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.