American Historical Association (AHA) conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I was presenting at the poster session on Saturday and you can read more about that here. I had an amazing time at the conference. I really loved it! Being an Americanist in Ireland can be difficult at times because there are very few people with whom I can discuss my work or new research. However, going to the conference gave me the opportunity to do all that. Over the course of three days, I attended some really interesting panels about race, Reconstruction, the Civil War and black education. I also got to meet some really interesting people and we’re already in talks about possible collaborations.

AM Brosnan Poster

My poster

Many of the panels that I attended discussed broadening the Reconstruction timeline. Generally, historians concede that Reconstruction began in 1861 and ended in 1877. However, more and more historians are beginning to argue that Reconstruction lasted well beyond 1877 and some are even suggesting that it started before 1861. It was a really interesting topic that emerged in many of the panels that I attended and it’s something that I will definitely consider going forward.

There was also a great social aspect to the AHA. On Friday evening I attended the Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill reception. That was fun because I got to meet up with a lot of the grad students that I met while studying at UNC. On Saturday, after a day of attending panels and presenting my research, I met up with two other Fulbrighters, Aditya from India and Jemilla from Sierra Leone. I met both Aditya and Jemilla at the Gateway Orientation Program in August last year – you can read more about my orientation experience here. Aditya invited us to his home and he cooked us Indian food. It was delicious! Jemilla brought two of her classmates as well as some margarita mix along with her so it turned out to be a great night!


Atlanta at night

All in all, I had a thoroughly enjoyable and productive experience at the AHA. I met many interesting historians, learned about new research and reunited with some old friends. The Fulbright Award definitely helped to make the AHA as enjoyable as it was. Without it, I would not have been in a position to attend the UNC reception, I would not have known so many grad students attending the conference and I would not have known anybody living in the beautiful city that is Atlanta. I’m really looking forward to the next meeting!


Representations of Race and Racism in Freedmen’s Textbooks

Greetings from Atlanta! I’m here for the American Historical Association (AHA) conference. I will be presenting at the poster session tomorrow, Saturday, and I’m really excited. I decided to present my research in poster format for two reasons. Firstly, this study lends itself particularly well to visual presentation. My poster investigates representations of race and racism in nineteenth century textbooks and I have been able to present many of my findings through images and lessons from the textbooks themselves. Secondly, the AHA does not accept proposals for individual papers and anyone who wants to present a paper needs to find co-panelists. As I am the only PhD student in my department that studies American History much less black education during the Civil War and Reconstruction era, it would have been very difficult for me to organise a panel. However, the Fulbright award has given me untold opportunities to meet people that have similar research interests and I’m sure that, going forward, I will not have any problems arranging a panel if I so wish! Today, I am going to give you a little peek at what my poster examines.

During the Civil War and Reconstruction era, 1861-1876, thousands of former slaves established schools for themselves and their children. Aided by northern missionaries as well as some southern whites, black people throughout the American South built schoolhouses, hired teachers and purchased textbooks. Some of these textbooks were specifically created for the freed people. The American Tract Society published the vast majority of these textbooks. Other textbooks were the same as those that were typically used in northern common schools. In some instances, the Bible was used as a supplementary text because a lack of funding prevented the purchase of books or other resources. This study investigates the representations of race and racism in the textbooks used in southern black schools during the Civil War and Reconstruction era. In particular, this study investigates how black people were portrayed and to what end.

For this study, I analysed a total of twenty-one primary-level textbooks. This sample included spellers, readers and geography textbooks. All of the northern common school textbooks followed the format of a traditionally-styled textbook – much like the textbooks we use today. Some of the textbooks created for the freed people were also styled in this way, such as The Freedmen’s Spelling Book or The Freedmen’s Third Reader. Two freedmen’s textbooks, The Freedman and The Freedman’s Torchlight, can be classified as instructional newspapers. These newspaper/textbooks offered academic lessons alongside news articles. Four freedmen’s textbooks served as advice manuals. These textbooks were profoundly didactic and their ultimate goal was to teach the former slaves their duties and responsibilities as freed men and women.

KIC Image 7 (2)

“Peter Puff and Betty Simple” in Plain Counsels for Freedmen. Many northern whites believed that they had to educate the freed people lest they succumb to the vices of intemperance and idleness. This image was used to depict what the freed people should not do.

The primary goal of the textbooks created for the freed people was to teach the former slaves the duties and responsibilities of freedom. This goal was deemed necessary because the vast majority of northern whites believed that the freed people were racially inferior, degraded by slavery and incapable of controlling their own educational institutions. Thus, freedmen’s textbooks attempted to inculcate the former slaves with northern middle-class ideals and values such as industry, frugality, temperance and piety. In essence, the northern white textbook authors, publishers and designers attempted to remake the former slaves in the image of middle-class northerners. A second goal of these textbooks was to mould the former slaves into a subservient labour force. Although Union victory resulted in the emancipation of some four million slaves, the northern and southern economies were reliant on black labour and all of the freedmen’s texts promoted the value of industry and hard work. Some even encouraged the former slaves to forgive their former masters and return to work in the fields or on the plantations.

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“Stages of Society” in Mitchell’s System of Modern Geography (1856)

Representations of race and racism were not particularly evident in the northern common school spellers or readers. However, northern geography textbooks were profoundly racist, particularly in the lessons about Africa or the African people. Most geography textbooks divided mankind into five races or four stages of society. Whites were invariably positioned at the top of the racial hierarchy and blacks at the bottom. Such lessons were designed to promote the superiority of the white race.

To summarise, some of the northern common school textbooks attempted to maintain white supremacy while most of the textbooks created for the freed people attempted to extend the patriarchal system of slavery and preserve the antebellum southern social order. There were some variations and I examine these in the poster.

This is but a brief synopsis of my research. If you’re at the AHA be sure to pop down and see me at the poster session tomorrow to find out more.  I’ll be delighted to answer any questions that you may have!