- Reviewed by
Ronald E. Butchart's Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876 offers an important corrective to historians' understanding of the education of African Americans during Reconstruction. In engaging prose and drawing on scrupulous research, Butchart upends conventional wisdom about the teachers' backgrounds and provides new insight into the teaching and learning that occurred in the classrooms.
Historians have long argued that well-off, white abolitionist "Yankee schoolmarms" made up the majority of the teaching corps in the Reconstruction South. While the interpretations of the teachers' motivations, effectiveness, and influence have differed, the basic portrait has remained the same. Butchart paints a radically different picture, in which African Americans from the North and the South, white Southerners, and men play a much bigger role. He introduces statistics such as the fact that African Americans made up a third of the teachers, that there were up to six thousand white southern teachers by 1871 and that the majority of northern white teachers did not have a strong commitment to abolition. The book provides ample documentation of his claims, not only within the text, but also with tables and two appendixes that break up the teaching population by race, gender, and geographic origin.
Butchart's conclusions are based on the work of the Freedmen's Teacher Project, which he founded to answer questions raised through his work on Northern Schools, Southern Blacks, and Reconstruction (1980). The goal of the project is "to positively identify as many as possible of the women and men who taught in southern black schools between 1861 and 1876," and it has compiled information [End Page 106] on over 11,600 people (p. xvii). Butchart estimates that two-thirds of the teachers have been identified, speculating that it may be impossible to recover the rest. Earlier scholars have leaned heavily on the American Missionary Association archives; while not dismissing their importance, Butchart and his researchers have turned to a broader range of sources, including the Freedmen's Bureau, military and pension records, college archives, and city directories.
Far from offering a dry statistical analysis, Butchart includes biographical profiles at the beginning and end of each chapter specifically about the teaching population, as well as weaving details throughout the text; he often uses the teachers' own words. These details, along with his lucid writing, bring to life these historical actors and create a complex, compelling portrait of the motivations and experiences of the teachers and the freed people.
Butchart's analysis of what was actually taught and the pedagogy employed is also revelatory. He outlines the debates about curriculum, looks carefully at curricular material and its distribution, and ultimately concludes, "The very fact that the teachers expected their black students to master the same curriculum as white students, using exactly the same curricular material, and the students' unmistakable success in mastering that curriculum, taught powerful lessons to the freed people about their teachers' expectations and their own capabilities" (p. 131). He also notes that some teachers adopted a modern, "urban" pedagogy, although Butchart's passionate claims about the significance of this development ring like a rare moment of overreaching in this work.
While the book opens with a rumination on the significance of education for the freed people, Butchart concludes by tying the attacks on schools, teachers, and students to white Southerners' violent opposition to the black franchise. He forcefully argues that they both stood in defiance of white supremacy and together symbolized African American agency and determination. Butchart finally laments, however, that education "proved, in the final analysis, inadequate in the face of white oppression" (p. 178). [End Page 107]
Schooling the Freed People is an important piece in historians' long project of revising their understanding of Reconstruction. But it is also a model of how to integrate detailed statistical information into a compelling narrative. For that, it deserves to be read by scholars far beyond the field of nineteenth-century American history...