Wealth, intelligence and godliness combined, make their possessors indispensable members of a community.
—ADDRESS OF THE BISHOPS OF THE AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH, MAY 2, 18661
Wat’s de use ob niggers pretendin’ to lurnin? Dey’s men on dis yeah plantation, old’s I am, studyin’ ober spellin’-book, an’ makin’ b’lieve ‘s if dey could larn. Wat’s de use? Wat’ll dey be but niggers wen dey gits through? Niggers good for nothin’ but to wuck in de fiel’an’ make cotton. Can’t make white folks ob you’selves, if you is free.
—BLACK DRIVER, FISH POND PLANTATION,
LOUISIANA, APRIL 18662
WHEN THE CIVIL WAR ENDED, Henry McNeal Turner sensed that his work had only begun. He thought he knew how and where he could best serve his people. Two years earlier, he had preached his farewell sermon as pastor of Israel Bethel Church in Washington, D.C., and within weeks he had returned to his native South as a chaplain assigned to the 1st Regiment, United States Colored Troops. While serving in that post, he manifested a racial pride that would distinguish his thoughts and actions for the remainder of his life. Never would he relent in the conviction that the African race possessed the capacity for intellectual and material greatness. “I claim for them,” he wrote in August 1865, “superior ability.” None of the renowned orators, ministers, and statesmen he had heard in the North, not even a Henry Ward Beecher or a Charles Sumner, compared in his estimation with the simple eloquence he had once heard from the lips of a black slave in South Carolina. Nor did he consider the celebrated work of architects and mechanics in the North superior to the skills demonstrated by many slave artisans. While conceding that these were “exceptional” blacks who had “mastered circumstances,” Turner liked to think of them nevertheless as “extraordinary projections” who suggested the still largely unrealized potential of his people.
Even with emancipation, he realized, this vast potential would be difficult to tap. No matter how often he celebrated the achievements of individual blacks, he remained deeply troubled in 1865 by the condition of the great mass of recently freed slaves, especially those outside of the urban centers who had spent a lifetime laboring in the fields, sustained only by the will to survive. Almost everywhere he traveled in the postwar South, Turner found freedmen still embracing and cherishing the old slave habits, exhibiting little of the racial pride he felt so intensely; some of them were too “timid,” “doubtful,” and “fearful” to exercise their freedom, preferring instead to defer to their old masters or to transfer their feelings of dependency to their new Yankee masters.
That old servile fear still twirls itself around the heart strings, and fills with terror the entire soul at a white man’s frown. Just let him say stop, and every fibre is palsied, and this will be the case till they all die. True, some possessing a higher degree of bravery may be killed or most horribly mutilated for their intrepidity, but should this be the case, the white man’s foot-kissing party will be to blame for it. As long as negroes will be negroes (as we are called) we may be negroes.
That so many of his brethren should behave in this way came as no surprise to him. “Oh, how the foul curse of slavery has blighted the natural greatness of my race!” he wrote in early 1865, while his regiment was camped in North Carolina. “It has not only depressed and horror-streaked the should-be glowing countenance of thousands, but it has almost transformed many into inhuman appearance.”
By the close of the war, the rapidly proliferating northern benevolent societies were actively engaged in tending to the religious, educational, and relief needs of the freedmen. Turner knew of their activities, and he welcomed the diligence, commitment, and resources they brought to the freedman’s cause. But he perceived, too, that hundreds of thousands of newly freed slaves remained beyond the reach of these societies. Enjoying only a superficial freedom, they survived as best they could without money, land, or homes; they had never seen the inside of a schoolhouse, they either embraced primitive notions of Christian worship or attended a white man’s church (where they heard their bondage sanctified), and they had little or no appreciation of the responsibilities and liabilities they had incurred with emancipation. “They want to know what to do with freedom,” Turner observed. “It is not natural that a people who have been held as chattels for two hundred years, should thoroughly comprehend the limits of freedom’s empire: the scope is too large for minds so untutored to enter upon at once.” If Turner understood better than most the magnitude of the problem, that necessarily tempered his optimism and prepared him for a long and demanding ordeal. “I do not expect a high state of things, in this day at most; it will be impossible for the present generation to become wonders of the world. Nothing more than a partial state of civilization and moral attainment can be hoped for by the most sanguine.”
That was more than sufficient inducement, however, for Turner to enlist his efforts in the critical work of redeeming the nearly four million slaves from the moral and spiritual degradation which their condition had forced upon them. Upon resigning his chaplaincy in 1865, he chose to remain in the South to organize freedmen into the African Methodist Episcopal Church and subsequently into the Republican Party.3
The prospects for a reformation in the post-emanicipation South seemed auspicious, even exhilarating. While the Union soldier completed the liberation of the slaves from physical bondage, the teacher would free them from mental indolence and the missionary would lead them out of the “Synagogues of Satan.” Both the teacher and the missionary would assume the responsibility for instilling in their minds the personal habits, moral values, and religious character deemed necessary to dignify and implement their new legal status. Although a formidable undertaking, the recruits were available and eager to begin their work—several thousand men and women of both races, some of them attached to the Freedmen’s Bureau, some the designated agents of a church or a freedmen’s aid society, and some initially unaffiliated but ready to serve in any capacity. “I dont ask position or money,” a chaplain in a black regiment wrote a Freedmen’s Bureau officer. “But I ask a place where I can be most useful to my race. My learning, my long experience as a teacher North, and my faithful service as Chaplain, demand that I seek such a place among my race.”4 For many of the recruits, their previous involvement in the abolitionist movement made this southern pilgrimage a particularly satisfying and fulfilling experience. No less gratified were those in the black contingent who were now returning to the places from which they had escaped as slaves or from which they had exiled themselves as free blacks.
The vision that bound them together was that of a redeemed South. Like the Puritans of seventeenth-century New England, with their vision of a “city on a hill,” this modern Gideon’s Band proposed to establish beachheads of Christian piety and Yankee know-how in the moral wilderness of the defeated Confederacy, dispelling the darkness which two centuries of human slavery had cast over the region. Teachers and missionaries alike, whatever their race or affiliation, could agree on the critical need to provide the recently freed slaves with prerequisites of civilization and citizenship, and these would be nothing less than the virtues esteemed by mid-nineteenth-century Americans and taught in nearly every school and from every pulpit—industry, frugality, honesty, sobriety, marital fidelity, self-reliance, self-control, godliness, and love of country. “Hitherto their masters have acted and done for them,” a black religious journal observed, “but now that they are free they must be taught how to be free.” A white missionary educator in South Carolina said as much when he defined what had to be done for the freedmen—“to unlearn them and learn them from, the vices, habits and associations of their former lives.” And if the white evangels could talk in terms of supplying enough teachers “to make a New England of the whole South,” a black bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church could anticipate that glorious day when “New England ideas, sentiments, and principles will ultimately rule the entire South.”5
Whatever the optimism and confidence with which the missionaries and teachers began their work, sectarian rivalries, racial tensions, personality clashes, and differences over tactics and roles would take their toll within the ranks of this strong-willed group of individuals. Even the most dedicated and best-intentioned of them experienced their moments of discouragement, not only in seeking to minimize native white opposition and internal dissension but in bridging the cultural gulf which separated them from the former slaves. To communicate with the freedmen could be in itself a tiring and exasperating ordeal. “We are not as yet like skilled in negro-talk,” one missionary teacher wrote home soon after arriving in Virginia. The wonder perhaps is not that so many problems surfaced or that some evangels fell from grace but rather that so many of them held on and persevered under the most formidable challenges, sustained by the depth of their commitment alone. “Ours is truly a missionary work,” C. M. Shackford reported from Mississippi, “in our isolation from society, in teaching the ignorant, in deprivation of many comforts, and in being the scorn and derision of the community. There is a glory, excellence, and satisfaction in the work.”6
The same sense of high purpose that found this white missionary laboring among the freedmen in Okolona, Mississippi, also nourished Richard H. Cain, a black minister who had transplanted his pastorship from Brooklyn, New York, to South Carolina. “I have often thought of my kindred at home—of the happy associations left behind. While I have toiled through the hot sun and over the dense sands of the South, hungry and weary, I have met hundreds of my brethren far away from their homes, awaiting my arrival, that they might hear the truths of the Gospel. I have forgotten my own trials in the flush of joy which thrilled my heart as I gazed on the vast sea of upturned eyes and radiant, expectant faces. I have exclaimed, Truly, the harvest is ripe, but the laborers are few.’ ”7
The newly freed slaves viewed with varying degrees of marvel, gratitude, and suspicion this strange army of men and women who came into their midst carrying Bibles and spelling books instead of rifles. They were clearly not like the white folks they had known; some of them, in fact, seemed almost incongruous in a southern setting, antiseptic in appearance, and stiff and formal in their manners and conversation. The language they spoke, and the way in which they formed their words, confirmed their alien appearance and made it difficult at times to make any sense out of what they were saying. “Dey didn’t talk like folks here and didn’t understan’ our talk,” recalled Wayman Williams, who had been a slave in Mississippi and Texas, and he suggested that both sides would need to develop some patience and a degree of compassion before the barriers of communication would break down.
Dey didn’t know what us mean when us say “titty” for sister, and “budder” for brother, and “nanny” for mammy. Jes’ for fun us call ourselves big names to de teacher, some be named General Lee and some Stonewall Jackson. We be one name one day and ‘nother name next day. Until she git to know us she couldn’t tell de diff’erence, ’cause us all look alike to her.
The learning process, as Williams also remembered, proved quite often to be reciprocal. While the teacher tried to instill proper English and pronunciation into them, the pupils introduced her to southern ways and to the mysteries of black magic and conjuration. “De teacher from de North don’t know what to think of all dat. But our old missy, who live here all de time, know all ’bout it. She lets us believe our magic and conjure, ’cause she partly believe it, too.”8
Nor were the black emissaries from the North necessarily any less alien to the freedmen, though they might have recognized the type at least from some of the free Negroes they had known. Previous experience with black drivers, black overseers, and even free Negroes had a way of tempering the initial enthusiasm with which the freedmen welcomed the black teachers and missionaries; at the same time, the old slave preachers and exhorters would resist any attempt to supplant them in position and influence with their people. The northern black might also share with his white co-workers a similar difficulty in bridging the cultural gulf between himself and his southern brethren. “I cannot worship intelligently with the colored people,” Thomas W. Cardozo confessed, “and, consequently, am at a loss every sabbath what to do.” The educated black minister from the North who soon found himself castigating the crude, unruly, and heathen worship of his fellow blacks was no different than the black teacher from the North who found himself suddenly and unexpectedly wielding the whip to enforce discipline in the classroom.
I know not why, but I felt as it were, driven to it the first day. I cannot attempt to philosophize on the matter. I shall have a long talk with you when I return. Suffice it to say, in part, it is accountable to my inexperience of the vices to which these children have been reared and hence of their general characteristics. I suppose in governing children as well as adults much of our success depends on our ability to read human nature.
During the past six years in the North, he went on to explain, he had been engaged largely in “theoretical pursuits”; although this had made him confident of his intellectual abilities, he thought the transition to “practical life” had simply been too abrupt. But he remained determined to succeed, if only because he recognized the unique opportunity he had been afforded. “Here I am at last in a Slave State. How strange are the workings of Providence! Who would have thought three years ago that such mighty and important changes would so soon take place?”9
No matter how they defined success, and this tended to vary, the missionaries and teachers who descended upon the post-emancipation South would express considerable gratification over the progress of their efforts, even as the records they left behind also revealed moments of frustration, doubt, and discouragement. For the freedmen, of course, the opportunity to worship in their own churches and to be taught in their own schoolhouses had to be one of the supreme manifestations of their new status. Not surprisingly, though, any attempt to impose “civilizing” influences on a “backward” people is bound to produce its share of misunderstandings and tensions between the evangels and their wards, in part because that was invariably how the evangels viewed the relationship. Whether to appease the hostility of native whites or to placate the cultural biases and psychic needs of their northern friends, the freedmen would be forced to pay some price in violated sensitivities and prolonged dependencies. Regardless of whether they were treated with disdain, a benign tolerance, or exaggerated praise and condescension, there would be the many occasions on which a freedman or freedwoman might have easily identified with the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who observed, “When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”10
SINCE EARLY IN THE WAR, the black South had loomed as a fertile field for missionary labor. None recognized this potential more readily than did the black churchmen of the North. “The Rubicon is passable,” exulted the Reverend James Lynch in September 1861, after noting how his African Methodist Episcopal Church had been compelled for years to operate on the northern side of the Potomac River. “With God for our guide, and his promises for our specie currency, we will cross, and carry there the legacy of the sainted Allen, our church government, and the word of God.” Although the black church acted initially with caution, pending a clarification of the war’s objectives, the Emancipation Proclamation and the enlistment of blacks in the Union Army removed any lingering doubts. Within several months of these developments, James Lynch was on his way to South Carolina. “My own heart has been fired by our brethren here,” he soon reported. “Ignorant though they be, on account of long years of oppression, they exhibit a desire to hear and to learn, that I never imagined. Every word you say while preaching, they drink down and respond to, with an earnestness that sets your heart all on fire, and you feel that it is indeed God’s work to minister to them.”11
Although other denominations were no less zealous in bringing the freed slaves into their respective folds, the Methodists and the Baptists enjoyed a clear advantage from the outset. If the Baptists offered greater organizational flexibility and more easily accommodated native black preachers, the Methodists provided, as the founder of the AME Church once explained, “the plain simple gospel” which “the unlearned can understand, and the learned are sure to understand.” Both of these pietistic sects also found it necessary to spend less time in conversion than in simply providing the organizational structure that would accommodate the tens of thousands of slaves already committed to their faiths. When the Reverend Lynch, for example, sought to organize the 800 black residents of Helenaville, into the AME Church, he would report that “they all readily assented, with the exception of a few Baptists.” At the same time, he continued, “I licensed two local preachers, and two exhorters who had been previously verbally licensed; I never saw men appreciate anything so much in my life.”12
No matter what denominations they represented, the black missionaries found upon entering the South a ready confirmation of the marvelous workings of the Divine Spirit. To look around them, to witness at first hand this “most terrible retribution” which God had inflicted on the white South for the “cruel barbarities” of slavery, more than fulfilled the warnings they had hurled against Babylon from their pulpits in the North. What more dramatic proof of His presence and the triumph of His justice than to see for themselves Pharaoh’s hosts engulfed and vanquished. After the Reverend Richard H. Cain walked through the streets of Charleston and gazed at the ruins that were once “the dwellings of the proud and defiant manstealers,” he could only conclude that this city had become “a monument of God’s indignation and an evidence of His righteous judgments.” For the slave, he added, a new era had dawned, the day of redemption was at hand, and the prophet’s proclamation had come to be realized: “Arise, shine: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon thee.” And those who wished to oversee the fulfillment of this prophecy had only to “go among this redeemed people; enter their humble homesteads; sit down with them and listen to their stories of wrong and their songs of rejoicing; [and] gain their confidence.” For the Reverend Cain, Charleston was the place to establish his church for the freedmen.13
Although some of the black missionaries had once resided in the South as slaves or free Negroes, many of them were native Northerners who had formed their impressions of slavery in the abolitionist movement. Upon entering the South, then, they expected to find a people degraded and scarred—physically and psychically—by a lifetime of bondage and in desperate need of “regeneration and civilization.” No proclamation or legislative act, they assumed, could get at the evils that had accumulated and festered over many decades. “As a malignant cancer leaves its roots after being apparently cured,” the Reverend James W. C. Pennington observed from Jacksonville, Florida, “so Slavery has left its barbarisms which are in danger of being mixt up with all that is now being done for the advancement of christian civilization among the people.” The breakup of slavery, he believed, had uncovered “a fearful moral chaos” in the South, and only education and “the Remedial power of the Gospel” could accomplish for the African race in the United States what they had already achieved for the Anglo-Saxon race. Repeatedly, clerics and teachers alike would define the task before them as undoing the moral depravity, self-debasement, and dependency which slavery had fostered in its victims, and the Reverend Cain, for one, thought no vestiges of bondage more resistant to reform than these. “The people are emancipated but not free!” he wrote from Charleston. “They are still slaves to their old ideas, as well as to their masters. The great masses have, by the old systems, been taught that they were inferior to the whites in everything, and they believe it still.”14
If instruction in the spelling book could be left to the teacher, the work of moral reformation belonged properly to the clergyman, but in the postemancipation South such distinctions in roles were seldom deemed necessary or even desirable and the teacher and the minister in some instances were the same person. In any event, both the school and the church declared open war on the “rum-suckers, bar-room loafers, whiskey-dealers, and card players among the men, and those women who dressed finely on ill-gottengain.” The best weapon by which to combat these evils was instruction at every level in the virtues of temperance, marital fidelity, chastity, and domestic economy. The larger and the more urgently this task loomed, the more frequently went out the appeals for assistance—for more individuals like themselves who would dedicate their lives to the work of redemption. “The only thing I regret is, that there are not more Baptist and Methodist ministers down here,” the Reverend Arthur Waddell wrote from Beaufort, South Carolina. “When I say this, I mean colored ministers, and I do not mean the silk-gloved kind, and those who come down here to buy farms, and to cheat these poor people out of their rights. But I mean those who come down here to preach Christ in the way that St. Paul commanded Timothy.”15
But the work of moral reformation was considered too vast and too critical to leave to “colored ministers” alone. The white benevolent societies placed the highest priority on this kind of missionary labor. That was why Marcia Colton, upon arriving in Virginia, found herself assigned not to a classroom or to a church but to Craney Island, in Norfolk harbor, where she assumed responsibility for reforming a group of black prostitutes. In a prison-like encampment, she would attempt to direct these fallen women into “the paths of virtue” and toward “Christ the Fountain that cleaneth from all Sin.”
