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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

SOURCES:

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

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

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Some Challenges You May Face When Moving to a New Country

2015-09-11 13.56.14These challenges won’t apply to everyone. Ireland has become very Americanised over the past twenty years or so and having been to the U.S. previously, either on holidays or on research trips, I didn’t really experience culture shock. Nevertheless, these are the challenges that I faced when I first arrived in North Carolina.


HOMESICKNESS

Homesickness is, unfortunately, inevitable. No matter how excited you are about your new venture, you will miss your friends, family and home comforts. However, as sure as I am that you will experience homesickness at some stage during your time abroad, I am equally sure that you will come out of it. At the Gateway Orientation Program, we were warned that all cultural exchange students go through periods of highs and lows – sort of like a roller-coaster. But for every low point, there’s a high point! When I first got to North Carolina I experienced homesickness almost immediately. I didn’t know anybody and because I’m not taking any classes (I’m conducting independent research) I was worried that I wouldn’t make any friends. Fortunately, it’s actually very easy to make friends here, provided you’re willing to put in the effort. Within the first week I signed up with the UNC Boxing Club and got in touch with the Graduate History Society so I got to meet loads of new people. If you sit at home and don’t reach out then you probably won’t make too many new friends, so it really is important to put yourself out there. Meeting new people helped to solve my homesickness problem but if it’s plaguing you, this website offers some really good strategies to deal with homesickness.

THE CLIMATE

In Ireland the weather can be pretty miserable. Our winters are dark, drab and grey and although we get some bright, sunny days in the spring and summer, the temperatures rarely peak above the mid-twenties – Celsius that is. So when I first came to North Carolina I loved the bright sunny mornings. That is until noon hit. I learnt the hard way not to walk to the store between 12 noon and 2pm. The humidity is a killer! Once, I even got sunburned walking ten minutes to the shop! Now that it’s October, I’m getting a good insight into what hurricane season is like in NC. Hurricane Joaquin is on the horizon and it’s been raining for the past week, pretty much non-stop. When the rain first began I noticed that so many people wore wellies! I found this hilarious until I couldn’t walk to the library without stepping into very deep puddles. I now plan on investing in a pair of wellies!

NOT HAVING A CAR

I love my car. I miss my car. Here in NC, I’m very, very lucky to have found an amazing apartment so close to everything on campus. Pretty much everywhere is within walking distance. Except for the grocery store. It’s actually only about a thirty minute walk away but I have to make sure that I time it correctly because there is nothing worse than walking that distance (in jeans) in the humidity. I speak from experience! My rule of thumb is not to use a basket while shopping and to only buy whatever my two hands can carry. This ensures that I’m not logging heaving bags all the way home – again, I speak from experience! There are buses, but they are so infrequent that it’s sometimes easier to walk…

THE CURRENCY

This might seem like a silly one but American currency can be very confusing! First of all, a wad of dollars makes you feel like you’re loaded when you’re actually not. Boo. 😦 And don’t get me started on the coins. What’s a dime and why is a five cent coin bigger that a ten cent coin!? Aragh. This can be very frustrating when you’re trying to pay for your coffee and a very large queue is forming behind you. Thankfully, most places accept card, even if you’re only buying a bottle of water. I’ll admit, having to swipe instead of entering a pin did take a bit of getting used to too! You can’t swipe too fast and definitely not too slow. But I’m a pro swiper now! 🙂


I know that I’m very lucky that these are the only challenges I’ve faced in the U.S. Some of my friends from around the world have definitely experienced culture shock, particularly because of the language barrier. My fellow Fulbrighters and I have all remained in contact because it’s important to have a strong network of support. If you’re finding living abroad challenging, never be afraid to reach out to someone. Even if they’re not going through the same thing, they’re sure to offer kind words of support and sometimes that’s all you need.

Road Trip to Asheville, North Carolina

Blue Ridge Parkway

A view from the Blue Ridge Parkway

Last week my boyfriend came to visit and we went on a road trip to Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville is a beautiful city in western North Carolina, about three and a half hours away from Chapel Hill. So, for that all-American experience, we rented a pick-up truck, booked an Airbnb and off we went!

Asheville was as beautiful as everyone said it would be. It’s a very laid-back city with a strong hippy vibe. The food was amazing and the craft beer is supposed to be even better. I don’t actually like beer but the wine was pretty good!

Asheville

A view from the Blue Ridge Parkway

The first day we got there we spent the day exploring downtown Asheville – our apartment was within walking distance and our air bnb hosts recommended some great bars and restaurants. The weather was perfect – not too hot and definitely not too cold which made all that walking very easy.

Biltmore House

Biltmore House

The second day we visited the Biltmore Estate. Biltmore House, the main house on the estate, was built by George Vanderbilt in the late nineteenth century. It’s the largest privately owned house in the US. We couldn’t take any photos inside the house but the place was restored to near perfection. It really gave you a feel of what it would have been like to be one of Vanderbilt’s guests. The view from the house was nothing short of magnificent. Miles and miles of trees, rolling green hills and perfect blue sky. I really fell in love with the place because of that view!

The Biltmore Estate was designed to be self-sustaining and the Biltmore Winery is located just a short drive from the house. A free tour of the winery is included in the cost of admission along with free wine tastings. Needless to say I came home with a great bottle of Riesling.

The view from The Biltmore

The view from The Biltmore

The third day we drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This parkway runs through Virginia and North Carolina, mostly along the Blue Ridge Mountains which are part of the Appalachian Mountains. Again, the views were spectacular. The weather was cooler that day but it was the perfect time to make the trip because the leaves had just started to change colour, making the views even more amazing.

That evening it started lashing rain! And when it rains in North Carolina, it pours. The weather has been pretty miserable since but hopefully we’ll get some sunshine before the week is out. All in all, the trip to Asheville was amazing and we’re both so glad we got to see a beautiful part of North Carolina.