Freedmen's Teachers

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Many freedmen's teachers were single women from the North committed to the ideals of religious or social reform. However, teachers came from a wide variety of backgrounds They were evangelicals and free-thinkers, male and female, black and white, married and single, Northerners and Southerners. When the first school for contrabands was opened at Fortress Monroe on September 17, 1861, the teacher was Mary Peake, an African-American, and other African-Americans followed in her footsteps as the freedmen's education movement expanded.

Freedmen's teachers often found themselves with many students and few resources. However, it's clear from their letters that teachers found a variety of ways of instilling basic skills while also promoting thought and establishing discipline . Not all schools for freedmen were devoted exclusively to academic training. Most provided instruction in some vocational skills, and some were designed as plantation schools, farm schools, sewing schools, or industrial schools.

Before they could offer education of any variety, teachers often had to begin by meeting the freedmen's critical need for food and clothing. In fact, teachers were, in fact called on to perform a variety of roles besides those of instructor and aid worker. And yet, despite the many challenges, teachers often offered fervent testimonials of love for their work. As one woman exclaimed in a letter: " This is a most absorbing life: there is so much to be done, one never feels like stopping anywhere through the hours of the day. It is death to ennui. I, for one, was never so truly happy as in this work."

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Who Were the Freedmen's Teachers?

Our Teachers," The Freedmen's Record, May, 1865

An article entitled "Our Teachers," published in The Freedmen's Record, May, 1865, set out a description of the qualities that the New England Educational Association looked for in those applying to work with the freedmen.

Intelligence was not enough to earn an individual a place as a freedmen's teacher. Instead, the Association particular sought out individuals driven by "motives of religion and patriotism" who had the necessary "vitality" to live up to the many demands of the job.



Most of those who taught for the New England Freedmen's Aid Society and similar organizations seem to have been single women. An annual report published in the April, 1865 edition of the Freedmen's Record stated: "During our three years' existence, we have employed two hundred and twenty teachers, and have now in our employment fifty-four: nine men and forty-five women."

W.E.B. DuBois later described the freedmen's teachers in these terms:

The annals of this Ninth Crusade are yet to be written,--the tale of a mission that seemed to our age far more quixotic than the quest of St. Louis seemed to his. Behind the mists of ruin and rapine waved the calico dresses of women who dared, and after the hoarse mouthings of the field guns rang the rhythm of the alphabet. Rich and poor they were, serious and curious. Bereaved now of a father, now of a brother, now of more than these, they came seeking a life work in planting New England schoolhouses among the white and black of the South. They did their work well. In that first year they taught one hundred thousand souls, and more.

--W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903


"General Howard and the Freedmen's Bureau,"
The Freedmen's Record, July, 1865, 107.


An Account of the First Freedmen's Teachers Sent from the North

On the morning of the 3d of March, 1862, the first’ delegation of superintendents and teachers, fifty-three in all, of whom twelve were women, left the harbor of New York, on board the United States steam-transport Atlantic, arriving at Beaufort on the 9th. It was a voyage never to be forgotten. The enterprise was new and strange, and it was not easy to predict its future. Success or defeat might be in store for us and we could only trust in God that our strength would be equal to our responsibilities. As the colonists approached the shores of South Carolina, they were addressed by the agent in charge, who told them the little he had learned of their duties, enjoined patience and humanity, impressed on them the greatness of their work, the results of which were to cheer or dishearten good men, to settle, perhaps, one way or the other, the social problem of the age, — assuring them that never did a vessel bear a colony on a nobler mission, not even the Mayflower, when she conveyed the Pilgrims to Plymouth, that it would be a poorly written history which should omit their individual names, and that, if faithful to their trust, there would come to them the highest of all recognitions ever accorded to angels or to men, in this life or the next, —“ Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto Me.”

This first delegation of superintendents and teachers were distributed during the first fortnight after their arrival at Beaufort, and at its close they had all reached their appointed posts. They took their quarters in the deserted houses of the planters. These had all left on the arrival of our army, only four white men, citizens of South Carolina, remaining, and none of those being slaveholders, except one, who had only two or three slaves. Our operations were, therefore, not interfered with by landed proprietors who were loyal or pretended to be so. The negroes had, in the mean time, been without persons to guide and care for them, and had been exposed to the careless and conflicting talk of soldiers who chanced to meet them. They were also brought in connection with some employees of the Government, engaged in the collection of cotton found upon the plantations, none of whom were doing anything for their education, and most of whom were in favor of leasing the plantations and the negroes upon them as adscripti glebœ, looking forward to their restoration to their masters at the close of the war. They were uncertain as to the intentions of the Yankees, and were wondering at the confusion, as they called it. They were beginning to plant corn in their patches, hut were disinclined to plant cotton, regarding it as a badge of servitude. No schools had been opened, except one at Beaufort, which had been kept a few weeks by two freedmen, one bearing the name of John Milton, under the auspices of the Rev. Dr. Peck. This is not the place to detail the obstacles we met with, one after another overcome, — the calumnies and even personal violence to which we were subjected. These things occurred at an early period of our struggle, when the nation was groping its way to light, and are not likely to occur again. Let unworthy men sleep in the oblivion they deserve, and let others of better natures, who were then blind, but now see, not be taunted with their inconsiderate acts. The nickname of Gibeonites, applied to the colonists, may, however, be fitly remembered. It may justly claim rank with the honored titles of Puritan and Methodist. . . .

It is fitting here that I should bear my testimony to the superintendents and teachers commissioned by the associations. There was as high a purpose and devotion among them as in any colony that ever went forth to bear the evangel of civilization. Among them were some of the choicest young men of New England, fresh from Harvard, Yale, and Brown, from the divinity-schools of Andover and Cambridge, — men of practical talent and experience. There were some of whom the world was scarce worthy, and to whom, whether they are among the living or the dead, I delight to pay the tribute of my respect and admiration.

--Edward L. Pierce, "The Freedmen at Port Royal," The Atlantic Monthly, September, 1863, 291-315



African-American Freedmen's Teachers

The first school for contrabands was opened at Fortress Monroe on September 17, 1861, the teacher was Mary Peake, an African-American. The first African-American freedmen's teacher from the North was probably Charlotte Forten, who taught on St. Helena for two years. Forced by health problems to return home, Forten used her writing to publicize the freedmen's education movement, publishing "Life on the Sea Islands" in The Atlantic Monthly in 1864.

While both Peake and Forten had been born, raised, and educated as free citizens, some freedmen's teachers had themselves been slaves. Harriet Tubman escaped from bondage in the South, only to risk her own safety by returning to lead others to freedom. Harriet Jacobs escaped slavery and then published the narrative of her ordeal as a way of promoting abolition. Both Harriet Tubman and Harriet Jacobs worked during the Civil War as freedmen's teachers for the New England Freedmen's Aid Society.

African-Americans who served as freedmen's teachers were building on an important tradition. Throughout the long period of slavery in America, slaves had been active in helping one another resist oppression. Despite the strict prohibitions against teaching slaves how to read, African-Americans like Frederick Douglass who managed to "steal" some knowledge often set up informal classes to pass their skills on to others. In fact, when the Freedmen's teachers arrived at their posts, they sometimes found schools already being taught by those who first begun their teaching in secrecy on the plantation while still slaves themselves.


Mary Peake


Some of the children of the vicinity, getting perhaps some hint of my intention, or prompted by an impulse from on high, called on Mrs. Peake, and requested her to teach them, as she had taught the children in Hampton. . .

I soon found from observation, as well as information, that we had in her a teacher of the choicest spirit, and of peculiar qualifications. She was happy in having pupils as ready to learn as to request instruction. Her school numbered at first only about half a dozen, but in a few days she had between fifty and sixty. These scholars were found to have generally very fair intellectual capabilities, and a few evinced quite rare talents. Among these was her own little daughter, five years old, named Hattie, but familiarly called by the pet name of Daisy. She learned to read simple lessons fluently in a very short time. Others also exhibited a precocity which from day to day rewarded and stimulated that ardor of this devoted teacher.

Mrs. Peake was not satisfied with the ordinary routine of the week-day school room, but felt that the teacher of a mission school should aim to educate the children for eternity as well as for time. She found great assistance in the primer, catechism, and other elementary religious books, with which she had been furnished. She felt that the teachings of the week-day school ought to be largely preparatory to the rehearsals of the Sabbath school. What an impression for good would be made upon the rising generation, were this course universally pursued! . . .

While Mrs. Peake attached prime importance to the training of the rising generation, she felt that great improvement might be made among the adults. This view inspired her action from the first in Hampton, and with a blessed result, that is now apparent to all. She was accordingly very ready to gratify the desire of a number of adults for an evening school, notwithstanding her increasing infirmities. The result is, that several, who scarcely knew the alphabet before, now begin to read with considerable readiness.

In these multiplied labors, she exhibited a martyr spirit, of the true type. Often when she was confined to her bed, her pupils would be found around her, drawing knowledge as it were from her very life.

--from Lewis C. Lockwood's Mary S. Peake, the Colored teacher at Fortress Monroe, (Boston: American Tract Society, 186?) 31-35.


African-American Teachers Who Had
"Stolen Knowledge" Before the War

In a school at St. Helena village, where were collected the Edisto refugees, ninety two pupils were present as I went in. Two ladies were engaged in teaching, assisted by Ned Lloyd White, a colored man, who had picked up clandestinely a knowledge of reading while still a slave. One class of boys and another of girls read in the seventh chapter of St. John, having begun this Gospel and gone thus far. They stumbled a little on words like “unrighteousness” and “circumcision’; otherwise they got along very well. When the Edisto refugees were brought here, in July, 1862, Ned, who is about forty or forty five years old, and Uncle Cyrus, a man of seventy, who also could read, gathered one hundred and fifty children into two schools, and taught them as best they could for five months until teachers were provided by the societies. Ned has since received a donation from one of the societies, and is now regularly employed on a salary.

--Edward L. Pierce, "The Freedmen at Port Royal," Atlantic Monthly, September, 1863, 291-315

Among the most interesting of the new scholars who have taken their places, is a woman about twenty-five years of age, who was a slave not far from Newbern; and who made her way here as soon as she could, after the place came into possession of the Union forces. Not supposing she had any knowledge of letters, never having entered a school before, I was surprised to hear her read in " The Freedmen's Advocate " and in the Testament, with as much fluency as an average of educated people, and to hear her spell many-syllabled words with facility. Being a house-servant, by dint of contrivance she had managed to steal the key of knowledge from her master's children, though they had been repeatedly reprimanded for teaching her. She says she used to secrete every stray piece of a leaf that she could find, and pore over it by the light of the fire, while sitting on the hearth "in the potato-house."