The Military & Moral authorities think it is a Military necessity to have a Magdalen Camp on Craney Island, a sort of out-door Prison Life where they can send these Women who having just emerged from Slavery, are beset by bad Men (& many of these are connected with the Federal Army,) led astray from the paths of virtue. And the influence of those who have thus fallen being contagious with others, it is decided to arrest & send them [without a trial] to the Island.
Although not relishing the assignment, Miss Colton accepted it “in the name and for the sake of Christ.” Her task was made no easier by the conduct of the soldiers guarding the encampment, some of whom effected sexual liaisons with the black women. “Alas—alas!” reported Miss Colton, “that Sin,—the Sin of Sodom is so common in our Army. It’s a Sore trial to Me that I do not have any Christian on the Island amongst the Guard and no one even comes near Me to offer Me any support.” Moreover, she complained, the officers in charge of the camp viewed the problem “with Man’s judgment,” while “I from a Christian & moral standpoint, with Woman’s Pity for the degraded and fallen of our own sex.” Whatever methods she adopted to enlighten the women in the ways of virtuous living, the results were less than gratifying. Upon serving out their “sentences,” the women often returned to their “old haunts” in Norfolk, where they would soon be arrested again and returned to the island. “There are so many temptations in Norfolk, and they have so little moral power that it’s hardly possible for them to resist.… I am not able to spend much time in instructing them. They are not disposed to listen much to instruction.” Despairing over her ineffectuality, Miss Colton suggested that the source of the problem might lie in the African heathenism to which these “poor degraded freedwomen” clung. “I am aware when I say this that you will repel the Idea from your Mind as quickly as possible,” she wrote to her supervisor. “Yet nevertheless I think it True. How else can I get any excuse for this predominance of Animal habits which show themselves all the while with most of them?”16
Not the least of the “barbarisms” associated with slavery that dismayed both white and black missionaries was, in fact, the excessive emotionalism, frenzy, and “heathenism” they claimed to find in the religious practices of the freedmen. Upon visiting a service on Roanoke Island, Henry M. Turner thought the black parishioners worshipped “under a lower class of ideas” and entertained crude conceptions of God. “Hell fire, brimstone, damnation, black smoke, hot lead, &c, appeared to be presented by the speaker as man’s highest incentive to serve God, while the milder and yet more powerful message of Jesus was thoughtlessly passed by.” No revival was considered complete, Turner observed on another occasion, without some blacks indulging in the most ludicrous capers. “Let a person get a little animated, fall down and roll over awhile, kick a few shins, crawl under a dozen benches, spring upon his feet, … then squeal and kiss (or buss) around for awhile, and the work is all done.” If they had acted with less zeal, Turner surmised, the legitimacy of their conversion might have been questioned. It was this kind of “ignorant” and frenzied worship that led Thomas W. Cardozo to avoid the freedmen’s church in Charleston and that prompted an educated black woman to remark, “I won’t go to the colored churches, for I’m only disgusted with bad grammar and worse pronunciation, and their horrible absurdities.”17
Neither the Methodists nor the Baptists were strangers to emotional fervor in worship; indeed, that had been a source of their appeal to the slaves. What many of the missionaries now appeared to suggest, however, was that emancipation demanded a new dignity and decorum in religious worship, and that these objectives could best be attained through instruction by an educated clergy. The Christian Recorder, as the official spokesman for the AME Church, deemed this point particularly critical as it described the activities of the church’s missionaries in the South.
There was a time when white ministers thought any kind of preaching would do for colored people, and they would deal in small talk. There was a time when colored ministers could glory in their own ignorance before a congregation, and succeed in making the people believe they were Divinely inspired, and secure their respect and homage. There was a time when clownishness and incorrect speech were admired, and a swollen pomposity and conceit were mistaken for ability.
Such primitive conceptions of worship, the newspaper suggested, would now have to be discarded, along with the other relics of bondage. By exposing the freedmen to higher standards of worship, a white cleric hopefully declared, they would learn the meaning of order and restraint—prerequisites of freedom whose importance went beyond the realm of religion. “Order in one kind of gathering will tend to the same in other things. They are ignorant & unaccustomed to plan & manage for themselves and I cannot help feeling strongly that their greatest need is orderly Churches, under the care of educated men. For the effects of such religious order is not easily overestimated, as it regards both spiritual things and temporal.”18
Until such order prevailed in the freedmen’s worship, both black and white northern missionaries would share some common concerns. Upon visiting their first black prayer meeting in the South, white ministers conceded a certain admiration for the “simple and childlike” faith of the freedmen, their evident “sincerity and earnestness,” their “implicit belief in Providence,” their demonstrated love of prayer, and the powerful emotional impact of their music and hymns. “It took me nearer to heaven than I had been for years,” one missionary said of the singing he had heard. Still another spectator at a black religious service came away impressed not only by the “purity and simplicity” of the slaves’ faith but also by its practicality. “They believe simply in the love of Christ, and they speak of Him and talk to Him with a familiarity that is absolutely startling. They pray as though they thought Christ himself was standing in the very room.” Even though he considered the preachers “very rude and uncultivated,” exhibiting little understanding of the Bible, he would conclude from his observations that the freedmen were “the only people I ever met whose religion reacted on their daily life.”19
What appalled the white missionaries and visitors about black religious worship made by far the deeper impression—the emotional wildness and extravagance, the unlettered preaching, the “incoherent speeches and prayers,” the “narrowness” of the religious knowledge, and the evidently strong survivals of supersitition and paganism. “My spirit,” said one missionary, “sinks within me in sorrow to think of their noisy extravagance around the altar of my blessed Lord, who is the God of order not confusion.” While some observers claimed to be deeply moved by the “soul thrilling” hymns and the “melodious responses” to the sermons, others found them “ludicrous.” While some thought the shuffling, clapping, cries, shouts, and groans blended into “a kind of natural opera of feeling,” others considered them a vulgar display of paganism without any redeeming religious virtue. Rather than try to understand the role of tone, gesture, and response in the blacks’ worship, it would be far easier to ridicule it or to dismiss it altogether. “I never saw anything so savage,” the usually tolerant Laura Towne wrote of the first “shout” she witnessed after coming to the Sea Islands. No less dismayed, Lucy Chase came away from her first prayer meeting convinced that the religious feeling of the freedmen was “purely emotional, void of principle, and of no practical utility”; at the same time, her supervisor seized every opportunity to impress upon black worshippers “that boisterous Amens, wild, dancing-dervish flourishes … and pandemoniamics generally, do not constitute religion.”20
What the well-intentioned northern emissaries failed to appreciate was precisely the degree to which the freedmen considered the emotional fervor inseparable from worship because it brought them that much closer to God. It was almost as though white people wished to maintain a distance.
White folks tells stories ’bout ’ligion. Dey tells stories ’bout it kaise dey’s ’fraid of it. I stays independent of what white folks tells me when I shouts. De Spirit moves me every day, dat’s how I stays in. White folks don’t feel sech as I does; so dey stays out.… Never does it make no difference how I’s tossed about. Jesus, He comes and saves me everytime. I’s had a hard time, but I’s blessed now—no mo’ mountains.
The testimony of this former South Carolina slave suggests what so many of the missionaries appeared to have missed—that the slaves over more than a century had fashioned a Christianity adapted to their circumstances. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a missionary of a very different sort as commander of a black regiment, may have been unique in this respect. Unlike Lucy Chase, he had no difficulty in finding a “practical utility” in black religious worship; in fact, he would be forced to conclude, in retrospect, that “we abolitionists had underrated the suffering produced by slavery among the negroes, but had overrated the demoralization. Or rather, we did not know how the religious temperament of the negroes had checked the demoralization.”21
But such insight was all too rare. When a teacher in Beaufort, South Carolina, suggested that “our work is just as much missionary work as if we were in India or China,” she actually underestimated the task many missionaries thought they faced in the post-emancipation South. If it were only a matter of introducing Christianity to heathens, that was a work with which they were familiar and, as one missionary conceded, “we should know how to proceed.” How to bring order, decorum, and intelligence into Christian worship, how to show the freedmen the difference between “sense and sound,” and how to eradicate the “mass of religious rubbish” which had collected over two centuries of slavery posed some very different problems from those encountered in missionary endeavors overseas. After all, these people had already been won over to Christ, they had for many years attended some kind of church or service, and they had experienced either a white minister or a slave preacher—and often both. Even if usually “unlettered,” the slave preacher or plantation exhorter had shared with them some trying times, he may have introduced them to the Gospel, and, most importantly, he knew how to communicate with them—and with God. With that in mind, a missionary in Norfolk, Virginia, warned that a strange minister who presumed to question how the former slaves chose to manifest their belief in God might not be welcomed into their community.
They feel that religion is something they possess—they do not feel their need of religious instruction from the pulpit—for they have always had it here—they have been obliged to listen to white ministers provided, or placed over them by their masters, while they have had men among themselves whom they believe were called of God to preach, who were kept silent, by the institution from which they are now freed—& to have white preachers still placed over them, is too much like old times to meet with their approval. Their long silent preachers want to preach & the people prefer them.
While agreeing that educated ministers were preferable, she advised her supervisors in the North that the freedmen would have to be educated themselves before they could appreciate that virtue in their ministers. That being the case, she requested that no more clergymen be dispatched to her region, “unless they are specially asked for—by the church over which they are to preside as pastors.”22
Whatever church they chose to affiliate with, and whether a northern minister or a native preacher presided, the freedmen would not give up easily the religious practices and fervor that had sustained them through so many trials. It was not that they were unwilling to learn new ways but only that they often found these new ways too far removed from God’s presence. Not long after the close of the Civil War, a black woman rose during a religious meeting and felt called upon, perhaps because of the presence of some northern white visitors, to defend the worship to which she still felt committed.
I goes ter some churches, an’ I sees all de folks settin’ quiet an’ still, like dey dunno know what de Holy Sperit am. But I fin’s in my Bible, that when a man or a ’ooman gets full ob de Holy Sperit, ef dey should hol’ dar peace, de stones would cry out; an’ ef de power ob God can make de stones cry out, how can it help makin’ us poor creeturs cry out, who feels ter praise Him fer His mercy. Not make a noise! Why we makes a noise ’bout ebery ting else; but dey tells us we mustn’t make no noise ter praise de Lord. I don’t want no sich ’ligion as dat ar. I wants ter go ter Heaben in de good ole way. An’ my bruddren an’ sisters, I wants yer all ter pray fer me, dat when I gits ter Heaben I wont nebber come back ’gain.
No sooner had she taken her seat than the congregation added their confirmation in song.
Oh! de way ter Heaben is a good ole way;
Oh! de way ter Heaben is a right ole way;
Oh! de good ole way is de right ole way;
Oh! I wants ter go ter Heaben in de good ole way.
