Visions of Freedmen as Scholars

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The rush on the part of benevolent societies to respond to the influx of contrabands with an infusion of freedmen's teachers and schools into the south represented an attempt to correct the practical problem that had been created by a system that made it illegal for slaves to learn to read and write, as well as to respond to the racist stereotypes that had been created by generations of slave owners who had insisted that slaves were incapable of learning. The letters written by the freedmen, freedmen's teachers, and others who witnessed the work of the freedmen's schools provide valuable testimony of the efforts that had been made by African-Americans to learn during the dark days of slavery, their enthusiasm for learning during the war, and the importance they attached to knowledge as a guarantee of freedom.

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Education as a Central Issue in the Debate Over Race and Rights

During the years before, during, and after the war, the question of education was a central issue in the debate over slavery, race, and rights. On one side of the issue were those who argued that African-Americans were incapable of learning. On the other were those who insisted that literacy was an important part of Christianity and democracy. Consequently, literacy narratives--including Frederick Douglass's powerful story of how he taught himself to read--and images of books, reading, and schools became important ingredients in the abolitionist and civil rights movements.


How do images of books, reading, and schools contribute to the meaning of each of the pictures below?

Covers of two editions of The Slave's Friend, an abolitionist magazine for children published by R.G. Williams for the American Anti-Slavery Society between 1836 and 1838.

Left: illustration for "Part II. Life as a Freeman," from Frederick Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855. Right: detail.

Left: L. N. Rosenthal, "The Proclamation of Emancipation," Lithograph, 1865.
Right: detail

Hammat Billings illustration for chapter four of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1853).

Left: illustration of the cover of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, November 19, 1864 depicting the illumination on the headquarters of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Troops in Philadelphia to celebrate the announcement that Maryland had adopted a constitution abolishing slavery in that state. Right: details.

A cartoon by Martin W. Siebert, "Union and Liberty! and Union and Slavery!,"ca. 1864 published during Lincoln's campaign for a second term suggesting that McClelland's policy of reconciliation with the south would lead to the continuation of slavery.

Left: a lithograph by A. Hoen & Company, "Chart of American Freedom or the Death Knell of Slavery," 1865, celebrating the passage of the thirteenth amendment to the constitution. Right: detail.

Left: “Worse Than Slavery,” Harper's Weekly, October 24, 1874, 1878. Right: detail.


Visions of African-Americans as Unintelligent in Northern Publications

While illustrations in Northern Civil War era newspapers such as Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslies ' Illustrated Newspaper depicting African-Americans reading or studying are rare, images and articles representing African-Americans as comically ignorant are fairly easy to find in the pages of those publications.

During the antebellum period, the traditional stereotype of African-Americans as unintelligent had been given new life by minstrel shows, a popular form of entertainment in the United States from the 1830's through the early 1900's. The central feature of these shows was white men wearing black face, singing, dancing, and doing comic routines caricaturing African-Americans as lazy and unintelligent. Ironically, while minstrel shows were based on white men claiming to imitate black men, Civil War era illustrations of black men often seem to imitate characters from minstrel shows, as can be seen below.


A Description of Blackface Minstrelsy

As minstrelsy became more formalized, it moved from separate song-dance numbers to routines including spoken repartee, and finally to elaborate composites of song, dance, and drama. The original foursome of undifferentiated musicians expanded into a line in which customary position corresponded roughly to class identification. The end men, who always played tambourine and bones, were lower classes. By costume and vernacular, they were "plantation nigger," or "broadway dandy,"--often one of each. The middleman, or interlocutor, served as bogus mouthpiece for the high culture. His dress and speech were upper class, sometimes straight, more often burlesqued; and the plot was usually the putting down of the interlocutor by the end man.

*****For blackface minstresly, given its Southern origins, slavery was an inescapable topic. Minstrelsy's political stance was a defense of slavery. That this should seem a statement of the obvious is in itself a revealing commentary. In a broader frame of reference, artistic endeavors aimed at "delineating" the cultural traditions of oppressed or enslaved peoples would more commonly be associated, I think, with ideologies of liberation than of oppression. Minstrelsy, however, faithfully reproduced the white slaveowner's viewpoint.