--Anna Gardner, "Extracts from Teachers' Letters," The Freedmen's Record, February, 1865


In two weeks after the surrender of the city the Misses Chase had 1,075 scholars in the First African Church. “Among them,” she writes, “we found eighty good readers, two hundred good spellers, and one hundred who had conquered the alphabet. Of the remaining five or six hundred many had picked up one or two letters in the secret corner where the negro father kept his treasured book. In spite of the rigid laws against teaching the negroes, nearly every colored family in Richmond has one or more members who can read.”

--"Report of the Teachers Committee," The American Freedman, May, 1866, 29

We found an old man living in a very tidy little cabin (little, like all the cabins in the city of six hundred negroes) a veritable slab-town, with the size and dignity of Yorktown's Slab-town who keeps a "Pay School." He once had twenty scholars, but "Since you all came and opened free schools I've lost most of em. I taught myself," he said. "Picket it up by slant." His little grandson read with real elegance.

--Lucy Chase to Sarah Chase, Newberne, N. C., January 15, 1865

An old man in the slab-city keeps a "pay school" in a neat little picture-ornamented house. "I taught myself,"--he said to me,--"Picked it up by slant." His wie, a chipper dame, called for her beautiful grandson to come to read to us. She said she was very careful about his training. "I've been trying to keep him from these yere nigger children about town."

-- "A Visit to Newberne," The Freedmen's Record, September, 1865, 147


Some Notable African-American Teachers
of the New England Educational Association


ONE of the teachers lately commissioned by the New-England Freedmen's Aid Society is probably the most remarkable woman of this age. That is to say, she has performed more wonderful deeds by the native power of her own spirit against adverse circumstances than any other. She is well known to many by the various names which her eventful life has given her; Harriet Garrison, Gen. Tubman, &c.; but among the slaves she is universally known by her well-earned title of Moses,— Moses the deliverer. She is a rare instance, in the midst of high civilization and intellectual culture, of a being of great native powers, working powerfully, and to beneficent ends, entirely unaided by schools or books.


When the war broke out Harriet was very. anxious to go to South Carolina to assist the contrabands. The only condition she made was, that her old parents should be kept from want. It was wonderful to see with what shrewd economy she had planned all their household arrangements. She concluded that thirty dollars would keep them comfortable through the winter. She went to Port Royal, and was employed by Gen. Hunter, in scouting service, and accompanied Col. Montgomery in his expedition up the Combahee river. She was afterwards engaged by Gen. Saxton, to take a number of freed women under her charge, and teach them to do the soldiers' washing. She has also been making herb-medicine for the soldiers, which she gives away gratuitously, feeling it to be impossible to receive money from sick soldiers; and she has made cakes and pies for sale, in the intervals of other work.

She has had no regular support from Government; and she feels that she must have some certain income, which she wishes to apply to her parents' support. This society consider her labors too valuable to the freedmen to be turned elsewhere, and have therefore taken her into their service, paying her the small salary of ten dollars per month that she asks for. She is not adopted by any branch as she could not fulfil the condition of correspondence with them. She says, when the war is over she will learn to read and write, and then will write her own life. The trouble in her head prevents her from applying closely to a book. It is the strong desire of all her friends that she should tell her story in her own way at some future time. We think it affords a very cogent answer to the query, " Can the negro take care of himself? "

--From "Moses," The Freedmen's Record, March, 1865.


MANY of our readers are familiar with a book called "Linda; or, the Autobiography of a Slave Girl." Perhaps few of them know that this slave girl is now one of the most zealous and efficient workers in the Freedmen's cause. Mrs. Harriet Jacobs was sent to Alexandria more than two years ago, by a society of Friends in New York, to look after the Freedmen who were gathered there. Her first winter's service was a very hard one. Small-pox and other diseases made fearful havoc among the people ; and all her energies were exhausted in caring for their physical needs.

She has been unwearied in her labors, in providing orphan children with homes, in nursing the sick, in assisting the able-bodied to find work, and in encouraging all in habits of industry and self-reliance. They have established a school, and sent to the New-England Society for assistance in maintaining it. We offered them a teacher, and sent them Miss Virginia Lawton, a young colored woman of good education and great worth of character (the grand-daughter of one well known to the fashionable circles in Boston, as the administrator of good things at weddings, christenings, parties, and other merry-makings), who has taught there for a year. They have this autumn completed their school-house; and, as the school was too large for Miss Lawton's care, we have sent them also Mr. Banfield, a finely educated young man from New Hampshire, who enters most heartily into the work. The most remarkable feature of Linda's slave life was this: to escape the persecution of a master not cruel, but cruelly kind, she hid in a small loft, under the roof of her grandmother's house, where light and air came only through the chinks in the boards, and where she lay concealed for seven years, within sound both of her children's voices and of her master's threats, before she succeeded in escaping altogether from the town.

No doubt, when she sank to sleep overwearied with the monotony of suffering, visions of hope and joy came through the golden gate of slumber, which snatched her away from her vile den, and gave her strength and courage to endure still longer. But was any dream of the night dearer and sweeter to her than the present reality ? — her people freed, and the school-house, built mainly by her own exertions, named in her honor, and presided over by black and white teachers, working harmoniously together.

And yet, this woman, this lady, — who for years has been treated as a friend in the family of one of our celebrated literary men, and who has won the respect and love of all who have associated with her, — cannot ride in the street-cars at Washington, and is insulted even in a concert-room in Boston, on account of the slight tinge of color in her skin.

We have made great progress; but much yet remains to be done.

--The Freedmen's Record, February, 1865

Mrs. Jacobs (Linda) has sent us an admirable photograph of the school in Alexandria which she aided in establishing, and which is so ably conducted by Mr. Banfield, and his assistants, the Misses Lawton. It is delightful to see this group of neatly dressed children, of all ages, and with faces of every variety of the African and mixed type, all intelligent, eager, and happy. Mrs. Jacobs's honest, beaming countenance irradiates the whole picture; and the good teacher stands in the background looking over his scholars with great complacency. It is a whole volume of answers to the sceptical and superficial questions often put as to the desire and capacity of the negro race for improvement.

The picture may be seen at our office by any friends wishing to know how a freedman's school looks.

--"School at Alexandria," The Freedmen's Record, September, 1865, 149


The Living Conditions of Freedmen's Teachers


An individual who volunteered to serve as a freedmen's teacher had no way of knowing what kinds of living conditions s/he would face in the South. Typically, teachers were transported to their posts by the military; the journeys were often difficult and sometimes dangerous.


Account of a Trip to Charleston

There is a peculiar style of managing these boats indulged in down here which is rather mystifying to us green Yankees. Every boat strenuously denies all idea of starting for any particular point, and then when the officers have succeeded in persuading you of their stationery intentions, they start off without a moment's warning, and leave you to bewail your fate. Sometimes they vary this by letting people ship themselves for one place and then going to another. For instance, two unhappy individuals got aboard a steamer at the Head, the other night, and went to bed expecting to wake up in Charleston, instead of which morning found them in the pleasant city of Savannah. A beautiful place, I am told, but I fear they were not particularly charmed with the scenery. . . .

The Golden Gate, in which we took passage for Charleston, is a very small and rickety arrangement, and we had not been long on board before we discovered that they were obliged to work the machinery very gingerly, as they expected every minute to have it unscrew, or crack, or break, or something else equally agreeable,--the only comfort being that it could not by any possibility get vim enough to blow up--and by night we ascertained that our captain didn't know the way, as he had been on the trip but once before, and had no charts, so eight o-clock found us somewhere between Hilton Head and Charleston, looking for something to tell us whether a light there was ahead was Stone or the Light ship, and part of the time steering straight for the moon, so as to excite considerable apprehension that the next moment would find us in an atmosphere of green cheese, and I was rather inclined to doubt its sanitary qualities, as I have never met with any up north. For my own part, it was a matter of perfect indifference whether we landed in Charleston or on the bottom of the sea, provided only that uncle Wm. who had converted himself into a temporary pillow on my behalf, would consent to remain unmoved and let me go down comfortably, but the rest did not take it so easily. Uncle did not tell me he was uneasy till it was all over, but then he confessed to having been so. One man got himself all ready, with his brandy bottle, to go down and was evidently fully convinced that that was to be our fate. But at last we got our pilot aboard, and got in here about two o'clock.

--Gertrude Allen, Letter to Her Parents, April 14, 1865



Lodgings ranging from the luxurious to the spartan were also assigned by the Union army. Teachers were often allotted houses that had been deserted by or taken away from confederate owners, and sometimes slaves of the former owner stayed on to serve as cooks or servants for the new occupants. When houses were not available, the only alternative was a room in a hotel or boarding with a homeowner. Since many of the white residents, however, were antagonistic to the presence of the "Yankee marms" and the work they were doing with the freedmen, teachers who lived with local citizens often complained of being objects of hostility.


"We Rough It Considerable Now"

Every day's tidal ebb, and flow sends solemnly into our presence now the negro stranded on our shores by the war, who forces our sympathies to meet his wants; then the slave-owner either in person or estate, now begging at our hands, now uttering a complaint; and now, Wo's him! houselessand homeless with our faces reflected in his mirrors, our tables heavy with his books, and our wearied heads resting in his easy-chair.

A fine horse and a rockaway just came into our stable from a large farm taken possession of by the Dr a day or two ago. . . . We expect to be flooded, in a few days, with the furniture from our new house. And tomorrow, another large farm, will fall into our hands. This too, is war! Savage, and cruel! The Dr acts of course under orders. He would consent to the inmates of the houses remaining in their homes; but he says it would be impossible for them to do so. They would provoke the negroes, and thenegroes would provoke them. Room in their houses must be found for our overseers, and their furniture would be unsafe. So it seems berst to remove them from their estates, if we take possession of their soil.