After the service, which ended in a wild emotional outburst, complete with shrieks, shouts, and the stamping of feet, the white visitors stood outside the church shocked and shaken by what they had seen and heard. “A few moments more, and I think we should have shrieked in unison with the crowd.… More than one of the party leaned against the wall, and burst into hysterical tears; even strong men were shaken, and stood trembling and exhausted.” Several years later, however, this spectator lamented that the missionaries and benevolent societies had not done enough to correct such perversions of Christianity. “By our presence and silence,” she wrote in 1870, “we sanctioned their extravagances; and they stand now self-confident, proof against remonstrance and instruction.”23
EVEN BEFORE they embarked for the South, most of the missionaries and teachers—whites and blacks alike—assumed that nothing short of a massive moral and religious transformation could liberate southern blacks from the remaining vestiges of slavery. But the question of how to structure that transformation and whether whites or blacks should assume primary responsibility and leadership precipitated tensions within this biracial movement that would persist into the Reconstruction Era, with implications for the political as well as the moral reformation of the postwar South. Since early in the war, the appeal had gone out in the northern black communities for qualified men and women to form their own Gideon’s Band. “I argue the peculiar fitness of the colored man for that position,” the Reverend Henry M. Turner wrote, “because about him the most incredulous would have no doubt. Neither could he be bribed by the deceptive flippancy of the oily-tongued slaveocrats, who too often becloud the understanding of the whites.”24
Although nearly every postwar black convention and newspaper praised the white benevolent societies for their efforts, these same spokesmen insisted that “the great work of elevating our race” properly belonged to black people. If the freedmen were to be taught self-respect, if they were to be inculcated with pride in their race and begin to view themselves as the equals of whites, what better examples for them to follow than those who had already demonstrated in their own lives the capacity for improvement and leadership. If the freedmen were to be introduced to new forms of church government and worship, would not black ministers be the ideal guides, since they would at once remove “the greatest stigma” that could be attached to such reforms—“that of being a ‘white man’s religion.’ ” And if the freedmen were to be encouraged to drop “the old broken brogue language” of slavery, they should listen to “enlightened” and educated ministers of their own color who spoke “in plain English.”25
With blacks undertaking responsibility for their own people, the potential for a conflict of interest would also be minimized. Although the emissaries of both races in the South stressed the importance of former slaves returning to work and proving their capacity for free labor, the suspicion grew that some white missionaries stood to profit materially from such counsel. Economic and moral objectives were not always easy to separate, as in the Sea Islands, for example, and if the same people who supervised black laborers in the field sometimes taught in the classroom or preached in the church, the distinctions blurred even more. “The danger now seems to be—not that we shall be called enthusiasts, abolitionists, philanthropists,” Laura Towne noted with concern, “but cotton agents, negro-drivers, oppressors.” Not far from where Miss Towne taught school in the Sea Islands, the Reverend A. Waddell preached in the First African Baptist Church, and he obviously thought her concern more than justified.
Some of our white ministerial friends do more in the way of procuring farms, and keeping our poor race in ignorance, than any thing else. They are more concerned about the cotton bag than they are about souls. They pretend, when they are North, that they would come down here and do any thing for our race in the way of enlightening them; but, instead of this, when they see the cotton bag, they forget all about Christ and Him crucified, and the saving of souls.
Equally concerned with “pretended benefactors of the colored race” who “make lucre the chief idol of their devoted shrine,” Henry M. Turner voiced the not uncommon fear that white missionaries and teachers, by virtue of their color and eagerness to be accepted in the communities in which they worked, might naturally gravitate toward the native whites and be the more easily beguiled by them. For the black missionary, however, as Turner quickly noted, “no sumptuous tables, fine chambers, attractive misses, springy buggies, or swinging carriages” would distract him from his labors, since “he would find his level only among the colored race.” Not only would he gain easier access to the homes and social gatherings of the freedmen but “his influence and personal identification with them would go farther than the white man’s” and he would be more apt to expose and resist schemes which exploited the labor of the freed slaves in the guise of philanthropic enterprise.26
The black missionary moved quickly to exploit a critical advantage he had over his white denominational rivals. He could offer the freedmen an immediate alternative to the white man’s church and to the white minister. “The Ebony preacher who promises perfect independence from White control and direction carries the col[ore]d heart at once,” an officer in the American Missionary Association observed. Near Columbia, Kentucky, a newly freed slave who had some years before been ordained as a deacon and elder in the white Methodist Episcopal Church needed little persuasion to transfer his loyalties to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “I was offered liberal inducements to continue in the M.E. Church and preach to my people,” he explained, “but I preferred to come out from under the yoke. I had been there long enough.” That was reason enough for tens of thousands of freedmen and freedwomen to abandon the white-dominated churches for their own facilities, organizations, and preachers; indeed, such a move became for some as important and symbolic an assertion of freedom as the decision to separate from the scene of their bondage. For years they had listened to the white preachers admonish them to embrace their situation and obey their worldly masters in order to gain admission to “the kitchen of heaven.”
When the white preacher come he preach and pick up his Bible and claim he gittin the text right out from the good Book and he preach: “The Lord say, don’t you niggers steal chickens from your missus. Don’t you steal your marster’s hawgs.” That would be all he preach.
For years, too, they had put up with the deception and hypocrisy of these professed men of God, some of whom were themselves slaveholders. “The man that baptized me,” Susan Boggs observed, “had a colored woman tied up in his yard to whip when he got home, that very Sunday and her mother belonged to that same church.… That was our preacher!” Nor did the stale and empty sermons of the white minister and his manner of worship succeed in moving them spiritually or emotionally. “Dat ole white preachin’ wasn’t nothin’,” Nancy Williams recalled. “Ole white preachers used to talk wid dey tongues widdout sayin’ nothin’, but Jesus told us slaves to talk wid our hearts.” Inevitably, then, as a former Texas slave suggested, “the whites preached to the niggers and the niggers preached to themselves.”27
With many slaves preferring one of their own to preach God’s word, the arrangement worked out in some churches before the Civil War permitted the black worshippers to convene separately with their own preacher or exhorter, though a white man would presumably be present to oversee the proceedings. Typically, a former Alabama slave recalled, “white fo’ks have deir service in de mornin’ an’ ‘Niggers’ have deirs in de evenin’, a’ter dey clean up, wash de dishes, an’ look a’ter everything.… Ya’see ‘Niggers’ lack’ta shout a whole lot an’ wid de white fo’ks al’round’em, dey couldn’t shout jes’ lack dey want to.” Where such liberties were not permitted the slaves, the master might hire a white preacher to visit the plantation, or the slaves would simply accompany the master’s family to the white church and sit in the gallery overlooking the white worshippers. Later in the day or that night, without the master’s knowledge, the slaves would gather in their quarters or in the nearby woods to hold the “real meetin’.” Emancipation, however, enabled blacks to dispense with the secrecy and the pretense. The black preacher and exhorter no longer needed to accommodate sermons to the needs and presence of the master, nor did black worshippers need to fear an imminent intrusion by white men into their services. “Praise God for this day of liberty to worship God!” was how one freedman described his new status, while another placed his hand on the shoulder of the black preacher and remarked, “Bless God, my son, we don’t have to keep watch at that door to tell us the patrollers are coming to take us to jail and fine us twenty-five dollars for prayin’ and talkin’ of the love of Jesus. O no, we’s FREE!”28
Where blacks had once been obliged to worship under a white preacher, they were now in a position to depose him, hire their own preacher, and choose their own organizational affiliation. For both the white minister and the black congregation, the transition of a church from slavery to freedom could be as traumatic as the simultaneous upheavals affecting the masters of the plantations and their field hands and servants. Several days after the fall of Wilmington, North Carolina, nearly 1,600 blacks filled the Front Street Methodist Church, where the Reverend L. S. Burkhead, a white minister, regularly presided over the predominantly black congregation. Traditionally, every Sunday morning the class leaders, all of whom were black, would conduct the sunrise prayer meeting. But the mood of the assemblage on this first Sunday after Union occupation suggested at once to the Reverend Burkhead, as he took his seat near the altar, that this would be a unique service. “The whole congregation was wild with excitement,” he recalled, “and extravagant beyond all precedent with shouts, groans, amens, and unseemingly demonstrations.” After the already excited throng joined in the singing of a hymn appropriate for the occasion, “Sing unto the Lord a New Song,” the Reverend William H. Hunter, a chaplain in one of the black regiments which had helped to liberate the city, strode to the pulpit upon the invitation of the class leaders. No military triumph could have afforded him any greater personal satisfaction than the return to a region in which he had once been a slave, and he made this immediately clear in his address, with the crowd enthusiastically chanting their responses.
A few short years ago I left North Carolina a slave. (Hallelujah, oh, yes.) I now return a man. (Amen) I have the honor to be a regular minister of the Gospel in the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States (glory to God, Amen) and also a regularly commissioned chaplain in the American Army. (Amen) I am proud to inform you that just three weeks ago today, as black a man as you ever saw, preached in the city of Washington to the Congress of the United States; and that a short time ago another colored man was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States as a lawyer. (Long, loud and continued applause, beating on benches, etc.) One week ago you were all slaves; now you are all free. (Uproarious screamings) Thank God the armies of the Lord and of Gideon has triumphed and the Rebels have been driven back in confusion and scattered like chsff before the wind. (Amen! Hallelujah!) I listened to your prayers, but I did not hear a single prayer offered for the President of the United States or for the success of the American Army. (Amen! O, yes, I prayed all last night, etc.) But I knew what you meant. You were not quite sure that you were free, therefore a little afraid to say boldly what you felt. I know how it is. I remember how we used to have to employ our dark symbols and obscure figures to cover up our real meaning. The profoundest philosopher could not understand us. (Amen! Hallelujah! That’s so.)
After “the tumultuous uproar” subsided, the Reverend Burkhead, visibly shaken by the proceedings, retired to his parsonage to consider the implications. He thought he had known his parishioners, and he had accepted in good faith their pledge a few weeks earlier to stand behind him. But that was before the Union Army appeared and before the black chaplain had been permitted “to unsettle all their former principles and ideas of subordination.” Now, he surmised from what he had heard, the newly freed slaves seemed to anticipate a new era in which the whites who had owned them surrendered their churches, dwellings, and lands and bowed down to them “to receive the manacles of slavery.” Had the Reverend Burkhead known the outcome of his speculations and fears, he might have praised God and rested comfortably. But for the moment, at least, like so many of the white clergymen who had presided over black congregations, he would have more urgent matters to consider, such as a formal demand by his congregation that he be deposed and that the church be permitted to affiliate with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.29
WITH SOME FOUR MILLION souls at stake, the struggle for supremacy among the several Protestant denominations often took on the spirit and the language associated with the prosecution of a war. Into the breach left by departing and deposed “rebel” ministers poured native black preachers and both white and black northern missionaries, and each congregation captured would be hailed as though an enemy had been routed. “Our cause has been gaining daily,” the Reverend Cain reported from South Carolina. “In Columbia, the capital of the State, we have captured all the Methodists, and are laying the foundation for an immense congregation.” Less than forty-eight hours after General Sherman entered Savannah, the Reverend James Lynch was in the city to claim Andrew’s Chapel, previously affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church; the white minister had fled, and under the Reverend Lynch’s exhortations the black congregation voted overwhelmingly to align itself with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Consolidating the gains made by previous missionaries, the Reverend Henry M. Turner reported in early 1866 that Georgia had been secured for the AME Church. “I have visited every place it was safe to go, and sent preachers where it was thought I had better not venture. Last night was the first quiet night I have had for five weeks in succession.”30
Few triumphs, however, were more gratifying to the African Methodist Episcopal Church than the day in September 1865 when the cornerstone was laid for a new church building in Charleston. Not only did this mark the return of the AME Church to a city from which it had been banished some forty years earlier for complicity in the Denmark Vesey insurrection plot but the new building would be erected exclusively by black labor and the architect was none other than Robert Vesey, the son of the executed insurrectionist. Some three thousand black Charlestonians listened that day to speeches from a group of black clergymen who would for the next decade play a dominant role in both the religious and the political history of the state. By September 1866, a black Charlestonian could proudly describe eleven colored churches in his city—five Methodist (two of them affiliated with the AME Church), two Presbyterian, two Episcopalian, one Congregational, and one Baptist. “The flower of the city,” he also noted, worshipped at the Episcopalian Church (St. Mark’s), some of “the wealthiest colored families” attended the Methodist Episcopal Church (which had been reorganized by northern white missionaries), and the Reverend Cain’s AME Church was made up largely of newly freed slaves. In Charleston, as in other urban centers where a free Negro community had thrived before the war, church affiliation often reflected divisions of class, status, and color within the black community. And if the experience of Ed Barber some years after the war was in any way typical, those who crossed those lines in choosing a church might come away disappointed.
When I was trampin’ ’round Charleston, dere was a church dere called St. Mark, dat all de society folks of my color went to. No black nigger welcome dere, they told me. Thinkin’ as how I was bright ’nough to git in, I up and goes dere one Sunday. Ah, how they did carry on, bow and scrape and ape de white folks.… I was uncomfortable all de time though, ’cause they was too “hifalootin” in de ways, in de singin’, and all sorts of carryin’ ons.31
Almost conceding defeat at the outset, the Methodist Episcopal Church (South) did little to check the mass withdrawal of blacks from its ranks. Within a year after the end of the war, in fact, it had already lost more than half of its black membership; those who remained would soon be reorganized into a separate Colored Methodist Episcopal Church.32 To win over the departing black Methodists, an often furious battle ensued between the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Despite the impressive number and quality of the missionaries dispatched South by the northern Methodists and their clear superiority in financial resources, the black Methodist organizations also did quite well, demonstrating to their satisfaction that “blood is always more potent than money.” In some communities, the rivals worked out a “compromise” by which preachers of both denominations used the same building and took turns at the pulpit. But at least one black minister who experimented with that arrangement found it unworkable. “The Apostle said, ‘Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.’ But in an accommodating sense, I say be not unequally yoked together with a white man.” Even less charitable, the Reverend Richard H. Cain viewed his Methodist rival in Charleston as “this Judas, who comes here to rule over our people with his Yankee rod of iron,” acting “more like Barnwell Rhett with his slaves, than a minister of Christ.”33
What exacerbated the denominational rivalries was the unresolved question of who had the legal and moral right to the property of those churches which had formerly serviced the slaves. Although blacks had often built them, title to the land and the building had invariably been held in trusteeship for the black congregations by the whites. This issue assumed particular importance now that black congregations were searching for places in which to meet. Wherever possible, they would seek to establish new church structures to make absolutely clear their break with the past and their new independence in religious affairs. But even where the will and the labor existed to build their own churches, the resources were not always available. Until land could be acquired by purchase or rental and a building erected, blacks would be forced to hold their services in improvised “brush arbors,” abandoned warehouses, and in their own cabins. On a plantation in Louisiana, a double cabin which had previously housed two slave families was subdivided so that black worshippers could meet in one of the rooms. “As you entered,” a visitor noted, “you had your choice—you could visit the family or go to church.” In many communities, moreover, the black preacher might be kept in quarters and food by his parishioners but he would have to appeal elsewhere for anything approaching a salary. “We are not doing so Well here,” one such preacher wrote to the nearest Freedmen’s Bureau officer, “the People of Smithville are very Poor so much so that they cannot suport me as their Preacher. For the last three month I have not had but $8.78. cents from my congregation. I do not know how I shall get along at this rate.”34
The spectacle of overwhelming numbers of blacks withdrawing from the established churches in order to worship by themselves provoked a mixed response in the white South. Faced with the choice of permitting the black congregations to depart or granting them equal privileges and seating within the old churches, most whites preferred separation. But the social convenience this afforded them would have to be weighed against the risks incurred, and these covered an assortment of fears. If black laborers without white supervision reverted to indolence and vagrancy, as many whites expected, black worshippers freed from white surveillance might presumably fall into the vices of heathenism. Recalling the exodus of blacks from the white churches, Myrta Lockett Avary thought that was precisely what happened.
