Although this school has only a few students, many schools for freedpeople were overcrowded, and adults went to school along with children. Like most newly freed people, these children believe that education is the key to maintaining freedom and bettering their lives. But their families also needed them to work. Some siblings took turns going to school because they had to help at home caring for younger children or working in the fields. They might attend for a few hours and leave, or rotate days when they attended school. Schools also sometimes operated only during the months when relatively less work was required in the fields. More proficient students assisted those with less education, and children often helped teach their elders the basics of reading and writing.
This community member, the leader of a local mutual aid society, has been instrumental in raising funds to hire a new teacher. Black communities often pooled their money to build schools and pay teachers. Northern missionary societies and the Freedmen’s Bureau also helped. Before the Civil War, almost no one, Black or white, had access to public education. Wealthy white Southerners did not believe that a state government should support education for the poor, and they attempted to prevent education for Black people entirely. That changed during Reconstruction, when new political coalitions came into power and states founded more than 3,000 schools. These were the first public schools in most Southern states. In even the poorest communities, freedpeople held fundraisers to pay teachers, and donated land and labor to build and maintain schools. By 1870 nearly 250,000 freedpeople in the former Confederacy were attending school.
The school's new teacher has recently finished her training and this is her first teaching assignment. Black men and women were eager to teach in schools for freedpeople, and African American communities often wanted Black teachers for their children. In 1867, Freedmen William Savery and Thomas Tarrant collaborated with General Wager T. Swayne, the statewide head of the Freedmen's Bureau, to establish the first school in Alabama specifically for the children of formerly enslaved people. “We regard the education of our youths as vital to the preservation of our Liberties…” Pledge of freedmen William Savery and Thomas Tarrant to people of Alabama, 1865. Originally a one-room schoolhouse, it evolved to become Talladega College, with a primary goal of training Black leaders in education. In 1871, the Alabama Legislature directly addressed the need for Black educators by passing a bill to create four “normal schools” to train African American teachers. W.E.B. DuBois declared that the development of Black educators, “crowns the work of Reconstruction.”
Images of President Lincoln, who was often thought of as the Great Emancipator by the formerly enslaved, were common in freedpeople’s schools, homes, and other institutions in the Black community. Abraham Lincoln always believed slavery was morally wrong, but he also believed the Constitution did not give the US government power to abolish it in states where it already existed. “If I could save the Union without freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could free it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” Abraham Lincoln, 1862. In 1862, however, as the Civil War dragged on, he began to understand that the Union would not win the war unless it attacked slavery directly. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that declared slaves in Confederate territory free and began the process of enlisting Black men as soldiers in the US Army. Despite pressure from all sides, he never turned back from that policy.
A popular book for teaching spelling and reading was Noah Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book, known as “the blue-back speller” because of its binding. Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. DuBois mention using the Webster “Blue-backs.” “…the little feet bare and swinging, the eyes full of expectation, with here and there a twinkle of mischief, and the hands grasping Webster’s blue-back spelling-book. I loved my school…” – The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois. Many enslaved people, including Frederick Douglass, taught themselves to read using the speller, which was first published in 1783. “Once you learn to read, you will forever be free.” – Frederick Douglass
Freedpeople often had difficulty finding appropriate school buildings, and Black students regularly attended school in churches. After the Civil War, Black communities pooled resources to purchase Black churches that white people owned, or pay for building materials and buy land on which a new church could stand. Ministers were often happy to host schools in their churches, and congregation members in turn raised funds and often donated land to establish freestanding school buildings.
The American Missionary Society and other private benevolent societies from the North helped to establish more than five hundred schools and colleges for formerly enslaved people in the South. One of these was the Lincoln School in Marion, Alabama. It was founded by freedpeople in 1867, becoming one of the state’s first schools for African Americans. In 1868 the American Missionary Association hired teachers and leased a building to house the school, and in 1870 the community and the Freedmen’s Bureau joined forces with the AMA to raise funds to build a new school. In 1874, it was reorganized as the State Normal School for Colored Students, although it retained a program for primary education. Eventually the teacher training component moved to Montgomery and evolved into Alabama State University. The Lincoln School remained a semiprivate American Missionary institution in Marion until 1960. Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., graduated as valedictorian of the school in 1945.
This stack of books was sent by the Freedmen's Bureau as part of a wider effort to provide resources for new schools. The Freedmen’s Bureau supported African American education. Although the bureau didn’t operate schools or hire teachers, its agents helped build schools and supply them with books, and they sometimes provided military protection for students and teachers threatened by whites who objected to Black literacy. Many historically Black colleges and universities evolved from schools founded with help from the Freedmen’s Bureau. Fisk University is named for Gen. Clinton B. Fisk of the Tennessee Freedmen’s Bureau, who donated a former Union army barracks to freedpeople to use as a school, and Howard University is named for the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, General Oliver O. Howard.
These little chalkboards would be used by the students in this class to practice reading, writing and arithmetic. They are a type of tablet, a solid, flat surface that can be written on. Today we think of tablets as small portable computers with a touchscreen interface, but the first tablets in human history were made of clay thousands of years ago - between 3,500 and 3,000 BCE - by the ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia. The Sumerians developed the oldest known form of writing in the world, called cuneiform. They pressed their words into soft clay tablets using a stylus, and when the clay dried the messages written on it became permanent. The first electronic tablet, called a GRiDPad, was invented in 1989. It held a charge for three hours and cost over $2,000.
Most enslaved people could only dream of travel to other countries, but a few managed to escape slavery in America and journey to foreign lands. They often travelled to Great Britain where they gave lectures about slavery and racism in the United States. Frederick Douglass is the most well-known of these. A fugitive slave and an abolitionist, Douglass sailed to Britain in 1845 and stayed for 19 months. He was a powerful orator, and his antislavery speeches attracted huge crowds. The story of Douglass in Great Britain is detailed in the website Frederick Douglass in Britain http://frederickdouglassinbritain.com/ along with accounts of other formerly enslaved abolitionists who took their antislavery message to the British Isles.
The flowers used in this vignette were purchased for the scene and aren’t necessarily native to Alabama. If this little girl had picked the flowers for her teacher, she might have included sticky rosinweed, which is naturally found in only one Alabama county. She could have chosen the orange flowers of native milkweed or butterfly weed, so called because it is the food for monarch butterfly caterpillars. If it was in the fall, she might have picked some purple asters or some goldenrod, a favorite source of nectar for bees. Goldenrod was named the Alabama state flower in 1927 but in 1959 it was replaced by the camellia, which comes from Japan. Native wildflowers are sometimes considered weeds, but they play an important role in natural ecosystems.