--Lucy Chase, Craney Island, South Carolina, January 29, 1863

Even our house-walls tell us that we are in the army. Black target-circles adorn our bed-room walls, and parlor and dining-room vie with the homes of the dead—great in wall names. Everybody is glaringly invited not to spit upon my chamber-floor. And there is no lack of written indications that the 10th N. Y. Regt was determined to "furnish ample information" to all who came after that it was "The first Regiment that landed on this island."


Turned, by the incoming shower, from our room into the dining room, we thanked Nancy, Mrs. Brown, the rebel architects and our good fortune for the promise of the night. Sarah, sick, went early to bed. Her head was hardly on her pillow when she sent for me to place an open umbrella at her head-board. Nancy encircled the stove with tin-wash basins and, to the music of resounding water-drops Sarah was lulled to sleep. The basins speedily filled and [?] the night long, showering the ground with "earth-rejoicing drops," but neither my vigilance nor the capacity of the basins availed much and waters covered the floor. In the mid-watches of the night, I rose and set sail in my bed-room. Sarah suggested that I must not perambulate barefooted, and urged me to put on slippers. So I put my feet into a pair that were new at the moment. I put them on, but turned old in less time than a single night, and chillingly suggested rubber boots. I lifted all our heavy trunks alone and put them high that they might remain dry; took our books, photographs, and other water-soaking valuables from the shelves, our dresses from the nails, and made desolation general throughout our borders.

--Lucy Chase to her Family, February 7, 1863

Sarah and I are domiciled with the man who wrote the following, to Dr Brown; "Dr Brown, Sir I wish you would be kind enough to let me know if those ladys that were at my house to day are coming up here to teach school if they are I shall be obliged to move my family for we have never been used to Negro equality nor to White Ladys going in the kitchens and kissing the Negroes. Sir, I am a union man and ever shall be but I am not an abolitionist nor never can be as fer you I believe you are a perfect Gentleman you have always treated me as such and I am willing to do all I can for you and the Government but if you allow those Ladys to live on the farm you will get very little work done by the Negroes and it will end my peace fer this year as fer Mr. Giny he need not give himself any trouble about their teaching my children I am able to school my children as yet without sending them to a Negro school.

Yours Respectfully,
Wm Wakefield, Overseer"

--Lucy Chase, June 13, 1863

The position of the first teachers who entered the field involved, under the best attainable conditions, great and continued personal sacrifices. Most of the teachers were women, intelligent and cultivated, who had been familiar in their Northern homes with all the refinements and elegances of the best forms of social life. Many had the assured means of independent support, and those who had to win their daily bread made pecuniary as well as social sacrifices in coming here. All came to a moral, as well as a literal waste. The whole land was in military occupation, and under the government of martial law. Their daily life was in the midst of camps and hospitals, and all the sights and sounds of war. They were dispersed among the plantations, lying remote from each other, and separated by deep creeks and impassable marshes, the difficult roads between doubling miles of distance. Hence intercourse among them was infrequent. Little sympathy was felt for their work or for themselves outside of their own circle. Their work lay among, and they were in constant contact with, scenes and persons as little attractive in all outward aspects can be conceived. The objects for whose sake they had left homes and social refinements to encounter privation and toil, were repulsive in most things, save in the divine humanity which lay smothered beneath all their squalidness and misery, in their unmeasured wrongs, and the unutterable cry for help from the abyss of their despair.

-- Second Annual Report of the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society Presented to the Society, April 21, 1864, 1864, 21-22

You, of course, feel assured of our safety, we also feel assured that we dwell in the midst of alarms while we reign in this horrible place. Again, in the Dr’s office, I heard two sea-captains and one pilot report a renewed excitement and anxiety in Norfolk, on account of the Monitor having been tugged into port, and that, too, soon after a supposed conflict reported by the sound of guns.’ We heard the guns here, and one of the Captains declared he saw the flashes of the guns. But no harm came to us and I believe to no one from that direction.

--Lucy Chase to Her Family, Craney Island, S. C., Jan. 29, 1863

During the week we moved to Oaklands, our future home. The house was of one story, with a low-roofed piazza running the whole length. The interior had been thoroughly scrubbed and whitewashed; the exterior was guiltless of white-wash or paint. There were five rooms, all quite small, and several dark little entries, in one of which we found shelves lined with old medicine-bottles. These were a part of the possessions of the former owner, a Rebel physician, Dr. Sams by name. Some of them were still filled with his nostrums. Our furniture consisted of a bedstead, two bureaus, three small pine tables, and two chairs, one of which had a broken back. These were lent to us by the people. The masters, in their hasty flight from the islands, left nearly all their furniture; but much of it was destroyed or taken by the soldiers who came first, and what they left was removed by the people to their own houses. Certainly, they have the best right to it. We had made up our minds to dispense with all luxuries and even many conveniences; but it was rather distressing to have no fire, and nothing to eat. Mr. H. had already appropriated a room for the store which he was going to open for the benefit of the freed people, and was superintending the removal of his goods. So L. and I were left to our own resources. But Cupid the elder came to the rescue, — Cupid, who, we were told, was to be our right-hand man, and who very graciously informed us that he would take care of us; which he at once proceeded to do by bringing in some wood, and busying himself in making a fire in the open fireplace. While he is thus engaged, I will try to describe him. A small, wiry figure, stockingless, shoeless, out at the knees and elbows, and wearing the remnant of an old straw hat, which looked as if it might have done good service in scaring the crows from a cornfield. The face nearly black, very ugly, but with the shrewdest expression I ever saw, and the brightest, most humorous twinkle in the eyes.One glance at Cupid’s face showed that he was not a person to be imposed upon, and that he was abundantly able to take care of himself, as well as of us. The chimney obstinately refused to draw, in spite of the original and very uncomplimentary epithets which Cupid heaped upon it, while we stood by, listening to him in amusement, although nearly suffocated by the smoke. At last, perseverance conquered, and the fire began to burn cheerily. Then Amaretta, our cook, — a neat-looking black woman, adorned with the gayest of head-handkerchiefs, made her appearance with some eggs and hominy, after partaking of which we proceeded to arrange our scanty furniture, which was soon done. In a few days we began to look civilized, having made a table-cover of some red and yellow handkerchiefs which we found among the store-goods, — a carpet of red and black woollen plaid, originally intened for frocks and shirts,—a cushion, stuffed with corn-husks and covered with calico, for a lounge, which Ben, the carpenter, had made for us of pine boards, —and lastly some corn-husk beds, which were an unspeakable luxury, after having endured agonies for several nights, sleeping on the slats of a bedstead. It is true, the said slats were covered with blankets, but these might as well have been sheets of paper for all the good they did us. What a resting-place it was! Compared to it, the gridiron of St. Lawrence—fire excepted--was as a bed of roses.  

--Charlotte Forten, "Life on the Sea Islands" The Atlantic Monthly, May and June, 1864

Bare comforts are all the teachers find here. They have even been forced to live on contraband rations. Carpetless they are.

--Lucy Chase to Sarah Chase, Newberne, N. C., January 15, 1865

We rough it considerable now, & last night I slept on two or three spreads on the floor. If there had been more spread and less floor there might have been less danger of my leaving a permanent impression on the floor, but it was better than nothing. . . .

This house we are in is a fine old place and the garden is full of flowers, especially roses. There is a fine magnolia tree, just budding, japonicas, aloes, figtrees, and ripe strawberries, so it really seems summerlike. After all it does not seem very tropical. It is more like our northern June. I have a room to myself, and so has uncle at night, but I spend the larger part of my working hours in here. There are twelve in the house, including ourselves, and it is really very pleasant. . . . .

I guess you would have laughed at our household arrangements here at first. Now we are fixed up quite finely, but at first we slept on the floor, took our meals out of the house, and literally "roughed it" for awhile. We don't take care of our own cooking affairs, but just turn them over to a darkey who gives us all sorts of compounds, but still provides our table very well. I am more hardened than I ever thought I should be, but I cant go the meat they give us. I may come to it.

--Gertrude Allen, Charleston, April 18 and 20, 1865

Charleston, S.C., April 19, 1865.

After two weeks sojourn here, we find ourselves quite comfortable. We have a fine large house, with verandahs to the top, the doors and windows of each story opening out on to them; the whole overlooking a very beautiful garden in a high state of cultivation.

It was originally the property of Rebel Judge Dunkin, but has been confiscated by the Government. We could not draw rations for more than a week after our arrival, and were obliged to board. Mr. Allen and his party came last week, and were duly installed in our mansion, which is styled the Teachers' Home. Our household now numbers twelve; and some very good colored people, who occupy the basement, and who were formerly the property of the old Judge have undertaken to do our cooking, and relieve us of all the care of the table. So we get along very nicely.

--M.C.G. "Extracts from Teachers Letters," The Freedmen's Record, June, 1865, 95

We are getting along nicely down in these broiling regions, with some slight drawbacks, which only enhance the general happiness. For instance, when our table gets rather meagre and our imagination refers regretfully to northern dainties "tho' lost to sight to memory dear," we console ourselves for present pork & turnips (rice is too great a luxury to be mentioned in that company) with visions of chicken salad, ices, &c. in which we are to expend fabulous sums in the future. So in visions of bliss to come we forget the miseries which are (?) and learn philosophy and resignation together. I must confess I have another source of consolation in the form of peanut candy and root beer, which I indulge in occasionally much to uncle's dismay, for money is slightly -- down in these regions. I suppose they think the consciousness of well-doing ought to support us, but that won't buy bread and butter, as they might see if they only tried it. But its coming, they say, in fact part of it has already come, so we feel considerable encouragement for the future.

--Gertrude Allen, Charleston, May 4, 1865

We teachers at the home take turn, a week at a time, housekeeping. This is my week, and I find it housekeeping under difficulties. Our stove will not be persuaded into baking well, our cook needs constant supervision, dishes are very scarce, and milk not to be had. We are liable to have strangers come here at any time, and they must also be provided for. Our closets are overrun with mice, though there is a very hungry cat on the premises. Fortunately, I am a pretty good cook, and know how to contrive. You would laugh to see how our food is stowed away. Old bottles are great treasures. Our butter firkin is an old pitcher. We have an immense black bottle for a vinegar cruet and a little individual salt-cellar. Our salt-spoon is wooden, and the bowl of it is nearly as large as the salt-cellar. The cellar was frequently lost behind the vinegar bottle and other large dishes, till we had the spoon; but we know where it is by that now. Before we had the spoon, we though of setting it on the vinegar cruet to keep it in sight. We have a piece of a sheet marked "Sanitary Commission," for a table-cloth. We have it washed and ironed between meals.