Old Massa to us darkies am good
Tra la la, tra la la
For he gibs us our clothes and he gibs us our food . . . .

Slaves loved the master. They dreaded freedom because, presumably, they were incapable of self-possession. When forced to leave the plantation they longed only to return. These themes in minstrelsy worked at several levels. On the one hand, propagating the plantation myth, they portrayed slavery as benign and desirable. On the other hand they reinforced the image of the South as symbol of the collective rural past and of individual childhood, thus acquiring an emotional impact logically unrelated to their content. At the same time, the docility attributed to slaves, commendable as this might be to a Southern planter, was certain to strike Northern audiences imbued with Jacksonian principles of upward mobility as ridiculous and contemptible.

-- Alexander Saxton, "Blackface Minstrelsy and Jacksonian Ideology," American Quarterly, March, 1975, pp. 3-28


Minstrel-Influenced Depictions of African Americans?

Probably the two best-known minstrel characters were Jim Crow, the creation of Thomas Dartmouth Rice, and Zip Coon, introduced by George Washington Dixon.

While the two characters were quite distinct--with Jim Crow being portrayed as a country bumpkin and Zip Crow depicted as a flashy, self-important city slicker--more important is their fundamental similarity. Both were racist caricatures that depicted African-Americans as stupid, childish, and grotesque.

The illustration to the right shows Zip Coon in an elaborate uniform. Beneath the picture are the words to a song, intended to be sung to the melody of "Turkey in the Straw." The line, "Ole Zip Coon he is a larn'd scholar," would have provoked laughter because of the audience's assumption that the character was a fool. In fact, the lines which follow reveal that he thinks of himself as a "scholar" because he can play the banjo.

Click on the picture to see a larger version along with the complete lyrics to the song.



In the cartoon above, preserved in a Civil War scrapbook now in the collections of the American Antiquarian Society, a dandy whose clothing and manner are reminiscent of Zip Coon speaks condescendingly to a character drawn in the style of Jim Crow. The "humor" in the cartoon is probably intended to derive from the fact that "Sam" is "worthless" because he had been made "free" by the emancipation proclamation.



“I say, you Sam Johnsing, does you know anything about this woman, Polly Ticks, dat white folks talk so much about?” 

“Well, I doesn’t.  You are too hard for dis child dis time.”

 “Why, Sam, I tort you know’d eberything.” 

“So I doz.  I knows Polly Jones, what sells coffee in the market, and I knows Polly Tomson wat does gwoin out to day’s work; but when it comes to Polly Ticks, I’m bodered.  Guess you’d better ax white folks, Pete; dey peer to know all about her.

New York Illustrated, April 19, 1862


Visions of African-Americans as Students in Northern Publications

Reports on freedmen's schools, such as the one below, often appeared in Northern newspapers during the Civil War. However, pictures of African-American students at freedmen's schools are extremely rare. The illustrations below come from two articles in Harper's Weekly concerning freedmen's education.


A Brief Report on the Schools of the
Pennsylvania Freedman's Relief Association

The “Pennsylvania Freedman’s Relief Association” has charge of 4 schools in South Carolina, 5 in Tennessee, 4 in Alabama, 7 in Washington, 3 in Virginia, with over 3,500 pupils on their registers, and an average attendance of nearly 2,800. The teaching extends generally to geography, sometimes to history, and even physiology. The schools are far from being, as is sometimes asserted, attended mainly by sharp half-breeds. Out of 380 pupils on the school registers of South Carolina, only 38 are mulattoes, 342 pure blacks, and to show that these later fairly enter into the higher studies, it is sufficient to say that the number of pupils who study mental arithmetic is 151; of those who study written arithmetic,117; and geography, 116.

--Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Oct. 28, 1865


Top left: piece torn from notebook owned by Lucy or Sarah Chase listing names of students in a freedmen's school. Top right: "Colored Scholars Learning Their Lessons on the Street," Harper's Weekly, May 25, 1867; middle right; "Colored Scholars on Their Way to School," Harper's Weekly, May 25, 1867; bottom right: "Primary School for Freedmen, in Charge of Mrs. Green in Vicksburg Mississippi--[See page 393]," Harper's Weekly, June 23, 1866, 392.

