From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse: African American Education in Mississippi, 1862-1875

From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse: African American Education in Mississippi, 1862-1875

From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse: African American Education in Mississippi, 1862-1875

From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse: African American Education in Mississippi, 1862-1875


In the years immediately following the Civil War - the formative years for an emerging society of freed African Americans in Mississippi - there was much debate over the general purpose of black schools and who would control them. From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse is the first comprehensive examination of Mississippi's politics and policies of postwar racial education.

The primary debate centered on whether schools for African Americans (mostly freedpeople) should seek to develop blacks as citizens, train them to be free but subordinate laborers, or produce some other outcome. African Americans envisioned schools established by and for themselves as a primary means of achieving independence, equality, political empowerment, and some degree of social and economic mobility - in essence, full citizenship. Most northerners assisting freedpeople regarded such expectations as unrealistic and expected African Americans to labor under contract for those who had previously enslaved them and their families. Meanwhile, many white Mississippians objected to any educational opportunities for the former slaves. Christopher Span finds that newly freed slaves made heroic efforts to participate in their own education, but too often the schooling was used to control and redirect the aspirations of the newly freed.


Before the Civil War there wasn’t a free school in the state, but
under the Reconstruction government, we built them in every county.
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.


In June 1937, at the age of ninety-one, an ex-slave from Holly Springs, 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. Albright proffered the above statement, and his intentions seemed unmistakable. Cognizant of Mississippi blacks’ existing educational opportunities and their 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 Mississippi’s first comprehensive tax-supported public school system. Albright knew firsthand that the status of African Americans in the decade following slavery and in contemporary Jim Crow Mississippi were markedly different. Prior to the end of the Reconstruction era and the rise of de jure segregation, African Americans in Mississippi viewed the initial years of emancipation optimistically and had rights that extended beyond second-class citizenship. For nearly a decade after the war, they voted, attended school, became landowners, determined and negotiated their working conditions, and were leaders and contributors in their local communities, counties, state, and nation.

As an active agent in the processes promoting education in postwar Mississippi, Albright recalled the foremost public school initiatives he and the . . .

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