--E.F. Stearns, "Extracts from Teachers' Letters," The Freedmen's Record, December, 1865

At times, we found it very difficult to get any thing to eat, living upon hominy, with neither butter, sugar, nor even molasses, and drinking tea without milk. Sometimes we could get chickens, but so poor that they consisted mostly of small bones. I have been so hungry, that I have eaten hard, dry biscuits with worms in them, and relished them too.

We teach in a building formerly used as a billiard-room, and average, in daily attendance, more than one hundred scholars.

--"Extracts from Teachers' Letters," The Freedmen's Record, December, 1865

A small house (15 feet by 20) has been built for us, in which we are now living.   It is of rough, unseasoned lumber, with the frame covered only on the outside. A partition divides it into rooms. In the front-room there are two windows, and one in the sleeping-room.  All are, as yet, without sashes. We have wooden shutters, which protect us from the cold, but exclude the daylight. When too cold to sit with them open, we must light our lamp to read or write by. Our furniture is very simple and scanty.

--Louise Fisher,"Extracts from Teachers' Letters, The Freedmen's Record, February, 1866

I wrote to Major Crandon when I should come, and, on my arrival, reported at once to him. He had not been able to secure a boarding-place fore me, so went with me to the hotel, and here I have remained. I have not seen him since. . . The house and all its inmates, myself excepted, are very strong secesh. They look upon me with a very bitter eye. Where it not for their love of Yankee greenbacks, I should expect to be ejected forthwith.

--Sarah E. Foster, Gordonsville, Virginia, "Extracts from Teachers' Letters," The Freedmen's Record, September, 1866



In addition to the dangers posed by the war, freedmen's teachers also faced threats to their health from illness. The difficult living and working conditions rendered teachers particularly vulnerable to the epidemics that periodically beset the South, and even though most teachers returned North during the months when heat and illness were at their peak, the reports of freedmen's aid associations contain memorials to teachers who died while in service. The same reports also contain references to large numbers of deaths among the freedmen from the same causes.

Sixteen year old Gertrude Allen, who served as the youngest teacher in Richmond after accompanying her uncle when he was appointed assistant-superintendent of freedmen's teachers in that city, died of fever only two weeks after her arrival in the South. Her bereaved mother carefully copied Gertrude's lively letters into a notebook, and also pasted onto its pages the memorial notices published in the Freedmen's Record. Today the notebook is in the collections of the American Antiquarian Society.


Excerpts from the Letters of Gertrude Allen, Freedmen's Teacher

I shan't be much astonished to hear of a few assassinations down here some of these fine days. If they should take place you may know that uncle and I are on our way home, for I haven't the least idea of making a martyr of myself for any cause, as I flatter myself that I myself am much more important to myself than any educational project. They have been trying to persuade me that it will be a great thing for the N.E. Freedmen's Aid Society to have half a dozen of its missionaries murdered in the midst of their work, cut off in the prime of life &c&c, but I beg leave to delegate that high office to some one else who will appreciate it more fully than I can pretend to do, and I, whenever there's any danger, just take the first steamer for N. Y. and as I cant go alone, uncle will come too, so don't be surprised to see us at any time. (Uncle William has just been reading my letter and seems to think that I am a little imprudent, but as he says it's no harm as long as it is going home, and it's all true any way, which can't be said of everything. He demurs a little at my marching him home so unceremoniously, but he'll come!)

--Gertrude Allen to her parents, Charleston, May 16, 1865

Uncle William and I have been discussing the question of your coming down here in vacation, so I thought I would write you a little on the subject. I wish you would come, and bring mother too if possible. In that case you might get board in the next house, or if you came alone you might turn in somewhere here. . . . I suppose--no I dont--I know that it will be unendurably warm by that time, but you would not have to go out in the heat, and this house is always comfortable in the warmest weather--thermometer never rose above 95° in it. It promises to be very unhealthy here so that by that time, July 8, yellow fever and cholera will very likely be having full sway, but the first never comes as far up and the other never as far down as this house; besides if it is very bad we shall all go home--at least I know two who will.

--Gertrude Allen to her parents, Charleston, May 21, 1865

June 15,1865.

Since you have heard from any of us here, our home has been saddened by the death of one of our little band of sisters. Miss Allen was taken sick Saturday, June 3. We did not consider her very sick, but supposed she was going to have a slight run of fever. We had the best care possi¬ble taken of her, and her uncle had the best medical advice the city afforded. On Wednes¬day she seemed rather worse; on Thursday her symptoms became quite alarming; an assistant nurse was engaged: but she failed so rapidly we could see the change as we visited her room from time to time; and Saturday, at 5, A.M., she passed away. Decomposition took place so rapidly, and the weather being so warm, it was impossible to keep the body long; and, at 6, P.M., of the same day, we laid her quietly to rest in the Unitarian Churchyard, just one week from the time she was taken sick. It seemed very Bad to lay her there, a stranger in a strange land, so far away from her kindred and friends who loved her so dearly; and our heartfelt sympathy went forth to that bereaved household, who were expecting in a few short weeks to welcome the absent one home again. May God sanctify this affliction to them!



--M. C. O., "Extracts from Teachers' Letters," The Freedmen's Record, July, 1865 (Clipping from the notebook assembled by Gertrude Allen's mother.)


Since you have heard from any of us here, our home has been saddened by the death of one of our little band of sisters. Miss Allen was taken sick Saturday, June 3. We did not consider her very sick, but supposed she was going to have a slight fun of fever. We had the best care possible taken of her, and her uncle had the best medical advice the city afforded. On Wednesday she seemed rather wore; on Thursday her symptoms became quite alarming; an asssistant nurse was engaged: but she failed so rapidly we could see the change as we visited her room from time to time; and Saturday, at 5, a.m. she passed away. Decomposition took place so rapidly, and the weather being so warm, it was impossible to keep the body long; and, at 6, p.m., of the same ay, we laid her quietly to rest in the Unitarian Churchyard, just one week from the time she was taken sick. It seemed very sad to lay her there, a stranger in a strange land, so far away from her kindred and friends who loved her so dearly; and our heartfelt sympathy went forth to that bereaved household, who were expecting in a few short weeks to welcome the absent one home again. May God sanctify this affliction to them!


A page from the notebook assembled by the mother of freedmen's teacher Gertrude Allen describing her funeral. A transcription of this article appears immediately below.



I must content myself, also, with a single illustration of their tender-heartedness.

Among our teachers from New England was a modest and accomplished young lady from West Newton.  She was a member of a family famous, in Massachusetts, for the eminent teachers it has produced.  She accompanied her uncle, who was my associate-superintendent.  She was the youngest of the teachers who came down to Charleston, and none of them looked so healthy as she.  But she was the first to fall a victim to the malarious fever of the city.

Every day the children brought flowers to their teachers; and when Gertrude fell sick the choicest bouquets were left at her home by her pupils each morning.  One of them—a pure black girl, lately in from the plantations—pleaded again and again to be permitted to see her.  But the physician had forbidden her to be disturbed, and—especially as her friends did not dream that she would die—her petitions were gently refused. Suddenly the fever grew, and our teacher died.  It was necessary that she should be buried at once.  It was on a Saturday morning, but the sad news went quickly through the city, and, when the hour of burial came, nearly all of her class were at the door.

The gentry of Charleston ignored our existence, excepting by repeated and defeated efforts to prevent us, or to dispossess us of the buildings in which our schools were held. In some other cities this class found allies among the federal officers.  But, to the enduring honor of General Hatch, and the officers in command at Charleston, they refused to become parties to this unholy alliance.

The procession moved. There was a long train of carriages.  Immediately behind the relatives and the mourners rode the major-general in command; then the colonels of the Thirty-fifty (a brother of Henry Ward Beecher) and of the glorious Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, besides a number of other officers of inferior grade; and lastly came the carriages of northern citizens who hastened to do honor to the young martyr and her cause and themselves alike.

Lastly—no, not that; for another class of mourners closed up the cortege. They were the girls of Gertrude’s class.  Ragged, bareheaded, shoeless, silently and with sad faces—they followed their beloved teacher to her early grave.

We reached the churchyard.  It is on the edge of the burnt district.  The church which it surrounds is almost the only edifice in the neighborhood which the shells from Morris Island had not shattered or defaced.  Standing near it one can see, from river to river, hundreds and hundreds of blackened ruins—scores of chimneys standing to mark where a house once sheltered traitors, or of stores where merchants once grew rich on the profits of unrequited toil.  I could never look on them without recalling the solemn words of inspiration—“Though hand join in hand the wicked shall not go unpunished,” and that fitting declaration of prophecy fulfilled—“Babylon the Great is fallen, is fallen!”

The fcoffin was brought from the hearse and carried slowly to the grave. Silently the white mrurners, the people in the carriages and the horsemen, followed it—no one objecting, no one dreaming of preventing them. I staid behind to see that the true guard of honor should come in—for I knew that unless a white man remained they would be refused admittance.  And they did come in.  They ran and gathered flowers.  On the further side of the grave—it was dug in an unoccupied corner of the yard—Indian corn, already six or seven feet high, was growing.  The children stood among it.  I never saw a sight more beautiful than their dusky faces and sad eager eyes as they stooped or knelt down on the red mount of earth, under the deep green borad-leaved corn.

The coffin was lowered. “Dust to dust.”  The shovelful of earth rattled up a dull echo. Instantly a black boy and then three girls threw handfuls of flowers into the open grave.  This, this was the fitting covering of their bright young martyr—not dust to dust, but beautiful to beautiful.

On Monday we could not keep the school in which Miss Allen had taught.  It was in Ashley street, near the Arsenal, which the rebels seized in the first days of the rebellion. I went up to make a few remarks to the pupils, but the first sentence that I uttered prevented others.  For as soon as I said, “Miss Allen is dead,” the long pent-up grief burst out, and all the children whom she taught sobbed bitterly. One of them—the same girl who had asked so often to see her teacher—wept and sobbed until she swooned; and would not be comforted, when she was restored, until the principal promised that she might at least clean out her dad teacher’s class room. 


