Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

African American School Attendance in the 19th Century: Education in a Rural Northern Community, 1850-1880

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

African American School Attendance in the 19th Century: Education in a Rural Northern Community, 1850-1880

Article excerpt


Studies of African American education in the 19th century have focused primarily on developments after the Civil War, concentrating on the creation of segregated schools in the South (Bond, 1934; Frazier, 1949; Woodson, 1968, 1918/1969; Woodson & Wesley, 1922/1966). Prior to the antebellum era, documentation was sketchy and few schools existed in either the North or the South. The education of northern Blacks was decidedly different from that of southern Blacks. Much of what is known of African American education in the South during this period is based upon events that transpired in rural areas, primarily on southern plantations, where arrangements were most often made clandestinely and on pain of prosecution. The education of enslaved Blacks was forbidden by law in many southern states. In the North, if schools for African Americans did exist, they were generally housed in crowded, inferior buildings staffed by less-than-qualified teachers of either race, and restricted in their curricula offerings. Being freedmen and freedwomen rather than slaves, the educational demands of northern African Americans were for public education that would include them in common school reform efforts despite their small numbers and "colored skin" (Woodson & Wesley, 1922/1966, p. 256). They also banded together to make private arrangements for schooling and hired their own teachers.

Frazier (1949) contends that northern Blacks in the antebellum period tended to locate in urban areas where skilled labor was sought; however, not all settled in urban areas. Despite the rapid industrialization that occurred during the 19th century and the increasing urbanization of the North, much of that region consisted of small, rural communities. Among these were communities in which African Americans settled and lived together with White Americans with no indication of racial intolerance. One such rural northern community was Calvin Township, located in Cass County in southwestern Michigan. Many of Calvin Township's African American citizens arrived a decade or more before the Civil War. Located at the junction of the Underground Railroad's(1) "Quaker Line" out of Kentucky and its "Illinois Line" to Canada, this community became a haven for African American fugitives from slavery in the mid-19th century (Dancy, 1940).

Given this rural northern setting and a substantial population of African Americans, the present study sought answers to the following questions: What provisions were made for the schooling of the African Americans who settled in Calvin Township? Did they attend separate schools? Who among them attended school? Were there differences in the school attendance patterns between the township's Black and White children? What personal and family factors contributed to the former's school attendance? How did these change over time? This study addresses these questions by analyzing federal Census records, annual school district reports, and area maps to describe the school attendance of African Americans in Calvin Township in the 30 years from 1850 through 1880, before and after the Civil War. The findings of the study are presented in terms of characterizing the schooling experience of African Americans in a rural northern setting in the 19th century.


Calvin Township in Cass County, Michigan, is an excellent focus for such an investigation for several reasons. First, during the years in question it was a rural northern farming community with a sizeable African American population established before the Civil War (Cass County Historical Commission, 1981; Claspy, 1967; Rogers, 1875; Schoelzow, 1935). By 1850, African Americans made up 3.6% of the population of Cass County, a percentage that, in the territory of Michigan, was surpassed only by Wayne County, which included the city of Detroit. Together with nearby Porter Township, Calvin Township accounted for two-thirds of the entire African American population in the county before the Civil War (Glover, 1906). …

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