Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The Beginnings of African American Education in Montgomery County

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The Beginnings of African American Education in Montgomery County

Article excerpt

In important ways, the scholarship of Southwest Virginia has bypassed that of Reconstruction. Students of the Tidewater, Southside, and Piedmont regions of Virginia have written extensively about a range of political, social, and economic issues surrounding Reconstruction in those parts of the state-including the experiences of black Virginians and the impact that emancipation and Reconstruction had on their lives and communities.1 In the case of Southwest Virginia, though, studies of Reconstruction and its influence on the African American community are far more limited.

Historians and sociologists, such as John Inscoe, Gordon McKinney, Kenneth Noe, Charles Dew, and Wilma Dunaway, have illuminated many elements in the history of slavery and race in Southwest Virginia before and during the Civil War, but few scholars have looked as carefully at the experience of African Americans in the region after 1865. A recent anthology focusing on the Civil War's aftermath in Appalachia, for example, contains numerous chapters exploring politics, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and lingering divisions within the white population but says little about developments within the region's black communities. Moreover, those who have explored the experience of freed people in Appalachia have sometimes missed or misread important evidence of that experience. As a result, many elements of Reconstruction in Southwest Virginia-especially those having to do with the African American community-remain invisible or misunderstood.2

This is certainly true of the schools established in Appalachian Virginia for and by freed people during Reconstruction. Recent scholarship has increased considerably our understanding of black education elsewhere in the postwar South. It seems clear now that "schooling the freed people," as historian Ronald Butchart phrased it, was initially a broader and more successful undertaking than many observers thought. It was not just "Yankee school-marms" coming south. Northern blacks as well as southerners of both races also played critical roles in the creation and operation of schools for African Americans in the wake of emancipation. Moreover, though much of the early promise found in these schools withered in the decades after Reconstruction, those early efforts to expand black schooling were often quite effective. "At the dawn of freedom," wrote Butchart, "the black quest for schooled knowledge flowered brilliantly."3

Scholars such as Butchart, however, have tended to focus on the southern seaboard, where freed people were more numerous, and have said much less about the experiences of those living farther west. Indeed, almost the only scholarly discussion of black schools in Appalachian Virginia during Reconstruction is a brief section of Wilma Dunaway's The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. Dunaway's account of Reconstructionera schooling is seriously flawed, though. She undercounted the number of schools established in the region and misrepresented the nature of those she did count. As a result, she incorrectly concluded that "the vast majority of black Appalachians received their only schooling from ex-slaves or they participated in informal field schools or sabbath schools in black and white churches."4

In the case of Southwest Virginia, at least, this is an overly pessimistic view. This article seeks to provide a more accurate account of the beginnings of black education in Appalachian Virginia by looking, specifically, at conditions and events in Montgomery County between the end of the Civil War and the establishment of free public schools under the Virginia constitution adopted in 1870.

When slavery ended in Montgomery County, the need for black education there was immense. The county was not part of the tobacco belt that was home to most of the state's antebellum slave population. Still, slavery was ubiquitous there before the Civil War. Slaves had arrived with the region's earliest European settlers, during the third quarter of the eighteenth century, and played an important role in the economy that developed there. …

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