If I were content to show how tender-hearted and how grateful they are, I might stop here; but the sequel to this girl’s story tended to illustrate another trait of the negro character. She went for brushes and a pail of water, and shut herself up in the room.  She was heard sobbing as she worked for some time after she entered it. But when she came out, she was perfectly calm. The change was so complete that she was questioned about it. 

“I saw her,” she answered.

“Saw who?” they asked.

“I saw Miss Allen; she sat down near me.”

And once or twice afterwards she went up, in school hours, and told the principal that she could see her old teacher sitting at her desk, which had been hung with black cloth.

No one could have converted her to a different belief; and her full faith in it ended her lamentations.



"The Mortality . . . Has Been Fearful"

Four of the original delegation have died. William S. Clark died at Boston, April 25th, 1863, a consumptive when he entered on the work, which he was obliged to leave six months before his death. He was a faithful and conscientious teacher. Though so many months had passed since he left these labors, their fascination was such that he dwelt fondly upon them in his last days.

The colony was first broken by the death of Francis E. Barnard, at St. Helena Island, October 18th, 1862. He was devoted, enthusiastic, — and though not fitted, as it at first appeared, for the practical duties of a superintendent, yet even in this respect disappointing me entirely. He was an evangelist, also, and he preached with more unction than any other the gospel of freedom, — always, however, enforcing the duties of industry and self-restraint. He was never sad, hut always buoyant and trustful. He and a comrade were the first to be separated from the company, while at Hilton head, and before the rest went to Beaufort, — being assigned to Edisto, which had been occupied less than a month, and was a remote and exposed point; hut he went fearlessly and without question. The evacuation of Edisto in July, the heat, and the labor involved in bringing away and settling his people in the village on St. Helena Island, a summer resort of the former residents, where were some fifty vacant houses, were too much for him. His excessive exertions brought on malarious fever. This produced an unnatural excitement, and at mid-day, under a hot sun, he rode about to attend to his people. He died, — men, women, and children, for whom he had toiled, filling the house with their sobs during his departing hours. His funeral was thronged by them, his coffin strewn with flowers which they and his comrades had plucked, and then his remains were borne to his native town, where burial-rites were again performed in the old church of Dorchester. Read his published journal, and find how a noble youth can live fourscore years in a little more than one score. One high privilege was accorded to him. He lived to hear of the immortal edict of the twenty-second of September, by which the freedom of his people was to be secured for all time to come.

Samuel D. Phillips was a young man of much religious feeling, though he never advertised himself as having it, and a devout communicant of the Episcopal Church. He was a gentleman born and bred, inheriting the quality a. well as adding to it by self-discipline. He had good business-capacity, never complained of inconveniences, was humane, yet not misled by sentiment, and he gave more of his time, otherwise unoccupied, to teaching than almost any other superintendent. I was recently asking the most advanced pupils of a school on St. Helena who first taught them their letters, and the frequent answer was, “Mr. Phillips.” He was at home in the autumn for a vacation, was at the funeral of Barnard in Dorchester, and though at the time in imperfect health, he hastened back to his charge, feeling that the death of Barnard, whose district was the same as his own, rendered his immediate return necessary to the comfort of his people. He went, —but his health never came back to him. his quarters were in the same house where Barnard had died, and in a few days, on the 5th of December, he followed him. He was tended in his sickness by the negroes, and one day, having asked that his pillow might be turned, he uttered the words, “Thank God,” and died. There was the same grief as at Barnard’s death, the same funeral-rites at the St. Helena Church, and his remains were borne North to bereaved relatives.

Daniel Bowe was an alumnus of Yale College, and a student of the Andover Theological Seminary, not yet graduated when he turned from his professional studies at the summons of Christian duty. He labored faithfully as a superintendent, looking after the physical, moral, and educational interests of his people. He had a difficult post, was overburdened with labor, and perhaps had not the faculty of taking as good care of himself as was even consistent with his duties. He came home in the summer, commended the enterprise and his people to the citizens and students of Andover, and returned. He afterwards fell ill, and, again coming North, died October 30th, a few days after reaching New York. The young woman who was betrothed to him, but whom he did not live to wed, has since his death sought this field of labor and on my recent visit I found her upon the plantation where he had resided, teaching the children whom he had first taught, and whose parents he had guided to freedom. Truly, the age of Christian romance has not passed away!

--Edward L. Pierce, "The Freedmen at Port Royal," Atlantic Monthly, September, 1863, 291-315

Have I mentioned that several of our fellow passengers from Norfolk were on their way to Newbern to obtain the bodies of frds who died of the Yellow fever? All along in our journey we meet with sad traces of it, and everywhere we find refugees from Plymouth.

***Miss Pearson, a beautiful girl from Boston, was engaged to one of the gentlemen who died with the Fever. She told me that of eighteen gentlemen who used to visit the teachers last winter, ten died of the fever.

--Lucy Chase to Sarah Chase, January 15, 1865

Edingsville, Edisto Island, Aug. 1, 1865.

On the southern face of the island, with the salt surf rolling up within sixty feet of our door, and the cool ocean-breeze coming inland much of the time, we are settled down for a short rspite from active work. It is a very hot and unhealthy island: the people die weekly on every plantation. We seem, and no doubt are, less liable to sickness than those born on the soil. It seems hard that so many (they may be counted by the hundred) should lie sick, with no medicine or help for them, except to use some root or herb; or just, day after day, lie under a tree, and wait until death releases them, or a strong constitution proves itself able to resist the sickness. It is considered very dangerous by the colored people to travel during the heat of the day. Scarcely do I ever go out, away from my house, but some colored man or woman hoeing in the field will straighten up, and hail me with, "Massa de heat gib you fever, you no got a horse?" or else, "Massa you no got a umbrella for to protect your head? you get fever sure, trabelingin de heat of de day!" The colored people cannot be coaxed to travel, except in the ost urgent cases, when the day is hottest. They usually lay aside their work at ten o'clock, and do not resume it until three. Last evening, I was preparing to go insland, and had some of the ladies' things in a cart, which was to come over early this morning (when the tide would permit); but the people here strongly protested against my going inland to sleep; it would be sure to give me a fever and the very worst of them they said; so I was constrained to wait, and start with the first dawning of light this morning. Every planter on the island had his summer house here on the bay, and came with his wife and children to live in it four months of the year. During which time, they were very cautious about going inland, going up in the cool morning and returning after keeping quiet as possible during the heat of the day--just about nightfall. We shall attempt to teach, nonetheless.

--A.E., "Extracts from Teachers Letters," September, 1865

The mortality upon the Island has been fearful, the prevailing fever attacking all the unacclimated; and we did not dare trust ourselves upon it after sunset. On the Bay, the air is perfectly healthy, and we felt no fear. It is considered unsafe to leave there before the first frost appears. We had a little stock of simple medicines, which we brought for our own use; but one after another would come to beg them, and we could not refuse. Happily we did not need them for ourselves.

--"Extracts from Teachers' Letters," The Freedmen's Record, December, 1865

Small Pox continues to rage. L & I went to the hospital to see if the patients were properly attended to but surgeon would not admit us. We have ordered a colored person to report any thing out of the way & what is needed—sure that in some way we can meet any demand. We banded the colored people to take care of their hospital—but they are so fearful of small pox the committee will not work "until the scare is ober." I shall have a meeting this week to talk with them on Health Economy ect and will make them [?] take hold.

--Sarah Chase to Fred W. G. May, April 2, 1866



The Working Conditions of Freedmen's Teachers

Richmond, April 20th, '65

My Dear Miss Lowell--Miss Stevenson has already told you that we gathered the children in different churches on the 15th of April and opened schools informally at that time. Yesterday, the 19th of April, my sister and I formally opened school in the 1st African Church (the largest Church in the city. . . ) We had more than one thousand (1000) children, and seventy-five adults; and found time, after disciplining them, to hear the readers, to instruct the writers, and to teach the multitude from the black-board. (Whole letter here.)

--Letter from Lucy Chase to Hannah Stevenson, April 20, 1865

"St. Philip's Church, Richmond, Va. School for Colored Children," Harper's Weekly, May 2, 1867, 321


"Something Better Than a Barn:" Schoolrooms  

I shall be happy to try to give Mrs. Fisk some account of my school & I wish I possessed the pen of some of those envied writers, who have the talent of making things seem almost present to the bodily eye. My schoolroom is built in the modest style. It has sashed windows which make it something better than a barn. It is also used for a church. A tall box serves for a desk, & behind this behold me seated.

--Jane Briggs Smith to William Fuller Fiske, June 25, 1865

The church in which we taught school was particularly damp and cold. There was no chimney, and we could have no fire at all. Near the close of the winter a stove came for us, but it could not be made to draw; we were nearly suffocated with smoke, and gave it up in despair. We got so thoroughly chilled and benumbed within, that for several days we had school out-of-doors, where it was much warmer. Our school-room was a pleasant one,— for ceiling the blue sky above, for walls the grand old oaks with their beautiful moss-drapery, —but the dampness of the ground made it unsafe for us to continue the experiment.

--Charlotte Forten, "Life on the Sea Islands" The Atlantic Monthly, May and June, 1864

A  schoolhouse  has been built by direction of the commander of the post, who is also an officer of the Bureau. It will accommodate one hundred and fifty. The average daily attendance is one hundred and forty; ages from six to eighteen, —a few older. As yet there are no window-sashes in the schoolhouse, and neither blinds nor shutters. Two days last week it was impossible to teach for any length of time, and our pupils were sent home. We regretted being compelled to do it; but only a regard for the health of ourselves and them, prompted us to do it.   For a few days we had a fire in a small stove in the room; but it was of little use, — with the openings for windows. They have promised to have our room made comfortable this week

--Louise Fisher,"Extracts from Teachers' Letters, The Freedmen's Record, February, 1866

The present school-house is a rude structure of logs thrown up by the freedmen, on an acre of ground belonging to a citizen here. But it is not suitable for winter, and they are not able at present to purchase the ground and fit it up; and unless they can obtain a suitable building, school will have to be suspended during the winter months. But I hope these difficulties may be surmounted.

--Sidney Busbee, "Snowhill, Greene CO, N.C." The Freedmen's Record, November, 1866, 198.


Teaching Methods of Freedmen's Teachers

Freedmen's teachers were often faced with the need to educate large numbers of children and adults at various stages of literacy in inadequate "classrooms" with few resources. One way they dealt with this challenge was through the use of the monitorial system, sorting students into groups and then setting the more advanced students to help the beginners.

