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.

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“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!

Thinking About Doing a PhD?

Well, you’re at the right place! Before I embarked on my PhD journey I did a lot of research on PhD programs and possibilities because, let’s face it, it’s not a decision that should be taken lightly. So, here are my thoughts on doing a PhD…

1. You’ve got to LOVE what you’re studying. This is really important. You are going to spend several years studying this one particular topic. If you don’t love it, it will drive you demented. When I first started thinking about pursuing postgraduate studies I had to think about whether I wanted to begin a Masters in Education or in History. A Masters in Education seemed like the logical choice because I had just received my Bachelor’s in Education, but I just couldn’t think of an interesting topic to study. I’d often browse through the theses in MIC’s library looking for inspiration but interesting historical topics kept popping into my head. And I was getting waaaay more excited about those ideas than any of the potential Education topics I had in mind. Ultimately, I chose to study History and I’ve never regretted it. I absolutely love what I do. I really enjoy getting up every morning, sitting at my desk with a coffee and writing, researching or reading.

2. You’ve got to be disciplined. I’m doing a research PhD which means that there are no classes or exams. It also means that there is no structure. Not that I mind. In fact, I prefer it that way. But that’s because I’m an organised person. Teaching a class of thirty will do that to you! If you undertake a research PhD then you have got to be disciplined with your time. It’s so easy to waste the first, or even the second, year of your studies if you’re not disciplined with you’re time. Even though I don’t have any classes I have established a routine so that I am as productive as possible. If a research PhD isn’t for you then there are some structured options available. As far as I know, most, if not all, of the PhD programs in the US are structured.

3. You’ve got to be prepared to defer gratification…for a long time! Doing a PhD can last for anything between three and ten years. I’m guessing that the average time is between four and six years. This means that you are going to be a student for quite a long time. Depending on the funding you get, it probably means that you are going to be a poor student for quite a long time. This didn’t bother me too much as I’ve only got myself to look after. But if you have a mortgage or a family to support then you need to seriously consider it. That being said, I wouldn’t let a lack of money totally turn you off doing a PhD. If you really want it then you can make it work. And it will be worth it in the end. Well, that’s what I keep telling myself!

4. After you’ve done your PhD you’ve got to be prepared to work hard. Or, should I say, continue working hard. You may have reached the top of the student ladder but you’re at the bottom of the academic ladder and it’s going to take time to work your way up. I’m not speaking from experience here because I’m not at that stage yet but I’d love to hear about how recent PhD graduates have survived the job market.

How I Research

For all you budding researchers, I thought I’d share with you how I conduct research. It’s very important to establish a good system at the beginning of your studies, and it helps to be organised. I wasn’t a particularly well-organised person until I first began teaching and your life is ten times more stressful if you’re not organised so I adapted pretty quickly.

Anyway, this system can be used for primary and secondary source research. It can also be adapted to suit your particular needs. I like writing. Like, with a pen and paper. But I know that a lot of people prefer writing directly onto a computer so that’s fine too.

Here is my step-by-step guide to researching:

First, I read the material and take notes.

Whenever I come across an important piece of information I write it down exactly as it appears in the source. It’s okay to paraphrase but I prefer to have the exact quote – I can paraphrase later if I want. Make sure to take note of the page number if it is a book or if it’s a diary, letter or some other archival document write down the date of the document, who wrote and/or received it and other important information. This will save you loads of hassle when it comes to writing your chapter or paper later.

All of this note taking is done with pen and paper in my notebook and I keep all the notes for a particular source or document together. The name and location of my source is clearly written at the top of the first page. For example, ‘Nathan Hill Papers, Duke University’ or ‘Ronald E. Butchart, Schooling the Freed People’. Sometimes, to save myself the hassle later, I include the other information that will be needed in my footnotes or bibliography, such as date and place of publication.

Second, I record the important notes into a word document.

This is the most important step but it does not have to be done immediately after the first step. Sometimes I wait a day or two to give my head a break! I’m still working during those couple of days, I’m just doing something different.

I have five running word documents for each of my thesis chapters saved onto my computer. For example, I have a word document entitled ‘Northern White Teachers’ and another entitled ‘Black Teachers’. As I read through my hand-written notes for a particular source, I record the relevant notes into one of the five word documents.

Let’s say I’ve read the diaries of a black teacher. Most of the notes I have taken from these diaries will be used in the chapter about black teachers. Some notes, however, could be useful in another chapter, perhaps if it supports a point I plan on making somewhere else or if it contextualises an issue I raised somewhere else.

As you record your notes into your word document you categorise them. This is the most useful part of the process. So if I’m recording my notes from the diaries of a black teacher and I have a quote which suggests black teachers’ motives, I will put that particular quote under a section entitled ‘Motivation’. This process happens naturally. You don’t need to have created subsections prior to beginning your running document. Then, at a later stage, when I’m in the process of recording my notes from another source, and I come across another quote that suggests the motivation of black teachers, I will put that quote in the same section. Just be sure to clearly mark your source at the end of each quote, otherwise you’ll be very confused when it comes to writing your chapter!

Does that make sense? I hope so! I was kinda hard to explain…

Third, I write my chapter!

This system works very well for me because as I continue adding new sources and new quotes to the word document, my word count increases bit by bit. These quotes are the foundation of my chapter. They are the evidence I need to back up a particular point I’m making. The rest is just filling in the blanks. So by the time I start to write my chapter, a huge chunk of the work is actually already done.


So that’s how I conduct research. Everyone has a different method. I could probably save myself some time by recording my notes directly into my word documents but I find that I get too distracted that way. It’s whatever works best for you! Feel free to share how you conduct research.

The Value of Studying History

The Old Well, UNC

So I’m here at the University of North Carolina, getting stuck into the archives and getting lots of work done. It’s been great. I will definitely write a post about all the different kinds of fun and interesting things that I’m doing but I came across an interesting quote the other day so I’m going to talk about that for now…


I’ve yet to meet a person who does not enjoy learning about some aspect of history. Although they may not necessarily want to study history, there’s usually some aspect of the the past which fascinates them. When I was teaching in a primary school, History was definitely one of my class’s favourite subjects and when I’d announce that we’d be doing History next, the whole class would erupt in a series of yesses. And that’s not an exaggeration! I was often surprised by their level of enthusiasm but it was great to be able to share my love of the subject with such an eager bunch of students. I wish third level students had the same level of enthusiasm!!!

Although learning about historical events is interesting, many people are unaware of how useful it can actually be. When I was conducting archival research at UNC, I came across an interesting quote that I believe best illustrates the value of history:

The past is the key of the present and the mirror of the future, therefore, let us adopt as a rule, to judge the future by the history of the past, and having key of past experience, let us open the door to present successes and future happiness.

These are the words of Robert G. Fitzgerald, a black American Civil War veteran, teacher of the former slaves and political activist, written on 26 July 1867. His diaries can be found in the Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina. You can find the link here.

This quote really struck me and it’s funny because Fitzgerald’s granddaughter actually used that same quote as the epigraph to her book Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, something I just found out.

So basically, through the study of history we can learn from the past to plan for the present and prepare for the future. And that’s why historians matter!!!! 🙂