With freedom, the negro, en masse, relapsed promptly into the voodooism of Africa, Emotional extravaganzas, which for the sake of his health and sanity, if for nothing else, had been held in check by his owners, were indulged without restraint. It was as if a force long repressed burst forth. “Moans,” “shouts” and “trance meetings” could be heard for miles. It was weird.
Voicing an even more common concern, she noted how the blacks who had participated in these orgies would return to their homes late at night or at dawn, “exhausted, and unfit for duty.”35
The political implications of separation revived even graver concerns among some native whites. Before the war, recognition of the dangers posed by independent black religious expression and organization had resulted in placing them under rigid surveillance and regulation. With emancipation, however, those restraints could no longer be enforced, and black-controlled churches and preachers not responsible to the master would become principal influences in the lives of the freedmen. Much as the whites had feared, rumors and reports of what transpired in the black churches suggested not only emotional extravagance but political subversion. In Mobile, Alabama, for example, several black preachers were accused of inculcating the freedmen with doctrines of murder, arson, violence, and hatred of white people. Not only were whites described in their sermons as “white devils,” “demons,” or “pro-slavery devils” but the preachers talked of an impending race war in which the whites would be exterminated. “He [the black preacher] frequently cried out ‘In this hour of blood who will stand by me?’ and his question ever met with most enthusiastic replies of ‘I will, bless God!’ from the assembled auditory.”36
Whatever the proven capacity of black preachers for insurrectionary activity, whites had always been aware of that potential but had also learned over the years to encourage the religious enthusiasm of their slaves as a way of curbing any revolutionary impulses. Even with separation, the ability of the church to impose restraint and to divert people from their own grievances and oppression might still prove to be serviceable to whites. After describing the organization of several new black churches in Columbia, South Carolina, a northern correspondent reported how the whites had encouraged these efforts in the hope that “they will keep the attention of restless spirits from speculative politics, which promise so much harm to the poor negro.” When the Reverend Henry M. Turner organized Georgia blacks into the AME Church and sought to train local preachers to preside over the new congregations, he found his efforts applauded by the southern white churches. “They were pleased to see that we were endeavoring to elevate the colored preachers of the South, instead of flooding the country with Northern ministers, many of whom might be ‘too radical’ for the times.”37
Not only did the Union Army and the Freedmen’s Bureau recognize the authority exercised by the black preacher but they sought to exploit his influence to restrain recalcitrant blacks and to disabuse the minds of the freedmen of any extravagant notions about freedom. The black preacher might be asked, for example, to explain the new labor contracts to the field hands and to urge their compliance, while at the same time he would correct any mistaken expectations they still held about the disposition of the lands of their former masters. In the presence of a Union officer, who no doubt nodded his head in approval, a black minister in Louisiana told a large gathering of freedmen not to delude themselves into thinking they no longer had a master—they had only changed their master. “Everything must have a head,” he explained. “The plantation, the house, the steamboat, the army, and to obey that head was to obey the law; to disobey lawful commands was to disobey the law.” In praising God for their freedom, the minister concluded, “they must not forget to honor Him by doing their duty.”38
But the number of preachers beaten and the many churches burned to the ground by irate whites testified to the fact that the black minister did not always play the role expected and demanded of him. If he viewed himself as the moral and religious caretaker of his people, he would be drawn inexorably into the political arena. For black churchmen to have drawn a line between political and religious concerns in the years immediately following emancipation would have been ideologically and tactically impossible. After all, one black journal asked, how could the church stand apart from politics when the issues in question were civil rights, the suffrage, education, and equal protection under the law?39 Not surprisingly, then, in state after state, the political and religious leaders were the same men. For many of them, preaching the gospel in the aftermath of emancipation proved to be only a prelude to preaching civil rights in the constitutional conventions, in the state legislatures, and in the United States Congress.
With justification, the AME Church boasted in 1870 that it had sent the first missionaries, black chaplains, and the highest black commissioned officers to the South. More recently, to cap this “glorious record,” it had provided the first black postmaster in the South, the first black delegate to a constitutional convention, numerous state legislators, and a United States senator—Hiram R. Revels of Mississippi, who only a few years earlier had been organizing AME churches in Vicksburg and Jackson. “A remarkable feature of all these promotions,” the journal of the AME Church added, “is, that all the men remembered the ‘rock whence they were hewn’—they remain strong African Methodists, and are using their increased influence to spread its borders.” After assuming his duties as an organizer for the AME Church in Georgia, the Reverend Henry M. Turner would become an active figure in the Republican Party and subsequently serve in the state constitutional convention and in the legislature. The Reverend Richard H. Cain established a political base in Charleston, where his Emmanuel Church soon became “one of the strongest political organizations in the State”; he would serve in the state constitutional convention and in the state senate. The Reverend Jonathan C. Gibbs, who came to the South as a Presbyterian missionary, would rise to political power in Florida as secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction. After years of missionary work in the South, the Reverend James Lynch returned to Philadelphia to edit the Christian Recorder, but in June 1867 he announced that “convictions of duty to my race” impelled him to relinquish his editorial post “to go to a Southern State, and unite my destiny with that of my people, to live with them, suffer, sorrow, rejoice, and die with them.” That would take him to Jackson, Mississippi, where he quickly became a leading Republican politico whose popularity elevated him to the state senate and to the position of secretary of state of Mississippi.40
With the withdrawal of thousands of blacks from the white-dominated churches, the black church became the central and unifying institution in the postwar black community. Far more than any newspaper, convention, or political organization, the minister communicated directly and regularly with his constituents and helped to shape their lives in freedom. Not only did he preach the gospel to the masses in these years but he helped to politicize and educate them. Many of the black missionaries and clergymen also assumed the position of teachers, and very often the classrooms themselves were housed in the only available quarters in town—the church. While northern black missionaries envisaged in an educated ministry and congregation an end to the excesses that marked the religious worship of southern blacks, even the old slave preachers, many of whom were illiterate, understood the value of knowledge and implored their people to make certain that the new generation learned the word of God in ways that had been denied the parents. “Breddern and sisters!” one such preacher declared. “I can’t read more’n a werse or two of dis bressed Book, but de gospel it is here—de glad tidings it is here—oh teach your chill’en to read dis yar bressed Book. It’s de good news for we poor coloured folk.”41 If some elderly blacks flocked to the newly opened freedmen’s schools in the hope of reading the Bible before they died, the young thirsted for a knowledge not only of the Scriptures but of those subjects that would help them to improve their lot in this world.
“CHARLES, you is a free man they say, but Ah tells you now, you is still a slave and if you lives to be a hundred, you’ll STILL be a slave, cause you got no education, and education is what makes a man free!” Nothing that any missionary educator or Freedmen’s Bureau officer might have told Charles Whiteside about the value of schooling could have made as deep an impression as these words with which his master informed him of his freedom. Few freedmen, in fact, would have failed to appreciate the thrust of the slaveholder’s remarks. If they looked to any panacea (outside of land) to free them from mental and physical dependency, they fastened their hopes on the schoolhouse. The Reverend Richard H. Cain pronounced education as second only in importance to godliness, but many newly freed slaves might have found it difficult to rank such priorities. “If I nebber does do nothing more while I live,” a Mississippi freedman vowed, “I shall give my children a chance to go to school, for I considers education next best ting to liberty.”42
Although most masters had managed to overcome their fears of religious worship among the slaves, only a very few had dared to extend such toleration to teaching blacks to read and write. “Everything must be interdicted which is calculated to render the slave discontented,” was the explanation once offered by a Supreme Court judge in Georgia for the legislative restrictions placed on black literacy. Notwithstanding the elaborate precautions and legislation, some slaves and larger numbers of freeborn blacks managed to acquire a smattering of education, whether in clandestine schools, in the several schools for the freeborn tolerated in certain communities, or because of the indulgence of a member of the master’s family. By virtue of their duties and access to the Big House, the plantation slaves most likely to have acquired a competence in reading and writing were the drivers, house servants, and artisans. Whenever the opportunity was there, some blacks had made the most of it. “These whites don’t read and write because they don’t want to,” a black preacher observed in 1865; “our people don’t, because the law and public feeling were against it. The ignorant whites had every chance to learn, but didn’t; we had every chance to remain ignorant, and many of us learned in spite of them.”43 At the time of emancipation, however, the vast majority of southern blacks were illiterate—a triumph of sorts for the masters, legislatures, and courts who had deemed such a condition essential to the internal security of their society.
Like most young slaves, Booker T. Washington had viewed the mysteries of reading and writing from a distance. But the very fact that he was forbidden these practices of white people excited his curiosity. And when his mother explained that whites considered reading too dangerous for black people, that made him even more anxious to acquire this skill. “From that moment,” he would recall, “I resolved that I should never be satisfied until I learned what this dangerous practice was like.” On several occasions, he accompanied his master’s daughter to the schoolhouse door, and the sight of the young white children inside made an impression upon him that he would never forget. “I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.” That opportunity came for many young blacks in the aftermath of emancipation, though not all of them were in the best position to enjoy its benefits. After his family moved away from the farm on which they had been slaves, young Washington went to work in the salt furnaces and tried on his own to make some sense out of the spelling book his mother had acquired for him. When finally permitted to enroll in the newly opened freedmen’s school, he still had to work in the furnaces for five hours in the early morning and for two more hours after classes. Because work demands made it impossible for him to continue his studies in the day school, he enrolled in the night school, and it was there, he later recalled, that he acquired “the greater part” of his elementary education.44
Nothing could have been more calculated to impress upon slaves the value of education than the extraordinary measures adopted by their “white folks” to keep them from it. Even if blacks simply drew on their own experiences and observations, they had come to recognize that power, influence, and wealth in southern society were invariably associated with literacy and monopolized by the better-educated class of whites. “My Lord, ma’am, what a great thing larning is!” a freed slave exclaimed to a white teacher in South Carolina. “White folks can do what they likes, for they know so much more’na we.” No less impressed were some “contraband” children at Fortress Monroe early in the war. When placed in schools, one freed slave suggested, these children “thought it was so much like the way master’s children used to be treated, that they believed they were getting white.”45
The practical value of education never seemed clearer than in the aftermath of emancipation, when illiterate black laborers learned from bitter experience, especially on payday and at contract time, how white people used “book-larnin’ ” to take advantage of them. To an elderly Louisiana freedman, that was reason enough to send the children to school, even if their absence from the fields deprived the parents of their earnings. “Leaving learning to your children was better than leaving them a fortune; because if you left them even five hundred dollars, some man having more education than they had would come along and cheat them out of it all.” Nearly every convention of freedmen in the postwar years dwelled incessantly on this point, seeking to drive home to every black family that “knowledge is power.” Of course, nearly every black family that had survived slavery could readily understand that maxim. “They had seen the magic of a scrap of writing sent from a master to an overseer,” a missionary in the Sea Islands noted, “and they were eager to share such power if there were any chance.”46
To remain in ignorance was to remain in bondage. That conviction alone drew hundreds of thousands, adults and children alike, to the freedmen’s schools from the moment they opened, some of the prospective students making a pilgrimage of several miles, and many of them forced to combine their schooling with rigorous work schedules. The very intensity of their commitment caught both teachers and native whites by surprise. “They will endure almost any penance rather than be deprived of this privilege,” a missionary educator in North Carolina observed. To a school official in Virginia, trying to convey his thoughts about the freedmen’s enthusiasm for education, the phrase “anxious to learn” was insufficient; “they are crazy to learn,” he reported, as if their very salvation depended on it. No doubt many ex-slaves were certain that it did. When asked why he wished to enroll in a school, an elderly black man quickly replied, “Because I want to read de Word of de Lord.” That would permit him, moreover, as an old Mississippi black man noted, to read all of the Bible, not simply the portions the master and mistress had always selected for their slaves.
Ole missus used tu read de good book tu us, black ’uns, on Sunday evening, but she mostly read dem places whar it says, “Sarvints obey your masters,” an’ didn’t stop tu splane it like de teachers; an’ now we is free, dar’s heaps o’ tings in dat ole book, we is jes’ sufferin’ tu larn.47
If some southern blacks viewed with suspicion the ministers from the North who presumed to “civilize” their religious worship, they usually extended an effusive welcome to both white and black teachers. Unable in many regions to pay the salaries of the teachers, black parents did what they could to sustain them with gifts of eggs, vegetables, and fruit—anything that might persuade them to remain. “The people sent for tuition 5 eggs and a chicken,” a black teacher in Virginia noted. Delighted that a school had been opened in her neighborhood, a freedwoman vowed to “work her fingers off” if necessary to send her children there. This was the first time in her life, she told the teacher, that any white person had shown any interest in her or in her children; until now, she had been driven, kicked about, and made to work for others for nothing. When teachers encountered resistance from native whites, freedmen in some places stood guard outside their lodgings and the schoolhouse, alternating day and night shifts with their own work schedules. In Augusta, Georgia, Asa B. Whitfield, who had learned to write in a freedmen’s school, expressed his gratitude to the teacher in the terms he knew best. “We know that Christ is our best friend because he suffered the most painful treatment for us. Now I will say that the teachers are suffering on the account of us. And they are our most perticular friends.”48
But no matter how fully committed they might be to the principle of schooling, not all black parents could afford the luxury of losing the labor of their children. As teachers and school officials would quickly discover, the turnover in students and erratic attendance usually reflected work demands and planting seasons, and in some places teachers tried to adjust their instruction to accommodate the laborers. “We work all day,” a group of freedmen in Macon, Georgia, explained to the teacher, “but well come to you in the evening for learning, and we want you to make us learn; we’re dull, but we want you to beat it into us!” Many of her students, a teacher reported from New Bern, North Carolina, were unable to leave work before eight o’clock in the evening but they still insisted on spending at least an hour afterwards “in earnest application to study.” Even when at work, however, some freedmen took their primers with them, much to the neglect of their duties. “I dont wonder E. learns so fast and reads so well,” one pupil told his teacher, “for while she sits in the field watching the crows, she minds her book so hard they come and eat up her corn.”49
The demand for schools increased so rapidly that the initial problem lay not in finding willing students but in hiring teachers and locating quarters to house the classes. Until new structures could be built with money raised by the freedmen or donated by the northern benevolent societies, almost any place would have to suffice—a mule stable (Helena, Arkansas), a billiard room (Seabrook plantation, Sea Islands), a courthouse (Lawrence, Kansas), an abandoned white school (Charleston), the plantation cotton house (St. Simon’s Island), warehouses and storerooms (New Orleans), and, most commonly, the black church. Where buildings could not be found, whether because of the expense or white opposition, classes might alternate from day to day in the cabins of the freedmen. Some of the more unusual temporary school quarters evoked memories that would be lost on neither teachers, students, nor visitors. In Savannah, the Bryant Slave Mart was converted into a school; the windows in the three-story brick structure still had their iron grates, the handcuffs and whips found inside became instant museum pieces, and the children were taught in what had been the auction room. In New Orleans, a slave pen became the Frederick Douglass School, with the auction block now serving as a globe stand. And when the old cotton house on Tom Butler King’s plantation in Georgia was turned into a Sabbath school, a missionary teacher was moved to write: “Strange transition from the rattle of the cotton gin, to the sweet songs of Zion, but this is a day of great changes, when God is overturning old systems, old practices, to give place to new, and I trust better.” Not far from this scene, a visitor in Augusta, Georgia, observed classes in a small room above a store—the same place where the teacher had imparted lessons clandestinely during the war. “I was shown the doors and passages by which they used to escape and disperse, at the approach of white persons.”50
When field hands on a plantation near Selma, Alabama, erected a schoolhouse near where they worked, they were fulfilling an agreement made with their employer: he would furnish the materials and they would perform the labor and pay for the teacher out of their earnings. Such arrangements were by no means rare in the postwar South. Whether to entice his former slaves to remain with him or to attract laborers, the planter might offer them facilities for the education of their children. More often, the blacks themselves demanded a plantation school as a condition of employment and insisted that such a clause be written into the contract. Not all planters were necessarily averse to such an arrangement, for they believed it would help to keep laborers content, discourage premature departures from the plantation, and enable them to retain “the better class” of former slaves to perform the work. Even where such agreements were reached, however, implementation tended to vary from place to place, depending on the attitude of the planter and the persistence of his laborers. Once a contract had been signed, a Freedmen’s Bureau superintendent of education reported from Arkansas, “the school is, in some cases, purposely left to run down under an incompetent or intemperate teacher.” Nor were the results always satisfactory when the planter himself undertook to teach the school. “Massa teach school for us at night,” a former Texas slave recalled. “Us learn ABC and how spell cat and dog and nigger. Den one day he git cross and scold us and us didn’t go back to school no more.”51
Although a few states began to take some faltering steps toward establishing schools for whites and blacks, the development of a system of tax-supported public education would be largely an achievement of Radical Reconstruction. During the interim years, the work of educating the newly freed slaves would have to be undertaken by the freedmen themselves, and by that host of white and black teachers who came to the South in the wake of Union occupation. As the northern emissaries boarded the ships and trains that brought them to their various destinations, and as they began their work, they came increasingly to believe that the very wisdom of emancipation itself was at stake—whether or not black people possessed the capacity for mental improvement and would be able to function as citizens and free workers in a competitive, white-dominated civilization.