Despite the difficult conditions and the consequent need to rely to on drills to at least some extent, the reports submitted by the teachers emphasize their commitment to teaching students to observe and think for themselves.

By teaching children to observe and think about the common things that surround them, their perceptive faculties, so early developed, are rightly educated, and their little minds brought to inquire why and how so naturally, that they will train themselves to be good observers and thinkers.

--"Report of the Teachers' Meeting," The Freedmen's Record, April, 1869

Comments from various teachers about their approaches can be found below. For a more thorough discussion of the methods used by freedmen's teachers, you may wish to read the "Report of the Teachers' Meeting," published in the Freedmen's Record, April, 1869.


Teachers Speak Out on Teaching

January 20, 1863

We consider it feasible to unite study and sewing, so we hang our A.B.C. card upon the walls, and keep heads and fingers busy.

--Lucy Chase, Craney Island, South Carolina, January 20, 1863


Want of house-room makes it impracticable to form classes at present, but we can assist those we employ directly about us, and may be able in that way, to form a corps of A. B.C. teachers. Five thousand or more bags are to be sent here from the Quarter-Master’s Dept for repairs. The carpenters are now preparing a work-room for the needle-women, and, when they gather there I propose reading the Bible to them, and if, practicable, teaching them their letters. “When our ship comes in” it will come in the form of a meeting-and-school-house in one, and, until that auspicious day, we can be helpful to but few.

--Lucy Chase, February 7, 1863

My temporary school-room was in a barrack whose space was monopolized by bunks, and as no admittance was not on our sign-board, the eager children crowded pestilentially around us. Until our schools can be organized, we are forced to give divided attention to good readers, indifferent readers, and A. B. C. Darians; but we find no difficulty in keeping the fixed attention of all, and in making the lessons equally profitable to all. By enlivening easy-reading with oral instruction each mind is kept interested, the beginner dwelling on the little word and the little thought, and the more mature grasping what we put within his reach.

--Lucy Chase, March 4, 1863?

There are now at the rope-walk seven hundred, mostly old people and children. I must describe our first day's teaching. In a rough room at one end of the building, minus floor, doors, and windows, we gathered this happy band of freedmen, ranging from five years to seventy-five. We pinned our cards to the rough wall, and, with our sun-umbrellas for pointers, were ready for our work. But very few knew many of their letters. One smart young girl I asked if she knew how to read. She said, "I knows some few ob de letters, missus: missus told me, if I learn any more, she pick my eyes out. Ise like to see her do dat are now! Lor me, missus! who eber tink white folks teach us poor folks? Bress de Lord! dis am de year ob jubilee!" While I was teaching, a black face was thrust in at the door: the body soon followed, but so enveloped in rags that one could hardly tell whether it was a human being or not, till the voice was heard,—"Ise come!" Upon that, such a screaming and clapping of hands I never heard. They all rushed for him; and I thought they would devour him, clothes and all. One of the more thoughtful ones said, "Do scuse them, missus; for that boy libed on de next plantation to Massa Taylor : we never spec to see him. Lor bress me, how we do come togedder!" I, of course, could rejoice with them. He had escaped with four others: his master was to send them to Richmond. S. E. F.

--Extracts from Letters of Teachers and Superintendents of the New-England Freedmen's Aid Society, Fifth Series, Oct. 15, 1864

We want some block-letters to carry in our pockets, and a ground-frame to build sentences in.

--Lucy Chase, Extracts from Letters of Teachers and Superintendents of the New-England Freedmen's Aid Society, Fifth Series, Oct. 15, 1864

After the lessons, we used to talk freely to the children, often giving them slight sketches of some of the great and good men. Before teaching them the “John Brown” song, which they learned to sing with great spirit, Miss T. told them the story of the brave old man who had died for them. I told them about Toussaint, thinking it well they should know what one of their own color had done for his race. They listened attentively, and seemed to understand. We found it rather hard to keep their attention in school. It is not strange, as they have been so entirely unused to intellectual concentration. It is necessary to interest them every moment, in order to keep their thoughts from wandering. Teaching here is consequently far more fatiguing than at the North. In the church, we had of course but one room in which to hear all the children; and to make one’s self heard, when there were often as many as a hundred and forty reciting at once, it was necessary to tax the lungs very severely.

--Charlotte Forten, "Life on the Sea Islands" The Atlantic Monthly, May and June, 1864

We had more than one thousand (1000) children, and seventy-five adults; and found time, after disciplining them, to hear the readers, to instruct the writers, and to teach the multitude from the blackboard. Again, today, we had a huge school of nine hundred. We divided the school into classes, and made assistant teachers of the advanced children.

--Lucy Chase to Anna Lowell, Richmond, April 20, 1865

As I am alone, of course, the school is ungraded, and my classes are many; but I keep school until half past three; and, very often until four o'clock, and so I am able to add what I will call intellectual exercises to the ordinary exercises. I oblige every class to learn the meaning of all the important words in every-days reading-lessons; and I am daily gratified by their promptness and accuracy in defining the words, when they stand in class. I appoint, every morning, one from each class as interlocutor, and I oblige the whole school to listen to all the definitions; while all who can write, put upon their slates the words in their own lessons, with the definitions thereof. Time is demanded for that exercise, but it is indeed well spent. The children, all of them, enjoy it. Most of them comprehend it, and their wits are perceptibly quickened by it. I have one class in the Fr'dm'ns Book which offers an amazing store of valuable words. I frequently call the attention of the whole school to illustrations of the meaning of familiar words. I spend a good deal of time in teaching Arithmetic both Mental and Written. Many of the children add, almost without halting, long columns of figures which I place upon the black-board, and many of them can mentally add, subtract, multiply and divide, units tens, and even hundreds, with readiness. I spend so much time upon these exercises that I can mark the improvement, which is rapid. I have three classes in Geography, and I give, daily, lessons to the whole school on Maps. All the children can navigate the Gulfs and Bays of the Globe, and they are now journeying with pleasure through the U.S., halting at the capital cities and sailing on the pleasant rivers. In addition to the defining exercise, of which I have told you, I hear the spelling and defining of the words above the reading lessons, and I also hear the whole school spell daily from a speller. Pleasant though my task is, I have all the trials that every teacher must have, who—empty handed, takes charge of a school that, for three previous winters, has had a rod suspended over it.

--Lucy Chase to Anna Lowell, Gordonsville, VA., December 14, 1869

Many thanks for your beautiful present to my school--I mean the large singing-card. The children are delighted with it. They learn an air very quickly if they only have something to read the words from, and a want of hymn-books has been my chief want in singing. I have heard of these cards before and wished I had some.

--Jane Briggs Smith to William Fuller Fiske, April 11, 1869


Disciplinary Methods of Freedmen's Teachers

Like all those who find themselves in charge of classrooms, freedmen's teachers needed to find ways of creating order. Most found their students lively and unaccustomed to the discipline of a schoolroom but agreed that whipping a child was unacceptable. Teachers were surprised that parents seemed to look on the use of force as advisable. Yet, the experience of slavery had probably taught many African-Americans to expect authority figure to use physical punishment to enforce discipline.

Letter to a Freedmen's Teacher Lucy Chase from the Parent of Two Students


Classroom Discipline and the Question of Punishment 

I point to sleep--s-l-e-e-p. "Sheep." "No, sheep is s-h-e-e-p." "Oh, yes, that's a lamb," screams a little voice, for all my children scream, and I am forced, as Sarah says, "to outscream the screamiest."

--Lucy Chase, April 1, 1863

We have our sympathies called out, almost every day, for the innocent children who are harshly beaten by their will-enemies, their harsh mama’s. Close by us lives a black woman who lashes her little boy with a raw-hide. We have remonstrated repeatedly, but she “Reckons I shall beat my boy just as much as I please, for all Miss Chase,” and she does beat him till his cries wring the anguish from our hearts. We complained of her to the Provost Marshall and, for a few days, she has been more quiet, so we think he must have visited her. “A few licks now and then, does em good,” a sweet woman said to us once in extenuation of her practice of beating. Many a father and mother have begged me to beat their children at school. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” is on every mothers tongue. “Now you whip her and make a good girl out of her,” the kindest mother says when she trusts her sweetest child to us.

--Letter from Lucy Chase, Norfolk Va., July 1, 1864

I have found no case of insubordination; but the children in the streets, as well as in the schoolroom, are ready to obey us, I think, from the love and respect they have for us, their teachers.

--E.C.W., Extracts from Letters of Teachers and Superintendents of the New England Freedmen's Aid Society, October, 1864

They are easily governed after the first--when they find what must be done & that it must be done. They are affectionate& polite. Indeed I think this a very polite race. I never saw more polished manners among any people than among the common laborers here.

--Jane Briggs Smith to William Fuller Fiske, Hilton Head, S. C., June 25, 1865

Thus far, school dutys have taken all my time: -- my scholars are of the lowest class – and very hard to controll. Accustomed, as they are to rough treatment, they do not appear to consider any command obligatory unless accompanied by a blow; and as my conscience will not allow the looked for blow – it is exceedingly exhausting to keep the order I will and do have.

--Sarah Chase, (probably to Fred W. May) Charleston, South Carolina, December 7, 1866

1. Means used to secure good discipline, and create a high moral tone in a school.

Miss Canedy believes that much is gained by cultivating an “esprit de corps” In a school; by having good surroundings in the school-room, and by self-discipline in the teacher. “It is important to tell scholars what to do, but undesirable to remind them what they must not do, and best to have as few rules as possible. Teachers must try to be what they teach their scholars to be.” She disapproves of corporal punishment. “In taking a rough school, a teacher may not obtain good order, at first, without it, but time and patience will bring it.” She has seen many times when she wished she felt It right to whip; “but, once principled against whipping, other means can be found, better for the Individual and for the scholar.” As a last resource, she would claim the right of expulsion from the school.

Miss Botume suggested that, by whipping, a teacher was countenancing the ordinary mode of punishment in the families of the freedmen. She once “stood a child up in a corner,” and the mother objected,— was willing she should give the child “a licking,” but couldn’t have her feelings hurt.

Miss Gardner added that affection for the teacher should be a large element in discipline; she would give scholars plenty to do, and pleasant, attractive schoolrooms as aids in this direction.

