Gendering the Debate over African Americans' Education in the 1880s: Frances Harper's Reconfiguration of Atticus Haygood's Philanthropic Model

By Robbins, Sarah | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Gendering the Debate over African Americans' Education in the 1880s: Frances Harper's Reconfiguration of Atticus Haygood's Philanthropic Model


Robbins, Sarah, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


In the years after the civil War, white Americans north and south debated the capacity of former slaves to be educated for citizenship, while leading African American authors (and some white supporters) used fiction, speeches, and other forms to demonstrate the capabilities of the race for full civic participation. As evident in teaching texts like Lydia Maria child's The Freedmen's Book and novels like Albion Tourgee's Bricks Without Straw, this discourse about democratic participation was often closely bound up with arguments about whether or not the freedmen of the south should or even could be educated. By the 1880s, when Radical Reconstruction had been displaced by calls for national reconciliation, this contest frequently shifted focus to the kind and degree of education most suitable for African Americans. Some "New South" leaders began to suggest to their constituencies that making some allowances for the education of blacks could bring long-term benefits to a region that clearly needed to become indu strialized.

Meanwhile, northern foundations such as the Peabody and Slater funds became increasingly powerful arbiters of African American education experiences, exercising much more decisive control over the curriculum of institutions aimed at teaching blacks than the loose confederation of the Freedmen's Bureau and missionary societies had in the 1860s. In particular, the small group of white male foundation agents who ran the Slater Fund--Rutherford B. Hayes, Daniel Gilman and Atticus Haygood--consistently set African American educational programs within a race-specific industrial model. Along those lines, Haygood's 1885 report to the Fund's Board of Trustees, a purportedly benign discussion of The Case of the Negro, as to Education in the Southern States, is representative of a policy that was institutionalized at sites such as Tuskegee and Hampton institutes. Haygood's 1885 report depicted "the negro" as "a good citizen:' but one whose status would remain inferior, constrained by the very work "habits" of manual lab or the Slater Fund's educational model would allow--a model denying access both to liberal arts study and to the moral, ethical, and social leadership more "naturally" appropriate to the superior white race (5off).

When we see how writing like Haygood's set such firm limits on African American education and citizenship, we have a heightened appreciation of the negotiation Frances E. W. Harper carried out in her 1880s serialized novel, Trial and Triumph, which addressed issues about blacks' education through the experiences of characters being taught at home, in church, on the job, and in school--that is, within a nurturing community education model. And if we position Harper's portrayal of education alongside a white middle-class tradition of home-guided teaching that assigned moral training to motherly mentors, we can understand how she used affiliation based on gender to counter Haygood's argument based on race.

Overall, during post-Reconstruction, Harper's education-oriented literature faced what could have been a debilitating dilemma evident in texts like Haygood's. Yet, in speeches like "A Factor in Human Progress" and in her Trial and Triumph serial, Harper encouraged members of her race to adapt domesticated learning practices and educational goals that had been touted, earlier in the nineteenth century by white, middle-class women writers like Catharine Maria Sedgwick (e.g., in her "Ella" narrative in Stories for Young Persons) and Lydia Sigourney (e.g., in Letters to Mothers). Consistent with the ideal of Republican motherhood, these antebellum narratives had argued for white women's increased access to learning so that they could prepare their children for civic responsibilities. Portraying women's home-based teaching as a vital force uplifting the nation, these domestic literacy management stories had later been adapted by writers like Sarah Josepha Hale to portray women schoolteachers as naturally extending middle-class women s rightful teaching role into the larger community. …

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