“THE BEST WAY to take Negroes to your heart,” Mary Chesnut once observed, “is to get as far away from them as possible.” When this plantation mistress confided these remarks to her diary in 1862, she had in mind not herself but those northern do-gooders like Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote so authoritatively about people of whom they were personally ignorant and from whom they would no doubt recoil at meeting face to face.
Topsys I have known, but none that were beaten or ill-used. Evas are mostly in the heaven of Mrs. Stowe’s imagination. People can’t love things dirty, ugly, and repulsive, simply because they ought to do so, but they can be good to them at a distance; that’s easy. You see, I cannot rise very high; I can only judge by what I see.
But even Mary Chesnut, for all of her insights into the character of whites and blacks, could not have anticipated the sight of scores of Yankee “schoolmarms” descending upon her native South to work on a day-to-day basis with the same people who had previously been the objects of distant solicitude and verbal indulgence. “I have written and politized about them,” a teacher wrote from Norfolk in 1864, “but now I see the reality and that has the highest coloring of all! … O Mr. Whipple! what shall I say? my heart is full. My sensitive spirit was lacerated through and through by the sights and sounds I heard and witnessed last Sunday. No Eva shed more tears in one day than fell streaming down my cheeks last Sabbath.”52
To redeem the oppressed, the ignorant, and the fallen was the finest kind of missionary work, and since the early days of Union occupation various evangelical and nonsectarian societies in the North had begun to dispatch teachers to the South to instruct the newly freed slaves in the ways of “civilization” and freedom. The American Missionary Association, the most prominent of these societies, set the proper tone for the entire missionary effort when it called upon its people in 1863 to take the freedmen “by the hand, to guide, counsel and instruct them in their new life, protect them from the abuses of the wicked, and direct their energies so as to make them useful to themselves, their families and their country.” Recognizing the stabilizing influence of education, as well as the demonstrated eagerness for it, the Freedmen’s Bureau made its best effort in this field of activity, providing materials, facilities, rations, transportation for teachers, and considerable encouragement and supervision, while the northern freedmen’s aid societies supplied and paid the teachers.53
Like the Union soldiers who preceded them, the missionary teachers and educators came to the South with a number of assumptions and expectations about the people they sought to elevate to a higher level of intellect and morality. The effects of a lifetime of bondage, they suspected, had dulled the minds of its victims, debased their morals, demeaned their character, destroyed their self-respect, and rendered them incapable of taking care of themselves. Marcia Colton, a missionary worker in Virginia, claimed that her conversations with returned missionaries from Africa and her previous familiarity with Negroes as slaves permitted her to minister to the freedmen “with more Charity, & less expectation” than most of her co-workers. “I did not expect to find with them generally, any nice distinction of propriety or Chastity.” Nor did Lydia Maria Child, a veteran abolitionist, think any of her friends who chose to teach in the South should harbor any false illusions about what they would find there. “I doubt whether we can treat our colored brethren exactly as we would if they were white, though it is desirable to do so. But we have kept their minds in a state of infancy, and children must be treated with more patience and forbearance than grown people.” Much like their antislavery antecedents, the freedmen’s aid societies, as “the wisest and best friends” of the Negro, refused to claim that the African race was the equal of the Anglo-Saxon. But neither would they concede that blacks were necessarily inferior. “They simply assert that the negro must be accorded an opportunity for development before his capacity for development can be known.” This was, of course, sound abolitionist gospel, steeped in the conviction of antebellum reform that untrammeled individual development alone should determine place in society.54
For many of the missionary teachers, this was their first visit to the South, and the initial impressions they formed of the blacks they encountered would tap a wide range of emotions. At the outset, the sheer numbers, blackness, and demeanor of these people would have to be absorbed. Elizabeth Botume, for one, tried hard.
Negroes, negroes, negroes. They hovered around like bees in a swarm. Sitting, standing, or lying at full-length, with their faces turned to the sky. Every doorstep, box, or barrel was covered with them.… Words fail to describe their grotesque appearance. Fortunately they were oblivious to all this incongruity. They had not yet attained distinct personality; they were only parts of a whole; once “massa’s niggers,” now refugees and contrabands.
Although experience would force the teachers to revise some of the assumptions they brought with them to the South, what they espied in the condition and moral deportment of the freed slaves tended to confirm the previous image of “helpless grown up children” with well-developed habits of indolence, dependency, and licentiousness and skilled in the arts of deception and thievery. But like any good abolitionist, the missionary teacher regarded these vices as the natural consequences of a lifetime of slavery, not innate racial characteristics. If these people were childlike, that was because they had been denied the necessary tools for development. If they were sometimes thieves, they had acquired the habit to supplement their meager rations. If they were easily led into unchastity, they had only modeled their behavior after their masters’. If they dissembled and shielded each other, they had developed those arts in order to survive. If they were ragged and dirty in appearance, they had “lived so long in a filthy condition they don’t know what it is to be clean.” Besides, much of what the teachers saw seemed almost surprisingly familiar, and they were quick to compare the freedmen with the Irish who inhabited the northern cities. After noting that the southern blacks looked “wretched and stupid,” a Boston teacher in South Carolina added that “to those who are accustomed to many Irish faces, these except by their uniformity c[oul]d suggest few new ideas of low humanity.”55
Even if the first impressions tended to confirm expectations, that did not always diminish the shock or revulsion a number of the teachers experienced in their daily encounters with the freedmen. “It is one thing to sit in ones office or drawing room and weave fine spun theories in regard to the Negro character,” a teacher wrote from Beaufort, North Carolina, “but it is quite another to come into actual contact with him. I fail to see those beauties and excellencies, and the ‘Uncle Toms,’ that some do. Is it reasonable, in short, to suppose that people brought up, or rather who have come up under such influences, would be altogether lovely.” That was the kind of observation a Mary Chesnut might have pounced upon to prove her point that northern reformers dealt best with their wards at a distance. What she may not have been prepared for, however, was how these missionary teachers would act upon their feelings of shock and dismay. The more they saw and experienced, in fact, the more many of them came to believe that there could be no greater missionary field anywhere in the world; the shock and dismay many of them confessed to only seemed to heighten their sense of purpose, even driving them into outbursts of sheer exultation over their work. “The prattle of infancy has always been pleasant to me,” one teacher wrote, “yet to live in daily communion with two or three hundred of this infant race, to watch the latent fires of intelligence in their first development, is happiness.” No less inspired, a teacher in Louisiana found himself “happy when surrounded with their dusky faces and glistening eyes”; a teacher in South Carolina found her work to be “a joy and glory for which there are not words”; a teacher in North Carolina claimed to have overcome in two months the doubts and “personal antipathies” with which she began her mission; and a teacher in Virginia reported, “I think I shall stay here as long as I live, and teach this people. I have no love or taste for any other work, and am happy only here with them.”56
Neither the magnitude nor the complexity of the task they faced seemed nearly as awesome to the missionary teachers and educators as the opportunity to stamp their image on nearly four million newly freed slaves. “We can make them all that we desire them to be,” exulted a teacher in New Bern, North Carolina. That thought alone helped to sustain the northern emissaries in their daily labors and to overcome the disappointments and frustrations they would experience. To make the freedmen “all that we desire them to be” was to instruct them not only in the spelling book and the gospel but in every phase of intellectual and personal development—in the virtues of industry, self-reliance, frugality, and sobriety, in family relations and moral responsibility, and, most importantly, in how to conduct themselves as free men and women interacting with those who had only recently held them as slaves. In seeking to enlist the support of a prominent planter in his district, a freedmen’s educator in North Carolina phrased educational objectives in such a way as to disarm any potential critics.
We start with the principle that to rescue the Freedmen from vice and crime, they must be intelligent and virtuous. To become intelligent and virtuous they must be taught.… Their [the teachers’] business is not only to teach a knowledge of letters, but to instruct them in the duties which now devolve upon them in their new relations—to make clear to their understanding the principles by which they must be guided in all their intercourse with their fellowmen—to inculcate obedience to law and respect for the rights and property of others, and reverence for those in authority; enforcing honesty, industry and economy, guarding them against fostering animosities and prejudices, and against all unjust and indecorous assumptions, above all, indoctrinating them in the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.57
Both the northern societies and the Freedmen’s Bureau recognized the value of education in preparing the blacks for practical life, and neither would have understood the need to draw any distinctions between teaching freedmen to read and write and making productive free laborers of them. The education of the freedmen, as many a school official argued, should in fact be designed to ensure their diligence and faithfulness in the workplace. Any teacher, then, might be called upon to lecture the blacks on the need to comply with the terms of labor contracts. When field hands in the Sea Islands grew restive over a recent wage settlement, Laura Towne, along with several other teachers, found herself “borrowed and driven to the different plantations to talk to and appease the eager anxiety.” For the few teachers who felt ill-used when asked to perform such duties, the resentment might manifest itself in spending more time teaching the freedmen how to protect themselves from unscrupulous employers who manipulated figures and the language of contracts to keep their workers in perpetual debt. Had only more teachers addressed themselves to such concerns, a black North Carolinian argued some years later, the difficulties encountered by freedmen in the making and enforcing of contracts might have been minimized. “What we want among freedmen,” he added, “is an education that will not only look after their immortality, but also their corporeity. The denomination that will bless the freedmen most is the one that looks most after soul and body.”58
Although priorities differed among individual teachers, many of them did feel compelled not only to impart universal middle-class values but to attack the special deficiencies they perceived in a people who had been denied the barest rudiments of learning. Based on their assessment of the needs of their students, that would entail instruction in the days of the week, the months, weights, measures, and monetary values, how to calculate their ages, the shape of the world, proper forms of address, and the history of mankind. “Suffice it to say,” the Reverend Henry M. Turner counseled prospective teachers and missionaries, “they need instruction in every thing, and especially the little things of life, such points of attention as thousands would never stoop to surmise.” Moreover, a people “who had never had a country to love” needed to be taught sentiments of patriotism and an appreciation of how they came to be freed. Rather than separate such lessons from the basic skills of reading and writing, teachers would invariably combine them, much as the primers they used did. Through appropriate readings, songs, and exercises, positive moral and patriotic images would be implanted in the minds of the pupils. In teaching the alphabet, each letter might introduce a couplet conveying some moral or value, and in at least one instance an elderly black student composed his own twenty-six verses, with the letters “G,” “K,” and “Q,” for example, communicating thoughts few of his classmates could have failed to comprehend.
God fix all right
Twix’ black and white.
King Cotton’s ded
And Sambo’s fled.
Quashee was sold
When blind and old.
Similarly, teachers devised dialogues which their pupils would memorize and then often recite to visitors, and many of these consisted of historical lessons with an undisguised New England bias.
