Freedmen’s Education in Virginia, 1861–1870


Virginia’s formerly enslaved people sought education for themselves and their children at the earliest opportunity. Shortly after the American Civil War (1861–1865) began in Virginia, African Americans established and taught in schools for Virginia’s freed people. An African American Virginian created the first Black secondary school in the state. More than one-third of the teachers at Virginia’s first Black schools between 1861 and the end of Reconstruction were African American, and Black teachers taught far longer in freedmen’s schools in Virginia than white teachers, northern or southern. Not only were African Americans the first to teach in primary schools for Virginia’s freed people, they also founded and staffed the first secondary school in the state for free Black people. Northern aid societies like the American Missionary Association sent teachers, books, and other educational support to Virginia’s early Black schools, and the federal government provided building material for schools and transportation for northern teachers through the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. Many historians have portrayed freedmen’s education as a northern white benevolent effort, a white gift to the Black South. Although many northern teachers braved remarkably aggressive circumstances in their service, evidence suggests that Black education in Virginia, as elsewhere in the South, was a product of the freed people’s own initiative and determination, temporarily supported by northern benevolence and federal aid.


Virginia had long outlawed the education of its enslaved African Americans, passing increasingly oppressive legislation in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Educated enslaved people posed a dual threat to the state. First, they might read and embrace the American Revolution‘s expectation of human equality. Second, they contradicted one of the ideological foundations of slavery, the presumed intellectual incapacity of Africans and those of African descent and the consequent necessity for protection by a superior race. Those who supported slavery understood that ignorant people can be rendered tractable; knowledgeable people cannot easily be enslaved.

Horrid Massacre in Virginia

Although some Virginians had once supported the idea of education for Black people, by the nineteenth century, slave insurrections and rumors thereof had halted any movement toward increased literacy for the enslaved. The slave revolution in Haiti and Gabriel’s Conspiracy (1800), the thwarted plan by enslaved African Americans to seize Richmond and end slavery in Virginia led to legislation in Virginia in 1804 that outlawed nighttime “assemblages of slaves” and further laws in 1805 that prohibited the secular education of Black apprentices. In April 1831, five months prior to Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the General Assembly prohibited African Americans from assembling in schools for the purpose of education. Turner’s slave revolt in August spawned even greater efforts by whites to discourage Black education.

It was impossible to quash Black education entirely, of course. Free Black and enslaved people continued secretly to share what literacy they had. Clandestine schools operated in nearly every city and large town in the state. Some, in cities such as Alexandria and Hampton, were not even particularly secret. As long as the teachers and students were circumspect about their activities, authorities looked the other way. It is doubtful, however, that more than 5 to 10 percent of Virginia’s African Americans had access to literacy before the war.

Freedmen’s Education, 1861–1865

Self-Emancipated Blacks Behind Union Lines

Although historians often give credit to white northerners for educating freed people, within days of the beginning of the Civil War in Virginia, African Americans themselves established the first freely accessible schools for African Americans. As soon as Union forces secured their city, Alexandria teachers Mary Chase, Jane Crouch, and Anna Bell Davis, Black women who had once conducted classes in secret, began to teach openly. Sarah Gray opened another school in Alexandria during the summer. Mary Peake, long mistakenly credited as the first Black teacher to teach openly in Virginia, established a school in Hampton in September at the insistence of Black refugees fleeing from plantations to freedom on the Peninsula. African Americans were teaching in Norfolk, Fort Monroe, and Yorktown by October 1861. Sixteen of the first twenty-four teachers in Black schools in the first year of Black self-emancipation were African Americans. Only one of the eight Northern white teachers who taught in that first year remained in the schools for more than one year, while all but one of those sixteen Black teachers taught for multiple years. (Two, Crouch and Gray, taught continuously from 1861 through the 1870s; Gray continued to teach in Alexandria until shortly before her death in 1893.)

The number of schools and teachers increased greatly in the second year of the war, though open access to education for Black people remained limited to schools in Alexandria and the Peninsula until 1865. The number of northern teachers in Virginia grew rapidly after 1861. In 1862–1863, eighty-five teachers were active in Virginia’s Black schools, about sixty of whom were northerners, including five African American teachers. Three years later, after the war ended, more than 450 teachers taught nearly 12,000 Black students in Virginia.

African Americans were not only the first primary school teachers in Virginia; they also founded and staffed the first secondary school in the state. Clement Robinson, a formerly enslaved person from Petersburg who had studied at Pennsylvania’s Ashmun Institute, established the Beulah Normal and Theological School in 1862 in Alexandria, the first of the fourteen Black normal schools and high schools founded in Virginia before the end of Reconstruction.

Initial funding for Black schools in Virginia came from the freed people themselves, who, though usually impoverished refugees, managed to pay teachers. From 1862 until 1865, northern groups—both existing missionary societies and new, secular freedmen’s aid societies—organized to send teachers to Virginia and other southern states, to provide minimal salaries, and to send material aid. Of the 450 teachers in Virginia by the spring of 1865, not quite one-third were supported by such secular groups as the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society and the Pennsylvania Freedmen’s Relief Association and one-half were sustained by northern religious groups such as the American Missionary Association, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, and various Quaker organizations. More than one-sixth of the teachers, particularly African American teachers from Virginia, taught independently of any external aid.