Noon at the Primary School for Freedmen, Vicksburg, Mississippi--[See page 393]," Harper's Weekly, June 23, 1866, 392


Visions of African-Americans as Students in the Letters of Freedmen's Teachers


While slavery could be ended by proclamation and legislation, racism could not. Many Americans had to be persuaded that African-Americans could be "Americans."

Thus, in addition to providing former slaves with reading, writing, and computational skills, teachers and other members of the freedmen's educational organizations often used descriptions of their teaching experiences to refute the myth that blacks were unable to learn. In fact, teachers almost always exclaimed in their letters over the lively enthusiasm with which freedmen sought out learning.

The testimony and letters of teaches and others who worked with the freedmen often appeared in publications--most notably in the reports circulated by freedmen's aid organizations. The image to the left is taken from the 1864 Report of the Services Rendered by the Freed People to the United States Army in North Carolina. The pamphlet was written and published by Vincent Collyer, who as Superintendent of the Poor under General Burnside during the war established the first school for contrabands in North Carolina.



"A Greed for Letters"

There was a very general desire among the contrabands to know how to read. A few had learned; and these, in every instance where we inquired as to their teacher, had been taught on the sly in their childhood by their white playmates. Others knew their letters, but could not "put them together," as they said. I remember of a summer's afternoon seeing a young married woman, perhaps twenty-five years old, seated on a door-step with her primer before her, trying to make progress.

--Edward L. Pierce, "The Contrabands at Fortress Monroe," Atlantic Monthly, November 1861

Let me relate to you a little incident that will illustrate what I have just said. One day, at Beaufort, soon after we landed, while walking through the upper portion of the town, I heard a little voice saying the alphabet, while another wee voice, scarcely audible, was repeating it after the first. I looked quickly around to discover from whence the voice came; and what do you think I saw? Why, seated on the piazza of a large empty house were two of the blackest little negro children, one about seven, the other not more than three years old. The elder had his arm thrown lovingly around the almost naked form of the other, and with an open primer in the lap of one, they were at their study. An hour after, I returned by the same spot, and was both pleased and surprised to find them still at it. God bless the little ones!

--"Appendix" from Mary S. Peake, the Colored Teacher at Fortress Monroe, 1862 or 1863

Tonight a negro man lifted his hat to Sarah and said "Missuh, please Missuh, may I ask a favor of you, Miss-th?" Sarah expected to be begged for clothing, but when seh said, "Yes," the man said, "Will you be so kind, Miss, as to make me a copy of a b c?" I just heard one of the women in the kitchen say "You can make a hundred out of any number under the sun, over and over again. Two and two and two, ever so many twos, or any number you have a mind." Her listeners seemed incredulous, and inquired, "Fives? Sixes?"

--Lucy Chase, January 15, 1863.

I am rejoicing with the happy negro in his greed for letters. One word of instruction from a teacher brightens the face of the learner with shining content. Frock coat or shoes, he takes as his due; but every step of his creeping progress into the mysteries of letters elevates his spirit like faith in a brilliant promise.

--Lucy Chase, February 7, 1863

They are learning that the world is not bounded north by Charleston, south by Savannah, west by Columbia, and east by the sea . . .They are acquiring the knowledge of figures with which to do the business of life. They are singing the songs of freemen. Visit their schools; remember that a little more than a twelvemonth ago they knew not a letter, and that for generations it has been a crime to teach their race; then contemplate what is now transpiring, and you have a scene which prophets and ages would have delighted to witness. It will be difficult to find equal progress in an equal period since the morning rays of Christian truth first lighted the hill sides of Judea. I have never looked on St. Peter's, or beheld the glories of art which Michel Angelo has wrought or traced; but to my mind the spectacle of these poor souls struggling in darkness and bewilderment to catch the gleams of the upper and better light transcends in moral grandeur anything that has ever come from mortal hands.

