Academic journal article Civil War History

The Problem of Race in the Age of Freedom: Emancipation and the Transformation of Republican Schooling in Baltimore, 1860-1867

Academic journal article Civil War History

The Problem of Race in the Age of Freedom: Emancipation and the Transformation of Republican Schooling in Baltimore, 1860-1867

Article excerpt

In February 1860, Curtis W. Jacobs, a Maryland state legislator, proposed a series of measures to end the problem of "free negroism." Convinced that African colonization was a failure despite more than $200,000 in state appropriations, Jacobs demanded that measures be passed to restrict free African Americans in Maryland so that they would willingly accept reenslavement. The state would deny hawkers and peddlers licenses to free blacks; prohibit them from owning dogs, guns, and real estate; and forbid them from operating or attending schools. "Unlawful assemblages" of black Marylanders would earn each participant thirty-nine lashes whether slave or free. If any free black were to "knowingly call for, receive or have in his possession any abolition book, handbill, newspaper or other paper of an inflammatory character, having a tendency to create discontent amongst, or stir up to insurrection, the negroes of this State, or induce them to abscond, he or she shall, upon conviction, be sold for life as a slave." The state would sell black convicts into slavery and revoke past manumissions so that free blacks could be sold into slavery for ten-year terms. All profits were to be used to promote public education for white children. (1)

While Jacobs's proposal to set aside the accumulated funds to support public schools for white children may seem an afterthought, his dual juxtaposition of blackness and servility with whiteness and educational opportunity foreshadowed the tensions of public education in postemancipation Maryland. In 1860, white and black Marylanders did not know that slavery's end was but four years away. When the state Constitution of 1864 finally ended what David Brion Davis so succinctly called "the problem of slavery in the age of revolution," (2) white Baltimoreans confronted the problem of race in an age of freedom. Public schools were the focal point of that contest because they were seen as "pillars of the Republic." While formal schooling does not loom large in antebellum historiography, schools were nevertheless understood as pivotal institutions because they shaped young white men and women for civic engagement, inculcating republican values believed to be essential to the survival of the nation. Thus it is little surprise that the rhetoric of sectional conflict was laden with references to republicanism. Republican language also permeated school board decisions about the content of public schooling, and the worthiness of teachers, during the Civil War. When the Constitution of 1864 emancipated enslaved African Americans and mandated public education for all children statewide, Maryland Unionists made public schooling a symbol of black freedom and, therefore, a target of later conservative reaction. Imbued with symbolic importance because of its ties to Revolutionary ideals, public schooling in Baltimore served as an ideological battleground before, during, and after the Civil War.

Public education was the lasting legacy of early American political thought. As Sean Wilentz suggests, republicanism at the beginning of the nineteenth century incorporated four ideological dimensions from the Revolutionary era--commonwealth, virtue, independence, and citizenship. To these the "middling sorts" of the late eighteenth century added equality, by which they meant equal opportunity and respect under the law. Of these dimensions, the supporters of state-funded education drew most heavily on virtue and equality. Public schools could teach children the necessity of placing the good of the many before their own self-interests, thus fitting them for civic responsibility as adults. In nineteenth-century parlance, public schools were "common schools" as well. "The common school," writes Ronald Butchart, "was 'common' not in the sense of 'ordinary' or 'plain,' but in that everyone attended in common, supported it in common, and learned a common curriculum." Equal schools held out the meritocratic promise of success in return for hard work regardless of students' class background. …

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