Virginia had long outlawed the education of its enslaved African Americans, passing increasingly oppressive legislation in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Educated slaves posed a dual threat to the state. First, they might read and embrace the American Revolution's expectation of human equality. Second, they contradicted one of the ideological foundations of slavery, the presumed intellectual incapacity of Africans and those of African descent and the consequent necessity for protection by a superior race. Those who supported slavery understood that ignorant people can be rendered tractable; knowledgeable people cannot easily be enslaved.
It was impossible to quash black education entirely, of course. Free blacks and slaves continued secretly to share what literacy they had. Clandestine schools operated in nearly every city and large town in the state. Some, in cities such as Alexandria and Hampton, were not even particularly secret. As long as the teachers and students were circumspect about their activities, authorities looked the other way. It is doubtful, however, that more than 5 to 10 percent of Virginia's African Americans had access to literacy before the war.
Freedmen's Education, 1861–1865
The number of schools and teachers increased greatly in the second year of the war, though open access to black education remained limited to schools in Alexandria and the Peninsula until 1865. The number of Northern teachers in Virginia grew rapidly after 1861. In 1862–1863, 85 teachers were active in Virginia's black schools, about 60 of whom were Northerners, including five Northern African American teachers. Three years later, after the war ended, more than 450 teachers taught nearly 12,000 black students in Virginia.
African Americans were not only the first primary school teachers in Virginia; they also founded and staffed the first secondary school in the state. Clement Robinson, a former slave from Petersburg who had studied at Pennsylvania's Ashmun Institute, established the Beulah Normal and Theological School in 1862 in Alexandria, the first of the fourteen black normal schools and high schools founded in Virginia before the 1870 end of Reconstruction.
Initial funding for black schools in Virginia came from the freed people themselves, who, though usually impoverished refugees, managed to pay a fee to their teachers. From 1862 until 1865, Northern groups—both existing missionary societies and new, secular freedmen's aid societies—organized to send teachers to Virginia and other Southern states, to provide minimal salaries, and to send material aid. Of the 450 teachers in Virginia by the spring of 1865, not quite one-third were supported by such secular groups as the New England Freedmen's Aid Society and the Pennsylvania Freedmen's Relief Association, and one-half were sustained by Northern religious groups such as the American Missionary Association, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, and various Quaker organizations. More than one-sixth of the teachers, particularly African American teachers from Virginia, taught independently of any external aid.
Freedmen's Education, 1865–1870
Across the South, the Freedmen's Bureau helped to educate thousands of black students who otherwise might have been unable to attend school. At the same time, however, the federal response to Emancipation was astoundingly inadequate. First, it was limited entirely to education. Second, its expenditures were meager. The bureau spent approximately $7 million between 1865 and 1870 in all southern states on all bureau activity, which amounts to $1.75 for every black man, woman, and child in the American South, or thirty-five cents each per year for the bureau's five years of activity.
Benevolent aid from northern agencies may have doubled the total funds available to black education in Virginia from 1865 to 1870. From 1864 to 1869, and particularly after 1867, many of the northern aid societies established high schools and normal schools in the state. By the later years of the decade, however, northern benevolence had steeply declined. Nearly all of the secular aid societies had closed their books by 1870, handing off their secondary schools to the few remaining societies or to the cities that hosted them; few of those schools survived Reconstruction. The missionary societies fared only moderately better than the secular groups. All had begun to retrench by 1869; two years later they were supporting half as many teachers as they had in 1869. By 1875, the American Missionary Association, which had more than 100 teachers working in Virginia in 1867, could sustain only 21; the Quakers, with 50 teachers in 1867, had 16 in 1875; the Episcopal Church supported 34 teachers in Virginia in 1867 but only 7 in 1875.
Misconceptions about Freedmen's Education
Many northern supporters soon lost interest in everything related to Emancipation and Reconstruction. Ralza M. Manly, the superintendent of the Freedmen's Bureau schools in Virginia, reports in the Tenth Semi-Annual Report on Schools for Freedmen (1870) that discontinuing the Freedmen's Bureau before Virginia had accepted responsibility for education appeared to the freedmen to be abandonment: They feel and say that the Government, having given them freedom and franchise, should not leave them in ignorance … they are ready to help support schools with all they have or can get, except only what is necessary to provide the coarsest food and scantiest clothing, but without teachers or friends to advise, the State doing nothing, and Government, which they thought they could trust to the end, "gone back on them," they bitterly shut the door of their new schoolhouse and turn away to their toil, feeling that they have not only been bereaved but wronged.
Late May 1861 - African American teachers establish the first openly taught black schools in Virginia.
May 24, 1861 - Union forces enter and occupy Alexandria.
September 17, 1861 - Mary A. Peake opens a school in Hampton; at about the same time, schools are opened in Yorktown, Norfolk, and Fort Monroe to serve refugees fleeing nearby plantations.
1862 - Clement Robinson, a former slave from Petersburg and a student at the Ashman Institute in Pennsylvania, establishes Beulah Normal and Theological School in Alexandria.
1864 - The National Freedmen's Relief Association establishes a normal school in Norfolk.
March 3, 1865 - An act of Congress establishes the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau) within the War Department.
November 1865 - The American Baptist Home Mission Society establishes the Richmond Theological School for Freedmen. It later will be known as the Colver Institute, the Richmond Theological Institute, and Virginia Union University.
1867 - The New England Freedmen's Aid Society establishes the Richmond Normal and High School in Richmond; northern Quaker groups establish the Danville Normal School.
1868 - The Wilson Institute is established in Norfolk. It may be the successor to the normal school founded there in 1864.
1868 - Petersburg's school board, with assistance from the Freedmen's Bureau and the Peabody Education Fund, opens several public schools serving African American children. Giles Buckner Cooke is appointed principal of one of them, Elementary School Number 1, reportedly the first public school for black children in Virginia.
April 1868 - The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a coeducational school for African Americans, is founded in Hampton.
1869 - Philadelphia Quakers establish the Christiansburg Institute; the Pennsylvania Freedmen's Relief Association establishes the Lynchburg Normal School; and the National Freedmen's Relief Association establishes the Alexandria Normal School.
July 6, 1869 - Voters ratify the new Virginia constitution that requires the General Assembly to create a statewide system of free public schools.
January 26, 1870 - An act of Congress ends Reconstruction in Virginia, readmitting Virginia into the United States and restoring civilian rule.
July 1870 - The General Assembly passes An Act to Establish and Maintain a Uniform System of Public Free Schools; the law requires racial segregation in the schools.
July 1870 - The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau, issues its final Semi-Annual Report on Schools for Freedmen. It winds down all operations except for a small office responsible for soldier's bounties.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Butchart, R. E. Freedmen's Education in Virginia, 1861–1870. (2015, January 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Freedmen_s_Education_in_Virginia_1861-1870.
- MLA Citation:
Butchart, Ronald E. "Freedmen's Education in Virginia, 1861–1870." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 16, 2015 | Last modified: January 21, 2015