Miss Gibbons writes, “I have found positiveness the key to discipline.” Mr. Lewis “would practise a kind, firm, judicious discipline, avoiding all indiscreet haste and corporal punishment.” Mr. Whitehouse writes thus: “Firmness coupled with kindness will usually secure good discipline; and great carefulness on the part of the teacher to correct little misdemeanors at the outset, and to make what we call little faults appear fully as serious as they really are, will generally secure a high moral tone. Many rules are only obstacles to a school’s progress. A few good regulations, well carried out, are what we need. A punishment should be given, it seems to me, only when a scholar has been guilty of a wilful violation of these rules.” Punishment should, whenever possible, have a relation to offences committed. Children will thus begin early to perceive that natural penalties follow broken laws, and later to recognize the importance of self-discipline.

--"Report of Teachers' Meeting," The Freedmen's Record, April, 1869

Freedmen's Teachers as Providers of Aid

Because the former slaves often had critical needs for food, clothing, and shelter, most of the agents of the freedmen's benevolent organization found themselves struggling to distribute supplies fairly or to teach how to make or repair clothing.

Below is a page of a letter in which Sarah Chase itemized the way she had spent ten dollars sent by one of the groups that supported her work  The laudanum salts, extract of ginger, turpentine, and perhaps the oil, would have been used as medicines.  Laudanum, used to treat a wide range of medical complaints in the 19th century, was a solution of opium and would have been available without a prescription. Perhaps not surprisingly, laudanum addiction was a problem in 19th century society.  And while turpentine is treated today primarily as a dangerous toxin, it was often given in a solution to children during the Civil War period. 

In the text that appears below the list, Sarah's explains each entry.  (Notice that some of the entries above have numbers next to them indicating the stories with which they correspond.)  Undoubtedly, such an accounting would have satisfied her donors that their money was used for good purposes while also giving them an intimate look at the lives--and needs--of the freedmen.



$1. made a nourishing soup for the party for one day & a good meat dinner for the next. 2. Carried a woman with her children & "pack" to the hospital. 3. enabled an old rheumatic man, to "get about a little to pick up jobs to earn a little to keep his old body alive—" he could not step on the ground without shoes, & was wholly dependent on others—while with them he takes care of himself. 4 & 5 purifications after Small Pox, for a very old woman & a blind man. 6 sent an old man, who could do nothing for himself, to his friends who will take care of him as long as he lives. 7 furnished three loaves to a sick woman with young children—whose husband finds him-self free to run away from home and its duties. 8 sent a Dr. to an intense sufferer and to an old man who thought he could "knock about and get his food for the chores he could do when he got about." Both should have had attention long before, but could not afford it. 9 Poor Ben is released from his suffering, which has confined him for three yrs. to his bed. Always gentle and patient, never blaming his hard master for over straining him as a dray man: after having been told by the Dr., "You'd better not let your smart little dray man lift so much alone—or you'll lose him." 10th has relieved many violent attacks among the old and poor people—curing some cases where "Missus allers use to give me whisky when I was so"—(I can give no spirits)

.--Letter from Sarah Chase, May 2, 1866



 Testifying to the Needs of the Freed

I did not tell you, in its place, that, at the Jail Yard, where we gradually gathered bunks, stoves are absolute necessaries for the refugees. We have been in the habit of patching, and teaching patching, causing boys, in some instances, to patch their clothing on their backs. The Friends (Orthodox in N.Y. and Orthodox and Hicksite in Phila) have sent to us far the larger part of our clothing. Surprisingly excellent it has been, all new, stout as heart (or body) could wish. . . .

I think I must have distributed at least sixty or seventy boxes and barrels of clothing, and must have clothed two Thousand people or more. When I came here, a year ago, the Orthodox fr'ds of Phil had spent six thousand dollars for clothing, and had made seven thousand garments. A few weeks ago, the Hicksites in Phil, had then just bought three thousand dollars worth of material, and money was constantly flowing in. I ought to state N Y frds Phil frds & Boston Ed. Com have sent me two thousand books, some slates & c.

Oh I have almost lost my breath in writing.

Some of my pupils are orphans, and have no homes, only as they stay for a few days here and there. One of my boys said to me when I asked him where he was going to stay that night, he answered that he could stay where he did the night before—in the street.
I had a Sunday school at 9 o’clock, and the attendance is good. I keep them about an hour and a half. A little girl, on hearing me say I came a long way to teach them, asked if I came from heaven.

With all the destitution and suffering I have met with, I have never once heard them deny that they preferred poverty with freedom to comfort with slavery. The uncles and aunts all hope better things for the children, and believe they will get them.

I visited a camp some two miles from here, and outside the lines, which number some 400 persons, I did not see one who had a change of clothing, and some had on but one garment, and that made of tent cloth.

—“From Miss Barnes., The National Freedman, New York, April 1, 1865, 75

Questions and answers ran thus: "Have you a blanket?"—"No my dear missus; no blanket! De Yankee soldiers take ebry ting; blanket, dress, pot, ebry ting; not ting leff, missus; jess what got on."-"Yes," I said, "you need some clothes to change, so as to wash these and be clean." —" Yes, missus, we loves to be clean, but I wear dis close eber since come from de robs; five week, missus." —" Well," I said, "your underclothes are cut out; if I give you thread, needles and thimbles, can you sew and make a shirt, &c.?"—"Yes, missus, I sew; I know; ebry one sew; do, missus; beg you give we sometings." Mary, a middle-aged woman with a bad cough, and other diseases, which had become almost chronic, arose from her ragged covering and straw on the floor, with a face beautiful from suffering and resignation, simply standing, without asking for any thing. . . .

I passed into the larger room; no one North would believe that our land held such scenes within her borders. Three young men, sick, lay on the floor with nothing but a filthy blanket. No straw, no pillow! One emaciated form had neither coat or blanket,—had been struggling with life for 6 or 7 weeks, till now his voice had no strength to make replies. A half loaf of dry bread, and a little boiled rice in a tin can was waiting on the floor by each head. . . .

Went to church to look after the sick; saw a tall black man, newly arrived, with fine Roman features; he was shivering in rags; said his name was "Oliver." "What is your other name?" I said. " Why, ma'am, I never had any other name." Yet he was seventy years, of splendid figure using excellent language, and would command respect from any human observer. Told Oliver if he would wash the "yellow boy" in warm water, and dress him in a clean suit, I would give him (Oliver) a new suit. He did so, came to our house, and dressed himself below. He could not sufficiently express his thankfulness. "Why, my dear missus, thank God, I never expected to see such white ladies on this earth! I pray we shall meet in heaven. God bless you! This is the first time, my missus, I ever put on stockings in my life! If the master (Mr. Pillsbury) comes home, I will fall on my knees and beg him to stay here, for I like to have good owners." Has a hard cough,—kept him three days with me. I was not surprised that he never expected to find humane "white ladies," when he related, in the course of his history, how his mistress had bound his arms around the "whipping tree" with her own womanly chivalric hands, and then stood by to superintend the bloody lash!

--A. F. Pillsbury, March 7, 1865, "Extracts from Teachers' Letters," The Freedmen's Record, April, 1865

We tell our scholars to report all cases of sickness ect & then we investigate. Last week I got a woman out of the wood who was living there with her child--her feet frost bitten & she having nowhere to go. Today we find shelter for an infirm old man who had scooped a hole in the hill side to crawl in at night--when well he tried hard to get "some kind of work Missus--but everybody says no! you're too old to do anything--and won't let me show em what I can do."

--Sarah Chase to Fred May, Columbus, Georgia, March 9, 1866


Other Roles of Freedmen's Teachers

As the "Second Annual Report of the New England Freedmen's Aid Society" (The Freedmen's Record, April, 1865) explained, freedmen's teachers were not just teachers in the ordinary sense of the word. In addition to providing instruction in "the ordinary branches of school education" they were expected to teach "lessons of industry, of domestic management and thrift, lessons of truth and honesty," all of which were considered prerequisites for civilized life.

Yet, the comments of the teachers suggest that even this seemingly expansive definition of their role did not adequately describe the extraordinary range of responsibilities they actually took on in their work.

"Second Annual Report of the New England Freedmen's Aid Society, "
The Freedmen's Record, April, 1865


 Teachers Describe Their Duties

Such rich mines of purest love as are here I never dreamt of--"Bless de Lord da goes Miss Sarah, de good Lord foller her every step" and "dah's my lady. I prays for her every day and de children "will as long as dey live"--how many times a day I hear expressions of this kind which make me happy and stimulate me to higher endeavor--The over estimation in which I am held humbles me with the knowledge of my shortcomings but makes me constantly endeavor to do my best in all things.

--Sarah Chase to her father, [1863]

My dear Miss Stevenson,

I despair of time in which to write as fully as I wish to do; so I will satisfy myself by giving a few items only. Upon Craney Island, we "cared for," (very indifferently and superficially, of course) two thousand negroes. Eighteen hundred we found there; and from three to five hundred came, at different times, later. "We clothed them; helped them patch their rags; caused them to make bed-ticks for themselves; tried to teach them cleanliness; made both slates and pencils for them from slate tiles (not knowing that you would give us slates for the asking). Taught some—yes, many, to read and write, working ourselves twelve hours a day. Lived upon the Isd four months, counting the weeks we spent there in July, (at which time, in the absence of the Surgeon, we acted as Superintendents in every department of labor). The people then upon the Isd were refugees from Suffolk, driven into Norfolk by the withdrawal of our troops from S. We staid with them until the Island was depopulated, by command of Gen. Naglee, on account of its having been declared by him outside the lines. Negro troops were, later, stationed upon it.

When we left the Isd in May, we followed the fifteen hundred who had gone from it upon the main-land. Six or eight hundred went upon farms. Upon two only of twenty farms were there teachers, and Dr. Brown convinced us of the importance of going from farm to farm to look after the general welfare of the laborers. With cart and driver following us in Gov Wise's carriage we went with clothing books and slates, gathered all together, gave garments to the needy, and taught all, forming classes, and encouraging all to help themselves between our visits. Many of them really learned to read after learning on our first visit the Alphabet. So far as possible— with the constant breaking down of our confiscated carriages, and rumored nearness of guerillas, their actual presence, also, on the farms, and change of lines putting some farms beyond reach—we made this work of prime importance. Then, as on the Isd and as now, keeping track of newcomers, and giving them needful aid, helping them to their friends, if they could be found, caring for their sick, always giving them an immediate and powerful dose of Letters.

