Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876

Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876

Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876

Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876


The crowning achievement of a veteran scholar, this is the definitive book on freedmen's teachers in the South as well as an outstanding contribution to social history and our understanding of African American education. Conventional wisdom holds that freedmen's education was largely the work of privileged, single white northern women motivated by evangelical beliefs and abolitionism. Schooling the Freed People shatters this notion entirely.

For the most comprehensive quantitative study of the origins of black education in freedom ever undertaken, Ronald E. Butchart combed the archives of all of the freedmen's aid organizations as well as the archives of every southern state to compile a vast database of over 11,600 individuals who taught in southern black schools between 1861 and 1876. Based on this path-breaking research, he reaches some surprising conclusions: one-third of the teachers were African Americans; black teachers taught longer than white teachers; half of the teachers were southerners; and even the northern teachers were more diverse than previously imagined. His evidence demonstrates that evangelicalism contributed much less than previously believed to white teachers' commitment to black students, that abolitionism was a relatively small factor in motivating the teachers, and that, on the whole, the teachers' ideas and aspirations about their work often ran counter to the aspirations of the freed people for schooling.


If there is one constant in historical writing, it is revision. Each generation of writers brings its own perspectives and troubles to bear on the past, finds new material, and reinterprets old sources. The result is new understandings of old stories, new images and portraits, revised pictures of the past. Reconstruction’s history bears dramatic evidence of that process. Attentive readers of that history have moved the earlier images of the actors and processes of Reconstruction to dusty mental storage rooms, replacing them with new, often starkly different images. Reviled villains have been redrawn as tragic victims; heroic causes have been revealed as ignoble, murderous treachery.

Yet in one corner of Reconstruction historiography, the history of the schooling of the freed people, interpretations have shifted, but the portraits of the primary actors have been only lightly retouched after a century of historical study. Whether their history was captured by W. E. B. Du Bois, by historians in the Dunning tradition, or by revisionists of the last three decades, the foreground of that picture has remained remarkably unchanged. While each historiographic tradition has intended something different by the exact shadings and details of the portrait it rendered, the main figures in the portrait have been largely untouched in the process.

W. E. B. Du Bois sketched the most enduring elements of the educators’ image. Describing what he called “the crusade of the New England schoolma’am,” he wrote, “Behind the mists of ruin and rapine waved the calico dresses of women who dared. Rich and poor they were, serious and curious. Bereaved now of a father, now of a brother, now of more than these, they came seeking a life work in planting New England schoolhouses among the white and black of the South.” Several of the salient elements of the teachers’ enduring portrait were etched deep in that poetic description: the teachers were New England schoolmarms, a description that implied that . . .

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