Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Black Community Leadership in a Rural Tennessee County, 1865-1903

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Black Community Leadership in a Rural Tennessee County, 1865-1903

Article excerpt

A general labor strike among blacks in Haywood County on a slow, hot day in June, 1865 temporarily halted cultivation of the cotton and corn crops and signaled the dawning of a new world of freedom breaking across agricultural West Tennessee and the rest of the South.(1) The new era brought with it an ever increasing sense of independence and autonomy accompanied by circumstances that called for new decisions and untried responses from both individuals and communities. African-American leaders were active participants in shaping emerging social institutions as well as defining the changed set of social relationships.

These leaders steered communities through freedom's unchartered waters by interpreting situations and events and forging linkages to external structures and persons.(2) Initially, a major task facing leaders was the establishment of schools. Education was considered a pressing need for African-Americans if they were to properly assume the role of citizen in the democracy. Furthermore, literacy was deemed the mechanism to insure continued protection of these citizenship rights.(3) The briefly flourishing black political life of the 1880s(4) was born in part from early efforts to develop local schools for African-American communities. The study of the inception of a school for blacks in Brownsville, Tennessee, the seat of Haywood County, will present a typical profile of nascent black community leadership in a rural setting prior to black urban migration, identify personal circumstances that contributed to the assumption of leadership, and describe the interplay between the goals of this leadership and the eventual victory of reactionary white supremacy over egalitarian biracial cooperation some twenty years later.

During the last half of the nineteenth century, Haywood County, located in a fertile agricultural region in the western part of Tennessee, was one of the state's two predominantly black counties. In 1860 blacks were 57% of the county population. By 1880 that percentage had increased to 67%, 17,556 out of a total population of 26,052. Thus, two decades before the twentieth century, blacks in Haywood County constituted the fifth largest group of blacks in Tennessee, only surpassed by the populations of Shelby County, which included the city of Memphis, Davidson County, including Nashville, and that of two adjoining rural counties, Fayette and Madison. During the quarter century between 1865 and 1890, Haywood, and its bordering counties - Fayette, Hardeman, Tipton, Madison, Lauderdale, and Gibson, along with Shelby County - was home to nearly one half of the black population of Tennessee. It was also the principal production site for the cotton crop, a major commodity in both state and national economies.(5)

In April, 1866 in the town of Brownsville, amid post-war rebuilding, there was a private school in operation that was sustained by blacks. The school's proprietor and teacher was a white woman, Harriet A. Turner. This scholastic enterprise operated on tuition paid by the parents or guardians of its forty-seven students, twenty male and twenty-seven female African-Americans, all under sixteen years of age. The fledgling academy received neither rentals nor teacher's salary from the Freedmen's Bureau despite the location of a sub-district office in the town.(6)

By May, 1867 a second private school for blacks was formed. This second school had closer ties to black community leaders than did the first. Black men were in the forefront in raising funds for its governance. In a progress report to D. Burt, the State Superintendent of Education, J. S. Poston, the Brownsville Bureau agent, noted that

. . . the freed people of this town have purchased their lot, paid for it and have a good rifle, have raised by subscriptions about ($900.00) nine hundred dollars ($500.00) five hundred of which is collected & now in the Treasurer's hands. ($300.00) three hundred of the remainder on subscription can be relied on as good. …

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