Subordination or Liberation? The Development and Conflicting Theories of Black Education in Nineteenth Century Alabama

By Robert G. Sherer | Go to book overview

3
WILLIAM BURNS PATERSON -- LIBERAL EDUCATION

William Burns Paterson was the president of the state normal school at Marion -- Montgomery from 1878-1915. 1 Paterson's career had been "strange and chequered" when he so described it in 1872; and so it was to be until his death in 1915. He was born in Tullibody, Clackmannshire, Scotland on February 9, 1849. When poor health forced him out of school after three years, he began working as a gardener on the nearby estate of Lord Abercrombie. 2

Driven by a desire "to see the world," Paterson left Scotland and came to the United States in 1867. From New York he traveled through all but five of the states working at a wide variety of jobs -- mail boy, railroad laborer, deck hand, clerk, salesman, farmhand, carpenter, hod-carrier, and teacher. In 1870 he became a labor contractor in Hollow Square, Hale County, Alabama. 3

Until 1871, Paterson's story resembled that of thousands of other immigrants who flocked to America and spent a few years working at odd jobs to make money as they could and finally settled down in one place. Although the economic opportunity and equalitarian social structure of America favorably impressed Paterson, the political corruption 4 and violence 5 in his new home appalled him. A decent, law-abiding man, Paterson was courageous and active against extra-legal violence, especially that perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan. 6

Between 1870 and 1873 a transformation took place in Paterson's life. He forsook the frenetic search for fame to teach -- sometimes without the promised state support -- in a black school. The reasons that impelled Paterson to this change can only be inferred. His interest in education drove him to continue reading and studying even during his rambling around the United States, 1867-1870. Not understanding the Southern white ostracism of teach

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