Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890

By Hilary Green | Go to book overview

1 Remaking the Former
Confederate Capital
Black Richmonders and the Transition
to Public Schools, 1865–1870

At a reunion of Richmond Colored Normal graduates, Daniel Webster Davis delivered a poem the message of which the audience wholeheartedly agreed. The 1878 graduate fondly recalled the transformation of “the girls in short dresses, and white pinafores” into respectable women, but also his “quaking with fear … ’tis Miss Stratton, whose footsteps I hear.” For all the travails, Davis never failed to appreciate his matriculation through the Richmond public schools. He proudly proclaimed in the third stanza:

My name is still cut on the seat by the door,
I am trying to cut it much higher, you know,
But I wonder if fame can e’er give the joy,
I found at old Normal when I was a boy?

Davis recognized that many opportunities within and outside the classroom afforded the alumni were the direct result of black Richmonders capitalizing on Confederate defeat in April 1865. Without their struggle and the partnerships developed, neither the school system nor the reunion Davis attended would have been possible.1

Confederate defeat ushered in a revolution in African American education. Freedom brought new behaviors, new relationships, and new institutions. Schools and the educational relationships that sustained them became a postwar reality. White opposition and internal class strife sometimes tempered black Richmonders’ expressions of freedom and entry into the body politic through education. These forces galvanized them. Black Richmonders saw their struggle in much larger terms. It was not merely a fight for access to literacy and education but one for freedom, citizenship, and a new postwar social order.

The Freedmen’s School period illustrates the ways black Richmonders defined the meaning of freedom and citizenship through the African American schoolhouse. It proves that internal strife between the educational partners and local white opposition shaped the quest for schools, access, and legitimacy in the post-

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