For three months, in addition to our other labors, we taught daily in Mr. Coan's large school of four hundred. After his health gave way, my sister took charge of the school, for two or three weeks, and left it, only to assist us in opening our own, which, in a few days, will be under the care of six teachers, really representing your Ass—. About one hundred scholars we now have. The number is constantly increasing. Five hours daily our school is in session. Each scholar constantly at work under some Teacher. I forgot to mention that for three months (while working on the farms) my sister and I lived on a Farm in Portsmouth, where we had seventy negroes under our care, teaching all who could come to school, and giving instruction to the farm negroes in the neighborhood.

Several hundred have been taught directly by us. I suppose more than two thousand clothed. Our work is never done. We dont know what leisure is. Papers come, and we don't open them. Books are something we used to enjoy. All this, not because we are really industrious, but because it chances that our early arrival here made it necessary for us to work in a multitude of ways; and our work is of all times and seasons. . . .

--Lucy Chase to Hannah Stevenson, Dec. 9, [1863?]

Some, who, three months ago, knew absolutely nothing, are now reading quite well, almost at the end of " Sanders's First Reader," and have learned to write quite decently, by copying their lessons on their slates, by the aid of the writing lessons in "The Freedman," picking out each letter as they wanted it. I have been astonished to see how well this plan has succeeded, without taking one moment of my time. The whole school can repeat all the multiplication table in concert, and nearly all the tables of time, money, &c.

--F. W. P. "Letters from the Distict of Columbia," Extracts from Letters of Teachers and Superintendents of the New-England Freedmen's Aid Society, Fifth Series, Oct. 15, 1864

In May, Dr. B. convinced us that it was necessary that some one should go from farm to farm to look after the laborers. (Upon two only of the twenty farms there were teachers.) So, in May, we went to Portsmouth, establishing ourselves upon a Government farm, where more than seventy Coney-Islanders gave us a hearty welcome. We had schools for them and for neighbors. When our always uncertain, tumble-down carriages could be put in order, when guerillas were not nigh, when the lines did not cast themselves into new places, and leave outside farm after farm, well-tilled and well-peopled, we went from farm to farm, taking clothing, books, and slates. We called all together, dressed the needy, taught the young and the very old, encouraged them to study while we were away, and would see absolute progress during our absence. Then and now we kept track of new-comers; helping them to their friends, and caring for their sick, and giving them always an immediate and very powerful dose of letters.

For three months, in addition to our other labors, we taught daily in Mr. Coati's school of four hundred. After his health gave way, my sister took charge of it for several weeks, Miss M. H. C.; and I assisted her. We left solely to open our own school; which, in a few days, will be under the care of six teachers representing your Association.

Our early arrival here made it necessary for us to work in a multitude of ways; and still our work is of all times and seasons, — never done. We don't know what leisure is.

We want some block-letters to carry in our pockets, and a ground-frame to build sentences in. L. C

--Extracts from Letters of Teachers and Superintendents of the New-England Freedmen's Aid Society, Fifth Series, Oct. 15, 1864

There are now in town ten teachers each from the Educational Commission, Am. Miss. Society, and National Freedmen’s Ass. Each society having its mission house and (excepting us) a housekeeper; the schools are graded & each teacher has about fifty pupils – a Normal School has just been created from the most advanced in the other schools; and Miss Kennedy, lately of New Berne, a fine woman, has charge of it. Each teacher is to have a thorough knowledge of the familys of her pupils, and report cases of sickness and suffering to us for investigation—no giving orders on our stores for things needful. All things to whatever person in the Dept. are put in the common stock of our two stores in Norfolk and Portsmouth. Two ladies in each keeping thorough business accts and allowing nothing to go out without an order signed by L. or S. E. Chase. All who come to us personally are visited, and their cases carefully considered before anything is done for them. It is a cause of rejoycing that we have got the clothing so well organized.

-- Sarah Chase, Office Ass’t Quartermaster & Sup’t of Contrabands, Norfolk, Va. Nov. 18, 1864

My school hours are from nine to one; after that I have letters to read & write . . . .The rest of my duty consists in calling among the people, hearing their stories, & learning their wants; &in my evening school for adults.

--Jane Briggs Smith to William Fuller Fiske, Hilton Head, S. C., June 25, 1865

The poor people pay unreasonable rent for miserable quarters—and have chills & fever much—from stagnant water about their places; I show them how to drain and put things to rights about their homes.

--Sarah Chase to Fred May, March, probably 1866

Teaching school is only part of my business (of course, the chief part); but I am called upon to act as physician, nurse, notary public, church-warden, justice of the peace (don't laugh, please, at my high-sounding letters, for they are very serious things), undertaker, and corresponding secretary, for all the colored population between Newbern and Beaufort. Were it not that my son has learned to meet the demands of the people almost as well as myself, I could not find time to do all that is required. Have been very busy the last week vaccinating the people, as the small pox is very "brief" in Newbern (as the colored folks say).

--Caroline E. Croome, "From North Carolina," The Freedmen's Record, June, 1866, 118.


Freedmen's Teachers' Responses to Their Work

Sarah Chase, December 29, 1866

"What Could Make Us Happier?"

We are, today, practicing homeopathically in the distribution of needles pins and thread. A quarter of a spool of cotton, one needle; and two pins! to a full grown woman! rolling no one in riches, but enabling the community to be shareholders in our limited stock of necessaries for neatness. Such work, may seem to you more insignificant than measuring long lines of tape behind a counter, but based on such a course of action the closest calculation how to best meet the needs of the many, vital needs, too, it is surely, in my eyes, a noble work.

--Lucy Chase, Craney Island, South Carolina, January 29, 1863

Sarah and I are very hapy here, happy enough to say many times that we are very happy.

. . . To be in at the birth! is it not something to rejoice in? Great plans that are not yet afoot but are creeping into strength and promise spring daily, from the Dr's brain, shining with the prestige of success of their antecedents. It is certainly very good for us to be here.

--Lucy Chase, February 7, 1863

This is a most absorbing life: there is so much to be done, one never feels like stopping anywhere through the hours of the day. It is death to ennui. I, for one, was never so truly happy as in this work; for I have worked with more earnest purpose than ever before.

--M. H. C., "Letters from Virginia," Extracts from Letters of Teachers and Superintendents of the New England Freedmen's Aid Society, 1864

I am now comfortably ensconced in my new home, and when I get about my work think I shall be very happy. The clouds, which have been so densely gathering, and darkening down the horizon of my inner world, are fast breaking away, though one dark sheet still overspreads the outer sky, — preventing me from enjoying the scenery, which I know must be so charming.

The colored people have been exceedingly kind and attentive to me; ready to do anything for me that is in their power. They were very shy at first, but as soon as convinced that I was really a friend to them, and had come to help them, they flocked from every quarter to render assistance in furnishing my room, bringing chairs, tables, curtain, &c, making their interests one with mine immediately. One mulatto woman said, " I wanted to come to you at once, but did not dare, we have been so afraid of white people. " It is evident they felt their way very cautiously before giving me their confidence.

--Anna Gardner, "Extracts from Teachers' Letters," The Freedmen's Record, December, 1865

I have just come in from our evening school. It is the pleasantest part of our labors. The men are such noble fellows, and they work so hard to learn. O Slavery! "Earth-born Cyclops! fellest of the giant brood!"

--Jane Briggs Smith to William Fuller Fiske, Port Royal, S. C., December 20, 1865

You will forgive the writing in sconsideration of my tired, shaken hand, and also inasmuch as I am using the pen and holder that Grant used just before he left his headquarters at City Point for Richmond. One Monday I was in our Capital, the next Monday ws in Jeff Davis's--in Castle Thunder, the slave pens and Libby. I have thanked God for this day. Oh I am so hapy I know not what to do--God help me to work as I wish--faithfully & effectively.

--Sarah Chase, Richmond, Virginia, April 18, 1865

We are up every morning at the call of our new bell, which hangs high; then to our work, where we are greeted by many bright faces and cheerful "how d'ye's," which inspire us for our day's work. What could make us happier?

--Mary E. Clark, "Extracts from Teachers' Letters," The Freedmen's Record, February, 1866

We have never seen any discourtesy in any of the citizens, but we know that we are generally discussed in circles; and many plans are proposed for “getting rid” of us.—We have glorious schools in full blast - And I am so satisfied with the work here that nothing in the world could make me wish to be in another place, or doing anything else.. .

No mortal is happier than I am in my work; and my success is fairly intoxicating. -- I give no thought to the hatred of the whites, knowing how useful it is my good fortune to be, to the blacks--and how truly they love me. . .

With ever best wishes—singing at the plough. S.E.C.

--Sarah Chase to Sarah R. May, Columbus, Georgia, February 5, 1866

"I shan't go to school no more after you leave us'--said my fond children. You say you love me?" Yes! Yes!! You must wish to please me?" "Yes indeed!" Then you'll go to school--be as good as you can & learn all you can--I told them to come to me freely--let me know of any trouble they or other folks have--and though no more a teacher--they feel I'm ever their friend. Every group of men on the street--white or black--are full of discussion--if white, I wish I could be in broadcloth, long enough to take part; & if black I drop a passing word to their surprise--or stop and have a good talk--Oh--these are glorious days--! And I thank God that I live in them--How grand it is to see a great Nation struggling for principles--rather than power or wealth! As I read the earnest faces, listen to the glowing words or answer the eager questionings of these men--I feel that I am witnessing the birth of a great Nation.

--Sarah Chase to Fred W. May, Charleston, South Carolina, March 22, 1867

I too have spells when a longing for the work--as well as the unique life there at the south, seizes me like a strong spell, and if so much did not constantly present itself to be done, closer at hand--I should have long ago folded my tent and stolen away . . .

--Martha H. Chace to Lucy and Sarah Chase, May 24, 1872


"Extracts from Teachers Letters,"
The Freedmen's Record, June, 1865

"I would not exchange my place
for any situation."


The letter to the left was published in the June, 1865 edition of The Freedmen's Record, the official publication of the New England Freedmen's Aid Society. While the teacher comments on the many challenges she faces each day, she assures her readers: "I would not exchange my place for any situation, however eligible, in the old Bay State."



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