"I Must Learn Now or Not at All": Social and Cultural Capital in the Educational Initiatives of Formerly Enslaved African Americans in Mississippi, 1862-1869

By Span, Christopher M. | The Journal of African American History, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview
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"I Must Learn Now or Not at All": Social and Cultural Capital in the Educational Initiatives of Formerly Enslaved African Americans in Mississippi, 1862-1869


Span, Christopher M., The Journal of African American History


Before the Civil War there wasn't a free school in the state, but under the Reconstruction government, we built them in every country.... We paid to have every child, Negro and white, schooled equally. Today, they've cut down on the educational program, and discriminated against the Negro children, so that out of every educational dollar, the Negro child gets only 30 cents.

George Washington Albright, The Daily Worker, 1937

In June 1937, and at the age of ninety-one, an ex-slave from Holly Spring, Mississippi by the name of George Washington Albright was interviewed by the Daily Worker regarding his legislative and educational activities during and after the Civil War. (1) Albright proffered the above statement and his intentions seemed unmistakable. Cognizant of Mississippi blacks' existing educational opportunities and their extremely vulnerable and denigrated status, he wanted to inform the public of the important contributions African Americans--in particular former slaves--played in the establishment of the state's first comprehensive public school system. Albright knew firsthand that the status of African Americans in the years immediately after slavery and in contemporary Jim Crow Mississippi was markedly different. Prior to the end of the Reconstruction era and the rise of state-sanctioned segregation, Mississippi blacks--despite the overwhelming majority being former slaves--viewed freedom optimistically and had rights that extended beyond second-class citizenship. For nearly a decade after the war they voted, became landowners, determined and negotiated their working conditions, and were leaders and contributors in their local communities, counties, and the entire state.

As an active agent in the processes promoting education in postwar Mississippi, Albright recalled the principal public school initiatives he and the other black delegates elected to the state's 1868 constitutional convention wanted for Mississippi. The state's public schools were to be free, all-inclusive, and most importantly equitable, irrespective of the child's gender, race, class, or previous condition of servitude. (2) In attempting to achieve this aim, Albright was convinced that his generation--through their determination, appreciation of the value of education, and limited resources--collectively laid the groundwork for the rise of universal public schooling in postwar Mississippi. They provided the financial and "sweat equity" for the establishment and continuation of the first schools, served as teachers, solicited northern-born teachers to migrate to Mississippi, and pressured state legislators to consider their educational ambitions and needs as newly freed citizens. During the war Albright, himself barely literate, served as one of the first teachers for formerly enslaved African Americans in Mississippi. As the war commenced, his first class was taught under a shade tree, then in an abandoned barn, and thereafter in a church. "The state had no teachers," contended Albright, "until we brought in teachers from the North, men and women, white and Negro." (3) To Albright, this generation of formerly enslaved African Americans was not a powerless citizenry forced to accept the status quo as did their descendants in Jim Crow Mississippi. On the contrary, they were an empowered and contributing force not just in their own educational pursuits, but in the advancement of universal education for all children in postbellum Mississippi.

The editors of the Daily Worker virtually dismissed Albright's recollections of his and his entire generation's pro-active stance in the first decade after slavery. While the communist editors thought his commentary to be quite animated, they questioned the accuracy of Albright's memories; especially regarding the legislative and educational impact former slaves had on the state's postbellum political economy. (4) However, Albright's retrospection concerning public education in Mississippi--despite his occasional misnomers--was sharply accurate and epitomized W.

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"I Must Learn Now or Not at All": Social and Cultural Capital in the Educational Initiatives of Formerly Enslaved African Americans in Mississippi, 1862-1869
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