Virginia had long outlawed the education of its enslaved African Americans, passing increasingly oppressive legislation in the decades leading up to the Civil War.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.
Although some Virginians had once supported the idea of black education, by the nineteenth century, slave insurrections and rumors thereof had halted any movement toward increased slave literacy. The slave revolution in Haiti and(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 blacks and slaves 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
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 offleeing from plantations to freedom on the Peninsula. African Americans were teaching in Norfolk, , 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 black education 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, 85 teachers were active in Virginia’s black schools, about 60 of whom were Northerners, including five Northern 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 former slave 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 1870 end of Reconstruction.
Initial funding for black schools in Virginia came from the freed people themselves, who, though usually impoverished refugees, managed to pay a fee to their 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
In March 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. As its formal 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.
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 a small appropriation. It gained one more renewal, but was ordered to cease nearly all operations in 1870. In the end, its primary legacy was assistance to southern black education. 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 in its five years of 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.
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
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 30 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 90 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 68 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 70 northerners taught in Virginia’s black schools; 20 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 40 educators spent eight or more years working with the children of freed people. The latter group consisted largely of black Virginians.
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.
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.
Before the end of Reconstruction in Virginia in January 1870 and before the demise of the Freedmen’s Bureau, African Americans took a leading part in creating the state’s first system of free. 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 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.
The foundation for a liberatory black literacy was laid in Virginia in the first decade of black freedom. Its architects were Virginia’s former slaves, 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 government withdrew its support.