Q. Where were slaves brought to this country?
Q. Who brought them?
Q. Who came the same year to Plymouth, Massachusetts?
Q. Did they bring slaves?
To succeed in the classroom, many teachers felt they needed only to capitalize on the eagerness with which their pupils had grasped the opportunity to come to them. If additional incentives were deemed necessary, instructors and school officials were apt to differ whether or not these should be largely psychological, material, or corporal. To impress upon his students the need to learn their lessons well, a teacher in North Carolina warned them that they were being watched closely by enemies who wished to see the entire experiment in black education fail. Edwin S. Williams, teaching in St. Helena Village, South Carolina, claimed success in using more substantial rewards to emphasize certain lessons, as in accompanying “a piece of beef with an injunction to make it relish by industry,” or by providing the pupils with extra molasses while giving them “a vigorous stirring up about their smoky rooms & dirty clothes.” Nevertheless, some teachers frankly confessed their inability to maintain classroom discipline, and others felt their effectiveness impaired by the need to teach large numbers of pupils of various ages and grade levels in the same room. “I acknowledge that it was not a very pleasant one,” a black teacher wrote of her first day in the classroom. “Part of my scholars are very tiny,—babies, I call them—and it is hard to keep them quiet and interested while I am hearing the larger ones.”60
Traditionally, teachers seldom hesitated to mete out a sound thrashing to enforce their authority and maximize their instruction. But corporal punishment might have a very different meaning for a former slave than for a white youth, and that consideration alone prompted some freedmen’s school officials to forbid it. The reports of teachers, however, suggest that this prohibition was neither universally obeyed nor respected. In Charleston, a teacher insisted that whipping a freedman in the classroom could not be compared with whipping a slave in the field, especially if “a kind and serious talk” with the recalcitrant pupil followed the thrashing. That, she observed, “seems to astonish them into good behavior, for they appear to have been accustomed to threats rather than kindness, and have been driven to feel that anger rather than love governed those who whipped them.” Whether deservedly or not, black teachers were reputed to be the harshest disciplinarians, and some of them refused to be defensive about it. After all, a black teacher in New Orleans noted, many of his pupils had been plantation slaves and consequently knew no motive for obedience other than fear of punishment. “Coax ’em and they’ll laugh at you; you’ve got to knock ’em about, or they won’t think you’ve got any power over ’em.” Nor were black parents necessarily averse to seeing their children punished, if necessary to instill proper learning habits, but they made it clear that they would tolerate a whipping only if meted out by “a Yankee teacher” and not by a native white.61
Fully aware of the pervasive theories in American society which assumed the mental inferiority of the African race, the teachers and supervisors in the freedmen’s schools needed periodically to assess the results of their efforts and to report them to a curious and skeptical public. But measuring success and progress was not always easy, and each teacher had different priorities. For many, the acquisition of basic learning skills—reading and writing—was sufficient proof of success; still others looked to the performance of black pupils in advanced subjects or chose to stress perceptible improvements in physical appearance, demeanor, and personal habits. “We now see civilization stamped on these schools,” a superintendent reported from Fernandina, Florida. “Instead of rags and filth, there is decent clothes and cleanliness; instead of the vacant half-frightened stare and low slavish tone, there is an intelligent eye and more erect bearing, and full tone.” Antoinette Turner, a teacher in New Bern, North Carolina, derived particular satisfaction from the efforts her pupils made to discard “the ‘dis’ and ‘dat,’ so peculiar to them,” while an equally gratified instructor in Maryland noted his success in persuading the adults in his class to discard common nicknames like “Uncle Jack” and “Aunt Sallie” in favor of “the respectable names of Mr. and Mrs. Brown.”62
But the critical question, as every educator understood, came down to a comparison of their pupils with white students in the North, both in the rapidity with which they acquired basic skills and their demonstrated aptitude in more advanced subjects. Few needed to be reminded that the manner in which they decided this issue went to the very heart of their efforts, indeed to the legitimacy of the “experiment” itself. Nearly every teacher and supervisor made the inevitable comparison, some with greater detail than others. The clear consensus was that black pupils learned as rapidly as the average white child in a northern school. When they proceeded to particularize that observation, however, many of them seemed to suggest an inequality of intellectual talents and perhaps even of capacity. Not unlike the stereotype already formed of black pupils in northern schools, the freedmen were generally thought to excel in subjects entailing rote memory and imitation and to be less proficient than whites in fields of study requiring the application of logic and induction, “powerful reasoning,” and “inventive” and reflective powers. Having made these distinctions, some teachers added that such powers were not beyond the reach of blacks once they were permitted to develop their full potential. In the meantime, black pupils might have taken some consolation in the observations of their teachers that they were more emotional and affectionate than whites, more “graphic and figurative in language,” and clearly superior in wit, cunning, and musical expression. “How musical they are!” more than one teacher would remark, and Mary E. Burdick apparently exploited that faculty every chance she had. “I doubt if the same number of whites could produce half the melody they can in simply singing the multiplication table. I thought it exceeded every thing!”63
To display the talents of their students, both white and black teachers in the freedmen’s schools scheduled periodic programs and recitations, many of them specifically designed to impress the host of northern visitors, officials, and correspondents who descended upon these schools. No day passed without some visitation, Elizabeth Botume observed, and she confessed a low regard for the ways in which the guests often conducted themselves in the presence of her pupils.
I wish to ask why so many well-intentioned people treat those who are poor and destitute and helpless as if they were bereft of all their five senses. This has been my experience. Visitors would talk before the contrabands as if they could neither see nor hear nor feel. If they could have seen those children at recess, when their visit was over, repeating their words, mimicking their tones and gestures, they would have been undeceived.
In the typical school program, the students recited various exercises, engaged in carefully rehearsed dialogues with their teacher, and culminated the proceedings with a rousing chorus of “John Brown’s Body” or perhaps an old spiritual. And the northern guests would invariably leave the school very much impressed with this “startling” exhibition of black talent.64
But these displays raised a troublesome question. Did the “surprise” and “astonishment” registered by teachers, superintendents, and visitors alike over the intellectual attainments of black pupils reflect a different standard of expectation and measurement than they would have applied to white pupils? Long before the Civil War, a black newspaper in the North had raised this question in noting the praise lavished on black students by school visitors and wondered if the same performance from white pupils would have excited the slightest attention. If anything, the temptation to magnify black achievements in the classroom would have been far greater in the postwar South, and some teachers frankly thought the emphasis on producing measurable results as quickly as possible was not only educationally unsound but demeaning to black people.
I find it a great fault, in nearly all the schools for Freedmen, that the children are advanced too rapidly. Before they can read one book with any degree of care and fluency, they are pushed into another still more difficult. Teachers do not seem to care about quality but have a great desire to send home reports of scholars beginning with the alphabet and their being able to read in the 3rd 4th or 5th readers—in as many months.
After visiting several freedmen’s schools in North Carolina, Jonathan C. Gibbs, a black minister, thought the pupils were “doing well as could be expected, and some much better than I had anticipated,” but he felt the teachers were doing far too much, “seemingly, for the sake of present impression, rather than for the solid interests of the children. When I remember that in a few years these black children will control largely the future destiny of this southern country and will make it either a hell upon earth or a paradise, I tremble for the responsible trust which has been placed in the hands of these improper persons.”65
That the quality of instruction varied with each teacher was hardly unique to the education of freedmen. For some teachers, the challenge of educating recently freed slaves demanded an understanding and patience they simply did not possess, resulting in a total breakdown in communication and an early return to the North. Nor did the often inadequate living quarters, the shortages of books and materials, and the open displays of white hostility make the life of a freedmen’s teacher any easier. For most of them, however, the level of commitment remained high enough to withstand the inconveniences, the threats, and, in a few instances, the initial suspicions of the pupils and their parents. The white teacher in Beaufort, South Carolina, suspended for using derogatory language in referring to blacks and for habitually using opium was quite exceptional, though such cases no doubt confirmed the black critics who thought some of the teachers academically sound but morally weak. Nor would it be easy to assess the charge of a black preacher in Wilmington, North Carolina, that “some of the teachers were setting the devil into his people.”66 In gauging black reaction to this massive educational effort, far more typical would be the consternation that swept over a black community when a teacher announced his or her departure. Although he loved his “southern friends,” a black student in Augusta, Georgia, wrote his former teacher, he knew that none of them could have faced up to the ordeal experienced by many of the Yankee teachers.
Now the white people south says that the yankee are no friend to the southern people. That’s a mistaken idea. The northerners do not advise us to be at enmety against any race. They teach us to be friends.… If you say the yankee is no friend how is it that the ladies from the north have left there homes and came down here? Why are they laboring day and night to elevate the collord people? Why are they shut out of society in the South? The question is plain. Answer it.… I’m going to school now to try to learn some thing which I hope will enable me to be of some use to my race. These few lines will show that I am a new beginner. I will try, and do better.… Thank God I have a book now. The Lord has sent us books and teachers. We must not hesitate a moment, but go on and learn all we can.67
LEAST IMPRESSED by the public displays of black intellectual capabilities were the native whites, many of whom reacted to the educational experiment in their midst with varying degrees of amusement, skepticism, suspicion, and outright hostility. For some whites, the only uncertainty was whether to fear or to ridicule the strange spectacle of black youths and adults, only recently their slaves, marching off to places where they would imbibe lessons from Yankee schoolmarms. “I have seen many an absurdity in my lifetime,” remarked a Louisiana legislator upon viewing his first black pupils, “but this is the climax of absurdities!” Once white Southerners grew accustomed to such sights, if they ever could, they would differ about the benefits and dangers black education posed. Voicing a position that would gain a respectable hearing in some circles, a magistrate in Sumter, South Carolina, argued that the same concern for public safety which had once required Negroes as slaves to be kept ignorant now required that Negroes as freedmen be enlightened in the responsibilities of citizenship.68
Consistent with this theme of accommodation, the “better class” of whites suggested that with “the right kind of teachers,” the newly freed slaves could be taught a proper deference for their superiors, fidelity to contracts, respect for property, the rewards of industriousness, and other virtues calculated to ensure an orderly transition to free labor. That prospect could induce a Florida planter to believe “the best way to manage the Negroes now is to educate them and increase as far as practicable their wants and dependence upon the white man.” With an equal appreciation for proper priorities, a planter in North Carolina informed a freedmen’s educator that “a due observance of law and order, an improvement in morals, and decent respect for the rights and opinions of others—properly inculcated & impressed on the minds of the Freedmen,” would no doubt be tolerated in his community, though he cautioned the official not to expect “any demonstrations of delight.” Rather than openly oppose the education of the freedmen, then, some whites insisted on withholding their judgments until they could begin to ascertain the results. While “decidedly in favor” of black parents educating their children, a newspaper in Waco, Texas, made it clear that “we do not approve their sending their children to school from a mere hifalutin idea of making them smart and like white folks.”69
Even if the education of the freedmen was a laudable objective, calculated to impress upon them their new duties and responsibilities, many native whites remained skeptical of the experiment and confidently predicted its failure. “I do assure you,” a white woman advised one teacher, “you might as well try to teach your horse or mule to read, as to teach these niggers. They can’t learn.” The laws prohibiting the instruction of slaves, she explained, had been aimed at the house servants and urban blacks. “Some of these were smart enough for anything. But the country niggers are like monkeys. You can’t learn them to come in when it rains.” Of course, the inferior mental capacity of Negroes had long been a staple of the proslavery argument, confirming as it did their inability to look after themselves and their need to defer to the superior judgment and wisdom of their owners. To think now that the minds of black people might be susceptible to classroom instruction not only contradicted theories which had the highest academic standing but posed more immediate and more troublesome questions. If this experiment should prove successful, how would it affect the proper subordination of blacks in southern society? If their ambitions were heightened, how could they remain satisfied with their low economic, social, and political position? Inflated with ideas of their own importance and capability, would they not certainly become even more discontented and impudent? “The cook, that must read the daily newspaper, will spoil your beef and your bread,” a southern educator noted; “the sable pickaninny, that has to do his grammar and arithmetic, will leave your boots unblacked and your horse uncurried.”70
Whatever accommodations whites might make to black education, such apprehensions never really subsided. The warning sounded by a white educator late in the century only echoed concerns that were frequently expressed in the post-emancipation years. “Suppose our educational schemes succeeded,” he asked; “suppose we elevate him as a race until he has the instincts and drives of a white man? … Being trained for office he will demand office. Being taught as a Negro child the same things and in the same way as the white child, when he becomes a Negro man he will want the same things and demand them in the same way as a white man.” That was reason enough to be doubly cautious about the teachers and curriculum in the education of blacks. And if the path from the schoolhouse led to the courthouse and the white man’s parlor and bedroom, then perhaps this enterprise should be resisted before it gained any foothold in southern society.71
Although whites continued to disagree about the wisdom of educating black children, the opposition mounted in some areas made it virtually a moot question. “There are no colored schools down in Surry county,” a Virginia black testified; “they would kill any one who would go down there and establish colored schools.… Down in my neighborhood they [the blacks] are afraid to be caught with a book.” Those whites who opposed his efforts, a freedmen’s school official observed, were usually more “tacit and concealed” in their methods than violent, manifesting their resistance in agreements among themselves not to rent homes or buildings that might be used for schools and to declare as “nuisances” any schoolhouses erected by the black residents. Even some of the black churches which had initially permitted classes to meet in their basements were forced to reconsider the offer in the wake of threats to deny them insurance because they had suddenly become fire risks. To read the daily press or the reports of freedmen’s school officials was to appreciate, in fact, why any building housing classes for black pupils became by definition a poor actuarial risk.72
In nearly every part of the South, but especially in the rural districts, the destruction of schoolhouses, usually by fire, only begins to suggest the wave of terror and harassment directed at the efforts to educate blacks. “We are advised by friends not to be out evenings,” a white teacher wrote from Little Rock, Arkansas. Amos McCollough, an aspiring black teacher in Magnolia, North Carolina, pleaded for Federal troops to protect him in his efforts to establish a school: “I [intended] to open school here in Magnolia which I did but only proceeded one day. Why? Because the house which I taught in was threatened of being burnt down.” If not humiliated, beaten, or forced into exile, many teachers found it nearly impossible to obtain credit in local stores or to find living quarters, thus forcing them to board with black families and subjecting them in some states and counties to arrest as vagrants for cohabiting with black women. The mayor of Enterprise, Mississippi, defended the arrest of a freedmen’s teacher by noting that he had been “living on terms of equality with negroes, living in their houses, boarding with them, and at one time gave a party at which there were no persons present (except himself) but negroes, all which are offences against the laws of the state and declared acts of vagrancy.” At the same time, the mayor affirmed his belief that no one had any objection—“None whatever”—to a Negro school in the town.73
The case of the Mississippi teacher illustrates only the more absurd manifestations of native white resistance to schools for the freedmen. More often than not, the violence and harassment required no explanation. When blacks in Canton, Mississippi, raised money among themselves to build a schoolhouse, they were told that the structure would be burned to the ground, and a citizens’ committee headed by a local attorney warned the prospective teacher to leave on the first train or face a public hanging. When a young female teacher in a freedmen’s school in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, was killed by a militia patrol, authorities called it an “accidental” shooting, thereby moving the New Orleans Tribune to observe: “This is a series of ‘accidents’ as seldom accidentally occur in this world.” After describing a number of recent beatings, stabbings, and whippings, most of them in the outlying parishes, the same newspaper concluded: “The record of the teachers of the first colored schools in Louisiana will be one of honor and blood.” Although many native whites discountenanced attacks on schools, a missionary educator in Grenada, Mississippi, voiced a common belief among teachers that such protests were almost always to no avail. “Tho they [the perpetrators] may be a small minority, the majority dare not move their tongues against them; but must tacitly consent to what they do. The colored people are in perpetual fear of them, & well they may be; for they kill them with almost perfect impunity.” Even where freedmen schools were tolerated, moreover, teachers found themselves treated by these same “respectable” whites with “a studious avoidance,” and many a teacher and superintendent considered the maintenance of their schools dependent on the nearby Federal garrison.74
Despite the fears of educators, the withdrawal of Union Army garrisons did not result in a massive dismantlement of the freedmen’s schools. With each passing year, in fact, additional numbers of native whites came around to the view that the education of blacks—at least on a rudimentary level—had become an unavoidable consequence of emancipation and that the white South had best accommodate itself to this reality. That accommodation would be expedited and the dangers minimized, they suggested to their people, if steps were taken to control the educational apparatus and staff the schools with their own kind. This was not necessarily inconsistent with the belief of some Freedmen’s Bureau educational officers that more native whites should be employed as teachers, since “they understand the negro” and would be in a good position to combat the strong feelings against his education. But others were quick to point out that such teachers would also be in an ideal position to vent their own frustrations on those who had previously been their slaves, and there were sufficient examples to underscore that concern. In one school taught by two native whites, the children were not only whipped frequently but forced to address their teachers as “massa” and “missus.”75
Although some time would elapse before large numbers of native whites could be induced to teach in black schools, the number steadily grew in the immediate postwar years, in part because of the feverish search by some impoverished whites for any kind of remunerative employment. “While I am on the nigger question,” Sallie Coit wrote a friend, “I must tell you that my school for them [Negroes] still flourishes.… I hope I can do them some good. I have the satisfaction of knowing that I put good books into their hands, while if they went to Yankees they would doubtless have books tainted with Abolitionism.” Outright control of the school systems, along the lines suggested by Sallie Coit, would have to await the overthrow of Radical Reconstruction; in the meantime, native whites tried to accommodate themselves to the idea of paying taxes for the support of public schools for both races. “Every little negro in the county is now going to school and the public pays for it,” wrote one disgruntled planter. “This is a hell of [a] fix but we cant help it, and the best policy is to conform as far as possible to circumstances.” Considering other possible reactions, this represented a triumph of sorts for the cause of black education in the South.76
Whatever toleration and public support native whites chose to accord the freedmen’s schools depended in large measure not only on the conduct of the teachers but on maintaining a strict segregation between white and black pupils. “Sir, we accept the death of slavery,” a prominent Savannah citizen explained, as he remonstrated against the proposed admission of blacks to the public schools; “but, sir, surely there are some things that are not tolerable. Our people have not been brought up to associate with negroes. They don’t think it decent; and the negroes will be none the better for being thrust thus into the places of white men’s sons.” Pending the establishment of public school systems, some white parents unable to afford private instruction for their children chose to send them to the only available alternative—the freedmen’s schools, where they were sometimes taught in the same classrooms as the black pupils. Almost as often, however, the white parents were forced to withdraw their children because of overwhelming community pressure. The townspeople “made so much fuss,” one mother told a teacher, that she had no choice. “I would not care myself, but the young men laugh at my husband. They tell him he must be pretty far gone and low down when he sends his children to a ‘nigger school.’ That makes him mad, and he is vexed with me.”77
Seeking to allay native white fears, and well aware of the strong feelings on the question of race mixing, the freedmen’s aid societies would have preferred to avoid the issue. Although official policy called for integrated schools, implementation varied with local circumstances and also depended on the willingness of missionary teachers to undertake the instruction of poor whites as well as blacks. The controversy that erupted in Beaufort, North Carolina, was unique only because H. S. Beals, an educational officer of the American Missionary Association, maintained a separate school for poor whites and because a co-worker chose to make an issue of it. Defending the schools, Beals considered them an accommodation to white sensitivities and to the urgent need to educate any child, white or black, who chose to come to them. To integrate the white school, he warned, would “scatter that school in a day.” (That was precisely what had happened in nearby Raleigh.) He did not question the ideal of integrated education but thought it less important than reaching as many children as possible.
