Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"Clothing Themselves in Intelligence": The Freedpeople, Schooling, and Northern Teachers, 1861-1871

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"Clothing Themselves in Intelligence": The Freedpeople, Schooling, and Northern Teachers, 1861-1871

Article excerpt

With the arrival of Union troops and assurances of freedom during the U.S. Civil War, southern African Americans publicly exhibited their desire to have access to the books and literacy skills previously denied to them by law. (1) Even before missionary teachers from the North reached southern towns, many African Americans had established their own schools. Meeting in the old brush arbors and hidden churches on plantations, in former slave markets, or in sheds, African Americans who could read and write provided schooling for those who could not. When the missionaries did arrive, African Americans often built schools themselves and raised the funds to support teachers. During this period of transition, the formerly enslaved African Americans developed new strategies for survival, but they also relied on the old tactics that had served them on the other side of the divide. As freedpeople, they created an amalgam of a new assertiveness and old methods of resistance. But the freedpeople's struggle to educate the mselves, while packed with promises of freedom and citizenship, took place in a post-war climate fraught with contestations for power. How would the victorious North wield power over the South? How would southern planter society, long dependent on black labor, regain power over its former property? What political and economic power would newly freed African Americans successfully wrest from the planter elite? How much personal power would African Americans be able to exercise as they reconstructed their families? (2)

As they attempted to take control of their own lives, many freedpeople wanted one thing more than all others: to learn to read and write. In slavery, the very act of learning to read had been a secret form of resistance, but in its aftermath, freedpeople transformed the act of becoming literate from a clandestine occurrence into one of life's necessities. Secret readings of newspapers had kept enslaved people informed of political debates whose outcomes could determine their fates. Writing a pass had allowed slaves to move about without owners knowledge. (3) Literacy held the promise of entry into the public discourse concerning the destiny of African Americans in the United States. During the era of Civil War and emancipation, as the momentum towards freedom built, so did the momentum for literacy. Realizing that their success as a free people in a literate society would be severely limited by illiteracy, many newly freed African Americans latched on to the spelling book as a symbol and tool of liberation. A cquiring literacy in conjunction with freedom had the potential to open access to democratic political activity, and that in turn held a promise of enabling them to help shape the civil society in which they had hitherto been considered chattel; insurgent chattel, but chattel just the same. Formerly enslaved African Americans, who had always had a public presence, sought, upon emancipation, to enter the public sphere as individuals distinct from owners. They were on the verge of being counted for the first time not as part of an owner's inventory for tax assessment, nor as a percentage of a man for political apportionment. Freedpeople wanted to ensure that they counted as voters and as legislators who could exercise power over their own futures. Illiteracy, they knew, would impede their ambition for full participation in this public, political sphere; therefore, education took on added significance. (4)

This essay considers the value that African American students and their parents placed on the educational project at the same time that it examines the ways in which missionary teachers' prejudices impacted on how schooling would be delivered to black students. At the end of slavery, black communities pressed the self-taught, semi-literate people among them into service as teachers. When students surpassed these black teachers knowledge, or when local black teachers could not be identified, the freedpeople appealed to northern missionary organizations to send trained teachers to meet the need. …

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