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

Description of a night-time party:

Around one fire the boys had gathered to dance and make merry. The door of a fallen barrack was their springkeeping and upon it they performed their jigs and horn-pipes, time to a variety of strange accompaniments the rapid and regular falling of the hands upon the knees, the beating of feet, or the pleasing accompaniment of a tenor and base voice singing alternate strains of music. Of one of their Union songs I remember a few words “Richmond town is burning down.” “High diddle diddle inctum inctum ah.” The byplays and interludes were as good as the play. If a well-to-do dancer had his coat-sleeve pulled or was threatened with a tripe be turned from his partner, and almost before he was missed was rolling and tumbling with his teaser in the sand. Then all were challenged when one boy said, “You can’t spell every.” “Ev -ev ry ry- evry,” said one and another each trying, all interested, and those who could say, with the pride of sure knowledge, “Ev- ev, Er-er- Ever-y,” looking, for a moment, every inch the pedagogue. Spelling is with them an exciting pastime. When at work toting the barrack-boards to the wharf, men, women and children spelled aloud for their own private ears, though we heard now and then “B-o-a-r-d, Board,” “H-o-u-s-e, House.”

--Letter from Lucy Chase to Her Family, Craney Island, VA., Sept. 30, 1863

Yesterday, my sister repeated an oft-repeated experiment of ours. She formed a class of the new-comers at the Jail-Yard, and made of them discipline-drillers and boys of letters! in a few moments. Satchels and school-bells make truants and idlers; but, to the dark ones who have broken through the fence of witholding, and have run into golden opportunities, round O and crooked S are a surprise and delight. And the picking-up propensity which slavery engendered in the pinched African, stimulated anew by enlarged opportunity makes thrifty husbandmen of them all. So they shoulder the ax a-x, pick up the b-o-x box, play with c-a-t and d-o-g and fill their baskets with a multitude of words.

--Letter from Lucy Chase to Anna Lowell, Norfolk, VA, November 29, 1863

I never before saw children so eager to learn, although I had had several years’ experience in New-England schools. Coming to school is a constant delight and recreation to them. They come here as other children go to play. The older ones, during the summer, work in the fields from early morning until eleven or twelve o’clock, and then come into school, after their hard toil in the hot sun, as bright and as anxious to learn as ever.        

Of course there are some stupid ones, but these are the minority. The majority learn with wonderful rapidity. Many of the grown people are desirous of learning to read. It is wonderful how a people who have been so long crushed to the earth, so imbruted as these have been, — and they are said to be among the most degraded negroes of the South, — can have so great a desire for knowledge, and such a capability for attaining it. One cannot believe that the haughty Anglo-Saxon race, after centuries of such an experience as these people have had, would be very much superior to them. And one’s indignation increases against those who, North as well as South, taunt the colored race with inferiority while they themselves use every means in their power to crush and degrade them, denying them every right and privilege, closing against them every avenue of elevation and improvement. Were they, under such circumstances, intellectual and refined, they would certainly be vastly superior to any other race that ever existed.      

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

“Oh, Miss, all I want to do is to sing and shout!” said our little pet, Amaretta. And sing and shout she did, to her heart’s content.

She read nicely, and was very fond of books. The tiniest children are delighted to get a book in their hands. Many of them already know their letters. The parents are eager to have them learn. They sometimes said to me, — “Do, Miss, let de chil’en learn eberyting dey can. We nebber hab no chance to learn nuttin’, but we wants de chil’en to learn.”        

They are willing to make many sacrifices that their children may attend school. One old woman who had a large family of children and grandchildren, came regularly to school in the winter, and took her seat among the little ones. She was at least sixty years old. Another woman — who had one of the best faces I ever saw—came daily, and brought her baby in her arms. It happened to be one of the best babies in the world, a perfect little “model of deportment,” and allowed its mother to pursue her studies without interruption.

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

The reception of a large outline map, the gift of' a friend in Boston, has been the great event of the month. I wish the kind donor could have seen the flashing eyes and upraised hands that greeted the new wonder as it was unrolled before the class in geography; and I wish that everybody who still entertains a doubt as to the teachableness of the black could have heard the questions that were asked about it. "Where is President Lincoln's State? Where are the railroads? Where is the Union army?"—"Oh, I know: I see the camps " said one, pointing to the tent-like figures used to represent chains of mountains. "Which is the biggest, Long Island or Roanoke? Didn't Gen. Washington live in Virginia? Was he secesh? Didn't Gen. Burnside come from Rhode Island?" &c., &c. On the right of the map, a little east of North Carolina and Virginia, is an enclosure containing "New England, on an enlarged scale" One of' the most observing pupils soon discovered it, and asked if there was "another New England that was an island in the Atlantic Ocean?"