We are right, but the prevailing sentiment of the white people here, is wrong. Shall we wait to convert them to our ideas, before we give them what alone will secure that conversion.… The whole race of poor white children are crying out for this life giving influence. Is it our policy, or our principle, to hold this multitude, clamoring for intellectual light, outside the benign influence of schools, till we force them to adopt our ideas?
Whatever the merits of that question, the Reverend S. J. Whiton, also an AMA representative in Beaufort, felt a critical principle had been sacrificed, and he charged that the two schools provoked “much excitement and hard feeling” among the blacks. “The colored people here are watching curiously to see the result. In their minds the AMA is convicted of saying one thing and through its agents doing another.” But Whiton’s protest to AMA officers resulted only in a reprimand for “meddling” and for making “a very unfortunate and unwise” issue out of a delicate matter, and he thereupon submitted his resignation from the AMA rather than be identified with the perpetuation of racial distinctions. Several black students also indicated their displeasure with “the White School,” among them Hyman Thompson, who urged the AMA to return to its original principles. More of his brethren would have joined the protest, he added, but they feared “Mr. Beals will not give them clothes or hire them to work if they do.”78
To black parents, the opportunity to educate their children seemed to take precedence over whether they would share the same classrooms with whites. Even while pressing for full and equal access to public facilities and transportation, without regard to color, many blacks willingly conceded and some even preferred separate schools, but only if those schools were equal in quality, comfort, and the allocation of funds to the schools reserved for whites. In opting for separation, some parents simply wanted to avoid subjecting their children to the taunts, derision, and harassment of white pupils. “No, Sir,” a black woman in New Orleans responded when asked if she would like to see the school system integrated. “I don’t want my children to be pounded by dem white boys. I don’t send them to school to fight, I send them to learn.”79
During the early years of Radical Reconstruction, black delegates to the constitutional conventions and black legislators in several states would argue vigorously to outlaw racial distinctions in the schools, and in New Orleans, the only city where such a system was maintained for a time, the black newspaper had been an early advocate of integration. In urging the mayor in 1867 to reject a city ordinance establishing separate schools, the Tribune maintained that equality before the law would never be fully realized until an equality of rights pervaded the entire community—“in customs, manners, and all things of everyday life.” Two years later, in commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the successful integration of public schools in Boston, the same newspaper wondered how much longer the white people of the South would be willing to pay for two sets of teachers and two sets of schools.80 Three more generations, in fact, would attend separate schools before that dual system began to collapse under a decision of the United States Supreme Court which echoed the editorial sentiments of the New Orleans Tribune.
NO LESS DISTURBING to whites than race mixing in the classroom was the spectacle of Yankee schoolmarms fraternizing with local blacks and flaunting their notions of social equality. “They went in among the negroes, ate and slept with them, paraded the streets arm-in-arm with them,” one white southern woman recalled. If some white teachers indulged in such behavior, native whites relished every opportunity to report it, and the missionary teachers themselves were not above being “gossipy” about such matters. “To-day I am informed by letter of an engagement between a Colored physician and a Yankee teacher,” wrote a concerned instructor from Columbus, Georgia, to her supervisor. “What do you think of such alliances? … The rebs have reported a number of such matches. Now they can have their sensation and a real cause.”81
The problem did not lie in liaisons between Yankee schoolmarms and black men, for these were rare. But the question of social intercourse between teachers and freedmen outside the classroom and how far professed principles needed to be compromised to appease native whites surfaced frequently enough to become divisive issues within the ranks of the freedmen’s aid movement. Nor were those who challenged the wisdom of such fraternization necessarily any less zealous in their efforts to educate the freedman or less dedicated to the ideal of equal rights. This was a matter of tactics, they insisted, not principle. Few stated the view more clearly than G. L. Eberhart, superintendent of the freedmen’s schools in Georgia and also a Freedmen’s Bureau officer. To disarm the white critics, he maintained, “[w]e must be governed in this work by great prudence, and, so far as we possibly can without any compr[om]ise of principle, or conflict with truth, be controlled by policy and expediency.” It was not a matter of rights but of whether the exercise of those rights helped or hindered the cause to which they had dedicated themselves in the South.
I have, for instance, a perfect right, if my taste run in that way, to publicly kiss a negro child on the street, or to board and live, on terms of perfect social equality, with colored people; yet here, I think, every consideration of prudence and expediency, for the sake of the freed people alone, forbids the exercise of any such right—forbids it, too, in the most peremptory manner.
For Eberhart, this was no abstract issue; he voiced his views in a letter requesting the transfer of several teachers under his jurisdiction who, in his estimation, had exceeded “the limits of prudence and propriety.” Among them was a teacher who had “totally disqualified” herself, not only by her arrogant manner in and out of the classroom but by the easy familiarity she had assumed with the blacks, totally disregarding local feelings and customs. “For a white Northern lady here to kiss a colored child is very imprudent to say the least of it, and, in reply to an insulting remark made by a white person, to say that the negroes are as good as that white person, is entirely unnecessary.”82
Although some of Eberhart’s associates in the educational movement might have chosen to be more circumspect in voicing their views on this delicate matter, few of them would have denied the logic or the necessity of his position. To listen to some of the missionary educators, the initial call of their societies to take the black man “by the hand” was to be exercised with considerable restraint. Any ostentatious display of affection for the freedmen or violation of local racial codes suggested, in their view, self-indulgence rather than genuine commitment to the cause and helped neither the blacks nor the image of the teacher. But to advise teachers, as did one educational officer, to “conform to local customs and practices wherever such conformity will not compromise principle” was to invite disagreement and controversy over the precise point at which principle had been compromised. Rather than submit to an order that she refrain from social intercourse with blacks outside the school (such as receiving them in the parlor or eating or walking with them), Martha L. Kellogg, a teacher in Wilmington, North Carolina, requested a new assignment, even if it be “an isolated position.” And if she could be boarded with a black family in her new post, that would be all the better. “I desire not [to] be identified with any policy that ignores or repudiates social equality, and I desire to be, where I can act freely in the matter, according to conscience and the gospel idea—to treat the colored people as I should whites in the same circumstances.… It seems to me that unless one engaged in mission work does feel this freedom, true effort is in a measure paralysed.”83
Any veteran of the antislavery movement, remembering those abolitionists who made a point of parading their fraternization with blacks before a hostile northern public, would have recognized the problem instantly. He would have recalled how that question had plagued them throughout their history, producing divisiveness and even sundering numerous friendships. He might have named the prominent abolitionists who despite their zealous commitment to the cause, or because of it, scorned social relations with Negroes as impolitic and detrimental to the objectives for which both white and black activists fought. But for those who chose to question such tactics, whether in the abolitionist movement or in the freedmen’s aid movement, the implications remained absolutely clear. Would not the measures deemed necessary to make the movement palatable to a hostile public reinforce the very conditions and attitudes the movement had initially set out to undermine? That question defied any easy resolution in the 1860s, much as it had in antislavery circles before the war.84
Having struggled through such problems in the old antislavery days, and eager to bury the sources of divisiveness, Lewis Tappan, who had made the transition from abolitionism to the freedmen’s aid movement, drew upon his experience to advise prospective missionary teachers in the South.
People of color have an intuitive apprehension of the feelings of those who profess to labor for their instruction and moral elevation. They are quick to distinguish between affected and real zeal on their behalf, between condescension and true regard, between outward conduct and the emotions of the heart, and, while confiding, they are also very jealous lest the inward should not correspond to the outward in our treatment of them. Little things often betray the actual state of the mind. Unsympathetic, cold and selfish persons can not, with all their pretense, deceive the instincts of those unsophisticated children of nature.
No matter how well-intended the advice, this veteran abolitionist failed to appreciate the still larger problem that would surface again in the postwar years and, even more forcefully, during Radical Reconstruction. For all of its good works and sacrifices, the freedmen’s aid movement, like its anti-slavery predecessor, did little to reduce the dependency of blacks on white men and women for counsel and leadership. While Tappan was sharing his thoughts and experience with the white missionary teachers destined for the South, Richard H. Cain, the black minister, who would soon set out on that same pilgrimage, also drew on the past to urge that the traditional relationship between white and black reformers be reexamined. “We know how to serve others,” the Reverend Cain observed in early 1865, “but, have not learned how to serve ourselves.”
We have always been directed by others in all the affairs of life: they have furnished the thoughts while we have been passive instruments, acting as we were acted upon, mere automatons.… The Anti-slavery Societies, the Abolition Societies, whose ostensible work has been to do battle for the Negro’s elevation have never … thought it safe for them to advance colored men to places of trust.85
With emancipation, such questions assumed a new and critical importance. Few understood that more clearly than the Reverend Cain. If southern blacks needed instruction in how to act as free men and women, he suggested, both northern and southern blacks were desperately in need of experience “in the affairs of direction and government.” The church and the schoolhouse seemed like ideal places in which to begin this necessary training. “We must take into our own hands the education of our race.… Honest, dignified whites may teach ever so well, it has not the effect to exalt the black man’s opinion of his own race, because they have always been in the habit of seeing white men in honored positions, and respected.” Anticipating by nearly half a century W. E. B. Du Bois’s call for a “talented tenth” of educated, professional blacks whose leadership and example would help to uplift the mass of their people, the Reverend Cain, on the eve of his departure for Charleston, envisaged “an infusion of the intellectual development of the Northern colored men and women” into the South.
