Atlanta, Cradle of the New South: Race and Remembering in the Civil War's Aftermath

By William A. Link | Go to book overview

FIVE
We Are Rising
Schooling the City

In the fall of 1868, the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, O. O. Howard, visited Atlanta. During the Civil War, Howard had risen to the rank of major general, and, as commander of the Army of Tennessee, played a leading role in the Atlanta Campaign. Visiting the American Missionary Association’s Storrs School, Howard addressed black parents and students. “What shall I tell the children in the North about you?” he asked the black children. A twelve-year-old boy spoke out: “Tell them, General,” he said, that “we’re rising.” George W. Childs, publisher of the Philadelphia Ledger, repeated the story to the abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who composed a poem entitled “Howard at Atlanta.” “And a little boy stood up: Massa / Tell ’em we’re rising!” it read. “O black boy of Atlanta!” Whittier continued. “The slave’s chain and the master’s / Alike are broken / The one curse of the races / Held both in tether: / They are all rising, all are rising / The black and white together!”1 In March 1869, Richard Robert Wright, the boy portrayed in Whittier’s poem, objected to the poet’s use of the term “massa.” “You made a mistake thinking that I said ‘massa,’ for I have given up that word,” he wrote to Whittier.2 The “We Are Rising” story has many apocryphal qualities, but it took on a life of its own, and the AMA celebrated the tale among northern audiences. “We Are Rising” was also put to music, becoming the anthem sung by Atlanta University students.3

“We Are Rising” served as a rallying cry in the black people’s quest for true freedom after emancipation.4 The song embodied the goals of northern abolitionist educators who worked in Atlanta during the late 1860s. Establishing an AMA school in the city, they also founded Atlanta University to serve as a beacon of abolitionist values in the age of emancipation. Though these white educators harbored a certain racial paternalism, to an unusual degree for nineteenth-century Americans they exalted equality, economic development, and an application of the principles of free labor in the employment of former slaves. And so the post–Civil War mission of the northern

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