The awakening intellect of the blacks manifests itself with a beautiful freedom in asking questions. One might listen for a twelvemonth in many a "white school," as I have good reason to know, without hearing as many intelligent questions as have been asked by these children during the month just closed. But while there is less of listlessness and indifference among these children than among the whites, to whom school has become an old story, there is among the younger ones a large amount of attempted fun and frolic, with very little effort at its concealment. The long and high pews in our church schoolrooms furnish excellent facilities for ouch development. Coming quietly upon a group at play on one of these pew-floors, I asked, while straightening them, "What good does it do you to come to school?" One of the most roguish suddenly became very serious, and replied, " If we are educated, they can't make slaves of us again."

The school has been frequently visited, during the last month, by the parents of the children, to inquire about their behavior, and express gratitude that they could enjoy "such privileges."

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

A good old woman said, '' Seems like you North folks would like to have us have some knowledge and some sense if you could put it into us. The North Carolina folks have kept us in the dark, but you folks want to put some light into us.''

--Lucy Chase, January 15, 1865

An aged woman was seen kneeling outside the school-house at Port Royal. “Why don’t you go inside, aunty?” said one of the teachers. “Oh, bless you, honey! I’m too old to learn; but I’ve got a grandchild in there, and I’m just praising God, outside here, for the chance she’s got.”

--Freedmen’s Record, Boston, February, 1865, 21

The wonderful accounts of their eagerness to learn have not been exaggerated, although I had thought so before leaving home. The little ones five or six years old are about as witchy and heedless as such children in our schools at the North, with all the variety of capacity; but those twelve and thirteen, who never have been to school, you cannot conceive of more earnest, attentive pupils. There's Hector, that boy with the red shirt, which speaks in glowing colors of the generosity of some lady of the North; just see him, he can't be more than eight, yet in his arms he brings "his baby," by one hand he leads his two year old brother, and in the other, with his arm around the wee thing, he holds a cup of rice; carefully covered over it is a piece of old cloth. One child he disposes of on the floor at his feet with the rice, while the other he holds most maternally. The novelty of things around fixes their attention for a little while; but soon even this tires, and baby in arms shows various signs of crying; when the boy mother, in a most peculiar manner, and with great tact, swings it to and fro, at the same time crowding in rice as if to force back the coming cry; and the child, as if in compassion for his beseeching look, is quiet a little longer, and Hector asks for a book. All is quiet for a few moments, and then the cry again: now nothing quiets; the jolting, the swinging, the trotting, the tossing, is all in vain; and I have to say, "Hector, take the children in the yard till I call you;" and his face will be so sad as he gathers them up, that I long to have him remain: but he must go, or soon all six of the babies would join in one grand chorus. These last few days I have been trying a new method; that is, sending all the babies, those in arms, and those too young to attempt to teach, out on the grass with an older one to care for them: the first day it was in vain I asked for a volunteer nurse; and at last appointed one, assuring her she should read just the same, and be relieved by another in half an hour.

--Letter from E.K. , "Extracts from Teachers Letters," The Freedmen's Record, August, 1865, 133-134.


Visions of African-Americans as Students in the Letters of Freedmen

A collection of approximately twenty letters written by freedmen to teachers Lucy and Sarah Chase are preserved today at the American Antiquarian Society. Although the letters reflect the different writing abilities and interests of those who wrote them, it is clear that these students were committed to learning and grateful for the opportunities provided by the freedmen's teachers. Below are just afew examples. For others, see Letters from Students of the Freedmen's Schools.

"We have not forgotten 2 times 1 are 2 and 5 times 5 are 25." -- David Barr

"I did not appreciate untill now that you was so good & I am determined to learn all I can." -- Moses Hume

"Nor have I forgot that pretty little speller that you gave me before you went away."
-- David Barr

"Father says that I learn very fast and went to the Preacher and talk about going to the
college . . ."--Dennis Adams

"We can never forget those pleasant evening that was so kindly devoted to our improvement. We can never never forget . . . "--Elias T. Jefferson


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