Freedmen’s Education, 1865–1870

The Freedmen's Bureau.

In March 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. As its name indicates, it was intended to achieve more than aiding the freed people. Its first task was directed toward the problems of all war refugees, white and Black. It was intended as well to attend to what was expected to be another major problem created by the war: the disposition of property abandoned by or confiscated from planters and property owned by the Confederate government and seized by Union forces at the end of hostilities. Those lands were essential to the original design of the bureau. Congress assumed that the new agency would not require federal funds because it could carry out its work through the sale or rental of tens of thousands of acres of abandoned and confiscated property.

Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction

That was not what happened, however. President Andrew Johnson, who opposed the Freedmen’s Bureau, weakened the organization by pardoning the majority of former Confederates and restoring their property. That left the bureau with little real estate with which to carry out its mandate. When the bureau was renewed in 1866, Congress granted it a small appropriation. It gained one more renewal but was ordered to cease nearly all operations in 1870 and formerly ended in 1872. In the end, its primary legacy was assistance to  Black education in the South. The Freedmen’s Bureau, however, was not allowed to expend funds on teacher salaries, schoolbooks, or classroom apparatuses. It was limited to encouraging Black communities to raise money to purchase land for school buildings, providing building material from abandoned military buildings, transporting teachers to their schools, and paying rent on schoolhouses.

Across the South, the Freedmen’s Bureau helped to educate thousands of Black students who otherwise might have been unable to attend school. At the same time, however, the federal response to emancipation was astoundingly inadequate. First, it was limited entirely to education. Second, its expenditures were meager. The bureau spent approximately $7 million between 1865 and 1870 in all southern states on all bureau activity, which amounts to $1.75 for every Black man, woman, and child in the American South, or thirty-five cents each per year for the bureau’s five years of activity.

In Virginia, the Freedmen’s Bureau appears to have expended between $190,000 and $225,000 for education during its existence. If the higher number is taken as the total federal expenditure in Virginia, the Freedmen’s Bureau spent forty-four cents per capita for the education of the state’s 512,000 Black citizens, or about nine cents per capita per year.

Howland Chapel School & Teachers' Cottage

Benevolent aid from northern agencies may have doubled the total funds available to Black education in Virginia from 1865 to 1870. From 1864 to 1869, and particularly after 1867, many of the northern aid societies established high schools and normal schools in the state. By the later years of the decade, however, northern benevolence had steeply declined. Nearly all of the secular aid societies had closed their books by 1870, handing off their secondary schools to the few remaining societies or to the cities that hosted them; few of those schools survived Reconstruction. The missionary societies fared only moderately better than the secular groups. All had begun to retrench by 1869; two years later they were supporting half as many teachers as they had in 1869. By 1875, the American Missionary Association, which had more than 100 teachers working in Virginia in 1867, could sustain only 21; the Quakers, with 50 teachers in 1867, had 16 in 1875; the Episcopal Church supported 34 teachers in Virginia in 1867 but only 7 in 1875.

Misconceptions about Freedmen’s Education

American Missionary Association Teachers

Historically, white, northern teachers have received most of the credit for establishing and teaching in the freedmen’s schools in Virginia and throughout the South. In fact, the 1865–1866 school year was the high-water mark for northern teachers in Virginia. Four-fifths of the teachers in Black schools that year were northerners, including thirty African Americans from northern states; more than one-fifth of all of the teachers in Virginia that year were Black. The 275 northern teachers accounted for three-quarters of the teachers in Black schools in 1866–1867, down from 360 in the prior year. Two dozen white Virginians were teaching in 1867, along with ninety Black teachers, one-third from the North. Those trends continued for the next decade. In 1870, the number of northern white teachers had dwindled to sixty-eight while the number of northern Black teachers had increased to 50, one-third of the total 149 Black teachers in the schools in that year, compared to a total of 87 white teachers. By 1876, fewer than seventy northerners taught in Virginia’s Black schools; twenty of those were northern Black teachers; nearly two-thirds of all the teachers were African American. It is likely that between 1861 and 1876, more than 2,000 individual teachers taught in Virginia’s Black schools, one-third of them Black teachers. Most invested one to two years, some taught for five or six years, and a remarkable group of more than forty educators spent eight or more years working with the children of freed people. The latter group consisted largely of Black Virginians.


School report for January 1

Despite inadequate funding, enrollment in Virginia’s Black schools rose steadily from the opening of the first schools in Alexandria in 1861 to 1870, when the Freedmen’s Bureau ceased operations in Virginia and other states. By 1866, nearly 12,000 students were attending schools across the state; by 1868, 19,000 were enrolled; by 1870, the total was nearly 33,000.