Negro gentlemen and ladies must become teachers among them by example as well as by precept, teach them that though they be black, they are as good as any other class whose skin is whiter than theirs; teach them that complexions may differ but man is a man for all that. Finally, colored men in the North have got to come to this doctrine, that black men must think for themselves—act for themselves …86
BEFORE THE MISSIONARY SOCIETIES had dispatched their first schoolmarms to the South, and even as Union Army officers wrestled with the legal status of the contrabands, southern blacks had taken the first steps to teach themselves. Some of these pioneers belonged to the free Negro class, but among the early teachers were also newly freed or escaped slaves who had managed to acquire some rudimentary skills and now sought to share their knowledge with the less fortunate. In Hampton, Virginia, an elderly black who had been a slave of ex-President John Tyler opened a school in the basement of the abandoned Tyler mansion, while in that same neighborhood Mary Peake, a free Negro who had taught clandestinely before the war, seized the opportunity afforded by Union occupation to expand her teaching to include the newly created class of contrabands. “Some say we have not the same faculties and feelings with white folks,” one of her pupils would observe. “What would the best soil produce without cultivation? We want to get wisdom. That is all we need. Let us get that, and we are made for time and eternity.”87
The migration of black teachers from the North would gain headway later in the war, most of them the agents of black churches and the freedmen’s aid societies. Charlotte Forten, who had previously taught school in New England and whose father had been active in the cause of black abolitionism and civil rights, accompanied the mostly white contingent of missionary teachers from Philadelphia to the Sea Islands of South Carolina, where she would spend nearly two years imparting not only basic reading and writing skills to her pupils but also an appreciation for the achievements of their race. “Talked to the children a little while to-day about the noble Toussaint [L’Ouverture],” she noted in her journal. “They listened very attentively. It is well that they sh’ld know what one of their color c’ld do for his race. I long to inspire them with courage and ambition (of a noble sort,) and high purpose.” Perhaps more typical of the black missionary teachers was Virginia C. Green, who came to the Wood’s plantation, on Davis Bend, Mississippi, where she set about organizing classes for 120 children. The freedmen sustained the school, four trustees chosen from among them controlled its operations, and in Miss Green they appear to have found a dedicated teacher. “I class myself with the freedmen,” she wrote a Freedmen’s Bureau officer. “Though I have never known servitude they are … my people. Born as far north as the lakes I have felt no freer because so many were less fortunate.… I look forward with impatience to the time when my people shall be strong, blest with education, purified and made prosperous by virtue and industry. The people on the plantation where I have labored I see tending slowly but steadily to this point.”88
Not all the blacks who taught in the postwar South would have qualified for membership in Richard H. Cain’s projected black intellectual elite. Fortunately for the Reverend Cain, who assumed a pastorate in Charleston, the individual who answered to the fullest his call for a talented elite to descend upon the South chose to settle in the same city. The credentials of Francis L. Cardozo were, indeed, impressive, exceeding those of most of the white teachers and superintendents. A freeborn mulatto, reputedly the son of a prominent Charleston economist and editor, Cardozo attended the University of Glasgow (from which he graduated with distinction), studied theology in Edinburgh and London, and returned to the United States to serve as pastor of the Temple Street Congregational Church in New Haven, Connecticut. Within weeks after the fall of Charleston, he resigned his pastorate to return to his native city as the principal of a Negro school operated under the auspices of the American Missionary Association. A complex and ambitious person, who found it difficult to brook any criticism, Cardozo shared with many of the white school officials a relatively low estimation of black teachers—at least in their present state of preparation. Presumably, the several blacks he employed on his own staff must have been distinguished, since Cardozo took considerable care in the selection and assignment of teachers and vowed to hire no blacks rather than one who might “disgrace” the entire cause. “I have placed the educated and experienced white Northern teachers in the highest and most responsible positions,” he informed a northern AMA official, “and the colored ones in the lower and less responsible ones, where they may improve by the superiority of their white fellow-laborers, and whose positions afterwards they may be able to occupy.” When subsequently confronted by two northern black teachers with his previously expressed preference for whites, Cardozo replied that he had always insisted upon competence in his staff members, regardless of color, and any reports to the contrary should be squelched since “it would hurt my influence very much.”89
No visit to postwar Charleston was thought to be complete without calling on Cardozo and being guided through this showcase of the black educational effort in the South. To maintain that reputation, his critics would charge, he had begun to discriminate as carefully in the selection of pupils as in the assignment of teachers. By his own estimate, 200 of the 438 students in November 1867 were freeborn Negroes. Earlier that year, however, Sarah W. Stansbury, who had previously taught in Cardozo’s school, expressed her immense relief over being transferred to a new post. “This is more like missionary work than any I have done since coming here. The children are all ex-slaves which is more than can be said of Mr. Cardozo’s school—his own class and Mrs. Chippenfield’s are composed, I should judge, entirely of freemen’s children, so many of whom owned slaves before the war.” What led to her break with Cardozo, she added, was his insistence that students who failed to pay their monthly tuition fees be sent home, thereby making the school even more exclusive. Still another former teacher charged that in the distribution of clothing gifts from the North, Cardozo had favored the children of “the colored people,” who were best able to purchase such clothing, over “the freed people,” who were by far the most needy. “I wish to do all I can for the suffering of any class,” she wrote in protest; “but I am not willing to labor or beg for the ‘free browns,’ in a manner that will help to make the difference between them & the freed people, even greater than it was in slavery.” Whether these various charges were valid or not may be less important than the characteristic way in which Cardozo dealt with them—he asked for the dismissal of both teachers.90
Like many of the missionary teachers and ministers, Cardozo assumed an active role in the community, aggressively defending the rights of blacks and warning against the “treacherous” class of whites seeking to regain political control of the state. Both his fame as an educator and his vigorous advocacy of civil rights propelled him into the political arena, and in 1867 he agreed to become a candidate for the constitutional convention. The way in which he chose to acknowledge the nomination was also characteristic. “I have no desire for the turbulent political scene,” he wrote a friend in the North, “but being the only educated colored man here my friends thought it my duty to go if elected, and I consented to do so.” That position ultimately launched a political career that culminated in his election as secretary of state of South Carolina.91
Although no doubt appreciating the talents of a Cardozo, the white officers and superintendents of the freedmen’s aid societies might have also taken pains to note how truly exceptional he was compared to other black teachers. That was no less than what Cardozo himself would have conceded. Even if grudgingly, however, school officials came to recognize the strategic value of black teachers, both as examples for their people and because they were considered less likely than northern whites to incur “abuse and insult” in the interior counties. But in hiring black teachers, especially those who were native to the South, school administrators sometimes frankly confessed that they were sacrificing quality for color. The superintendent of the freedmen’s schools in Montgomery, Alabama, defended the employment of three black instructors even though they were “inexperienced and defective in their mode of teaching.” “We use them,” he explained, “because they are of service to our cause. It is our policy to convert colored pupils into teachers as fast as possible. It is cheaper if not so beneficial and it has good effects in many ways.” That explanation would not have impressed G. L. Eberhart, the state superintendent of freedmen’s schools in Georgia. Like Cardozo, he advised “the most exacting care” in selecting black teachers. Unlike Cardozo, he expressed little confidence in their potential. “I am becoming daily more impressed with their total unfitness to assist in the moral and mental elevation of their own race. It appears as if Slavery had completely divested them of every moral attribute—every idea that leads to true moral rectitude.”92
When the freedmen’s aid societies and their educational representatives in the South scrutinized black candidates for teaching positions, their concern was not limited to questions of educational background and preparation. The experience with some black teachers made it incumbent upon the supervisors to avoid hiring anyone who might cause divisiveness within the harmonious “family” of teachers by agitating questions of social equality and fraternization. No matter how well qualified, a teacher who might be a source of controversy and embarrassment quickly outlived his or her welcome. In Wilmington, North Carolina, a freedmen’s school official who would soon become the state superintendent of public instruction lavished considerable praise on one of the black women in his jurisdiction as “an excellent teacher and a faithful Christian.” But he could neither tolerate nor understand her adamant refusal to be boarded with a black family rather than in the Mission House where the white teachers resided. “This is a delicate matter and must be handled in a delicate manner,” he reported. Although anxious to hire qualified black teachers, he thought it unwise and inexpedient for them to come to the South in the company of white teachers or to board with white teachers.
We are charged with endeavoring to bring about a condition of social equality between the blacks and the whites—we are charged with teaching the blacks that they have a right to demand from the whites social equality—now, if they can point to Mission families or teachers homes where there is complete social equality between colored and white, they have proved, to their own satisfaction at least, their assertion. They can say that if not in theory, we do in practice, teach social equality.
White teachers in any event could do more for the freedmen than black instructors, since “the colored people themselves, have more confidence in white teachers than in those of their own color.”93
The question of where to quarter black teachers only pointed up the larger and persistent problem of how much social fraternization to permit and how far native white feelings and prejudices needed to be appeased. If black teachers assigned to the South had any way of knowing what to expect in this regard, that might have helped to ease tensions somewhat or at least given them the opportunity to reconsider their mission. Not until Blanche Harris and her sister had departed Oberlin for their new teaching posts in Natchez did the school official who accompanied them make it clear that public sentiment would not allow him to treat them in Mississippi as he had in Ohio. Although the two young black women in this instance preferred to board with a black family, “as we knew our influence would be greater if we were to board with our own people,” they were asked instead to move into the Mission House, where they would room not with their white fellow teachers but with the domestic servants; moreover, Blanche Harris understood that her relations with the white teachers were to be kept at a minimum. “My room was to be my home,” she observed in a letter protesting her treatment. Upon consulting with some of the local black residents, the Harris sisters resolved to rent a room in town rather than subject themselves to the double standard practiced in the Mission House. Before too many weeks had passed, however, they concluded that the school officials were determined to have them teach elsewhere in the county—or anyplace but Natchez.94
If some black teachers found it difficult to accept distinctions in living quarters between themselves and their white co-workers, still others came to resent the superintendents who treated them with exaggerated praise, but evaluated their classroom performance differently from that of their white peers. Outright hostility could be debilitating, but too much love from their co-workers might be equally demoralizing if it assumed the tone of condescension. To be confined to the least important positions or to be sent to the countryside while the choicer assignments in the cities were reserved for the better-educated whites also proved to be sources of friction, and some black teachers found the easy familiarity white superintendents presumed with them grating. How much longer, asked one discouraged black, would “our finely educated ladies” permit the same official to address them by their full names and title in Boston but only by their first name in the South? Such problems may have had their antecedents in the abolitionist movement, but few teachers took any comfort from that thought, if they were even aware of it. Too often, it appears, the sensitivities of black teachers were simply sacrificed to appease the sentiments of native whites and the ambivalent racial attitudes of some missionary educators. Whether subjected to the scowls of local citizens or to the paternal demeanor of co-workers, the black men and women who undertook the education of their southern brethren often had to rely on the inspiration of the classroom and the encouragement of the black community to sustain their efforts. “Sometimes we get discouraged and think we had better resign,” Blanche Harris confessed at one point. “And then we know that we must suffer many things.”95
The problems faced by the black teacher again pointed up the subservient role blacks were often forced to play in movements designed to assist their own people. Before the Civil War, differences over objectives, priorities, and roles, as well as growing concern over white patronization, had driven black abolitionists into independent agitation and organization, culminating in Martin R. Delany’s emigrationist movement and Frederick Douglass’ break with William Lloyd Garrison. The need for black activists to establish their own position and voice had also resulted in the National Convention of Colored Citizens in 1864. Although ideological and tactical differences between black and white activists may have been less marked when it came to educating the freedmen, the problem of how much responsibility should be assigned to blacks in that effort persisted, as did the need to define a relationship between the largely white freedmen’s aid societies in the North and independent black activity in the South. “We do not object to any one coming South to teach, or superintend the education of our colored youth,” a black editor wrote from Natchez in 1865, “but we would like to understand how it is that these missionary teachers desire so much to control all the school funds and property.” When local blacks raised the money among themselves to purchase property for a school, as they did in several communities, why should they not exercise a larger voice—even the determining voice—in how that money was spent? Nor could this editor understand why the missionary societies presumed to send people to the South “who, while in the North make loud pretensions to Abolition, and when they get in the South partake so largely of that contemptible prejudice that they are ashamed to be seen in company with colored men.”96
From the very outset, in fact, the movement to educate the freedmen had been biracial. The entrance of Union troops into a community often set in motion efforts among the black residents to collect sufficient funds to build a school and hire a teacher. When the blacks in Maiden, West Virginia, the town to which Booker T. Washington and his family migrated after emancipation, discovered that a newly arrived eighteen-year-old black youth from Ohio knew how to read and write, they immediately hired him as a teacher and paid him whatever they could collect among themselves. In Natchez, the tuition fees collected from the pupils’ parents sustained six schools for freedmen taught by black teachers; the black residents of Helena, Arkansas, voted to ask the Freedmen’s Bureau to tax them for the support of schools for their children; in Nashville and Savannah, within weeks of Union occupation, blacks had organized their own school systems. In nearly every part of the South, reports of self-sustaining black schools suggested an impressive effort with a minimum of outside assistance. Nor should the commendable and extensive activity of the freedmen’s aid societies obscure the effort mounted by the black churches, some of which preferred to establish their own schools side by side with those maintained by the white societies.97
What relationships these independent black efforts should enjoy with the northern benevolent societies posed a recurring problem, and the experience of Savannah in this regard suggested an all too familiar resolution of the problem. When the black citizens of that city convened in the aftermath of Union occupation, they heard the Reverend James Lynch and other dignitaries urge them to organize among themselves and develop their own programs and courses of action. Acting on this call, they formed the Savannah Educational Association to establish in turn a system of schools for the freedmen which would be managed and sustained by the community. But when the Reverend S. W. Magill, an agent of the American Missionary Association, came to Savannah and assessed the situation, he was appalled that neither the black board of education nor the black teachers possessed any experience in the management of schools or in teaching. “What a field opens before the benevolent!” he informed a northern officer of the Association. “It will not do of course to leave these people to themselves.… I fear they will be jealous & sullen if I attempt to place the management in the hands of our white teachers. But this must be done to make the schools effective.” Ultimately, that was accomplished, but not until the director persuaded the black trustees to place confidence in their white friends. “It is a great point gained that they are convinced by their experience that they are not Sufficient of themselves.”98
What transpired in Savannah suggested the forcefulness of a common assumption underscoring the missionary effort in the South—that black people emerging from the debilitating thralldom of bondage would require for some time the counsel and direction of their white allies. Even as they advised blacks to depend more on their own efforts and sought to inculcate black children with the virtues of self-help and self-reliance, these same “friends” might withhold their support or fail to encourage independent black efforts, question the wisdom and expediency of such efforts, or oppose them outright if they threatened to undermine their own authority. Observing this phenomenon as early as 1864, a black critic had to wonder why societies established for the relief and education of the freedmen, in which blacks initially played a prominent role, invariably fell into the hands of white managers, many of whom seemed to mistrust “the ability of colored men to do anything without the aid of the Saxon brain.”99
Despite the occasional setbacks and discouragement, the energy expended by blacks to educate their children, like the simultaneous movement to worship by themselves, reflected a growing if not fully developed sense of community and racial pride, even as it sharpened the separation from and accentuated the differences with both their northern friends and native whites. It was not as though blacks consciously adopted a policy of self-imposed separation. But there did emerge a growing conviction that full admission to white society might have to be achieved through the development of independent and separate movements, organizations, and institutions. This would require not only self-recognition as a people and a community but the willingness to act on that consciousness. Neither illiteracy nor poverty, they also came to realize, would be extinguished in their own lifetimes, but even the poor and the illiterate in American society—white and black—possessed certain rights and could claim protection in the exercise of those rights. Ultimately, an elderly and illiterate freedman suggested, education would eliminate illiteracy among his people. But in exercising their freedom and attacking the critical problems that now beset them, they could ill afford to depend upon “book larnin’ ” alone.
De Chaplain say we can learn to read in short time. Now dat may be so with dem who are mo’ heady. God has not made all of us alike. Phaps some will get an education in a little while. I knows de next generation will. But we’se a down trodden people. We hasn’t had no chance at all. De most of us are slow and dull. We has bin kep down a hundred years and I think it will take a hundred years to get us back agin. Derefo’ Mr Chaplain, I tink we better not wait for education.100
To define themselves as a people and to act upon their grievances, blacks in every one of the ex-Confederate states would begin to organize at some level. Freedmen and freeborn alike, the educated and the illiterate, preachers and field hands, teachers and artisans gathered together after church services, in the new schoolhouses, in town meetings, and in county and state conventions to discuss their condition and to frame a response. Previously barred by law, such meetings now took on additional significance as they set the stage for the entrance of freedmen into the political arena and for the fullest expression of their new status as black citizens.