Many northern supporters soon lost interest in everything related to emancipation and Reconstruction. Ralza M. Manly, the superintendent of the Freedmen’s Bureau schools in Virginia, reported in the Tenth Semi-Annual Report on Schools for Freedmen (1870) that discontinuing the Freedmen’s Bureau before Virginia had accepted responsibility for education appeared to the freedmen to be abandonment: “They feel and say that the Government, having given them freedom and franchise, should not leave them in ignorance … they are ready to help support schools with all they have or can get, except only what is necessary to provide the coarsest food and scantiest clothing, but without teachers or friends to advise, the State doing nothing, and Government, which they thought they could trust to the end, ‘gone back on them,’ they bitterly shut the door of their new schoolhouse and turn away to their toil, feeling that they have not only been bereaved but wronged.”

The State Convention At Richmond

Before the end of Reconstruction in Virginia and before the demise of the Freedmen’s Bureau, African Americans took a leading part in creating the state’s first system of free public schools. The Virginia Constitution of 1869, which about two dozen African American delegates helped draft, required the General Assembly to create the school system. Earlier state constitutions and statutes had authorized cities and counties to establish schools to be supported in part by fines and penalties paid into the state Literary Fund (established in 1810). Few counties did so, and most of the schools were underfunded and in effect served only the children of poor white families. In 1870, the General Assembly, including about thirty African American members, enacted a comprehensive school law that created the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and a state Board of Education. The law authorized these new offices to appoint local superintendents and hire teachers for the new schools. The new constitution also required the legislature to devote a portion of the state’s tax revenue to support the new school system.

School Interior

The foundation for a liberatory Black literacy was laid in Virginia in the first decade of Black freedom. Its architects were Virginia’s former enslaved people, men and women who were determined that they and their children would possess the knowledge necessary for freedom and citizenship. Their efforts were made more difficult by attempts by the state government to reassert policies of white supremacy and by a federal government that did not appropriate adequate funds to public education. The educational system was left unfinished when the government withdrew its support.

Late May 1861
African American teachers establish the first openly taught black schools in Virginia.
May 24, 1861
Union forces enter and occupy Alexandria.
September 17, 1861
Mary A. Peake opens a school in Hampton; at about the same time, schools are opened in Yorktown, Norfolk, and Fort Monroe to serve refugees fleeing nearby plantations.
Clement Robinson from Petersburg, who was formerly enslaved and a student at the Ashman Institute in Pennsylvania, establishes Beulah Normal and Theological School in Alexandria.
The National Freedmen's Relief Association establishes a normal school in Norfolk.
March 3, 1865
An act of Congress establishes the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau) within the War Department.
November 1865
The American Baptist Home Mission Society establishes the Richmond Theological School for Freedmen. It later will be known as the Colver Institute, the Richmond Theological Institute, and Virginia Union University.
The New England Freedmen's Aid Society establishes the Richmond Normal and High School in Richmond; northern Quaker groups establish the Danville Normal School.
The Wilson Institute is established in Norfolk. It may be the successor to the normal school founded there in 1864.
Petersburg's school board, with assistance from the Freedmen's Bureau and the Peabody Education Fund, opens several public schools serving African American children. Giles Buckner Cooke is appointed principal of one of them, Elementary School Number 1, reportedly the first public school for Black children in Virginia.
April 1868
The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a coeducational school for African Americans, is founded in Hampton.
Philadelphia Quakers establish the Christiansburg Institute; the Pennsylvania Freedmen's Relief Association establishes the Lynchburg Normal School; and the National Freedmen's Relief Association establishes the Alexandria Normal School.
July 6, 1869
Voters ratify the new Virginia constitution that requires the General Assembly to create a statewide system of free public schools.
January 26, 1870
An act of Congress ends Reconstruction in Virginia, readmitting Virginia into the United States and restoring civilian rule.
July 1870
The General Assembly passes An Act to Establish and Maintain a Uniform System of Public Free Schools; the law requires racial segregation in the schools.
July 1870
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau, issues its final Semi-Annual Report on Schools for Freedmen. It winds down all operations except for a small office responsible for soldier's bounties.
  • Anderson, James D. Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
  • Butchart, Ronald E. Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861–1876. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
  • Cimbala, Paul A., and Randall M. Miller, eds. The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.
  • Cornelius, Janet Duitsman. “When I Can Read My Title Clear”: Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
  • Horst, Samuel L. Education for Manhood: The Education of Blacks in Virginia during the Civil War. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1987.
  • Link, William A. A Hard Country and a Lonely Place: Schooling, Society, and Reform in Rural Virginia, 1870–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
  • Watkins, William H. The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865–1954. New York: Teachers College Press, 2001.
  • Williams, Heather Andrea. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
APA Citation:
Butchart, Ronald. Freedmen’s Education in Virginia, 1861–1870. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/freedmens-education-in-virginia-1861-1870.
MLA Citation:
Butchart, Ronald. "Freedmen’s Education in Virginia, 1861–1870" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 29 May. 2024
Last updated: 2023, July 11
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