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  • Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America
  • Ellen L. Berg
Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America. By Hilary J. Moss. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. xv + 274 pp. $37.50 cloth.

In Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America, Hilary J. Moss examines debates over race and education at the time of the common school movement. Drawing on evidence from public discourse about education and race as well as non-narrative sources detailing residential and occupational segregation, Moss employs a chronological approach to examine opposition to and support of African American education in three cities—New Haven, Baltimore, and Boston—between 1827 and 1855. This fine-grained approach allows her to delve into the specifics of local community dynamics. She argues that by organizing common schools for the purpose of training children for citizenship, early educational reformers provided justification, perhaps inadvertently, for the exclusion of African Americans from those institutions due to the contested nature of that population's claims to being both citizens and Americans. Examining a subject usually explored by historians of education, Moss adds perspective to how Americans' "beliefs about civic inclusion and national identity" were reflected in debates surrounding the public schools (p. 8).

Moss's analysis is divided into three sections, each investigating one of the case cities. Section one examines opposition to African American education in New Haven as well as activism by some blacks and whites in support of higher education for African Americans. Moss finds that as activists moved away from supporting colonization to promoting abolitionism, community feeling against African American education grew. For New Haven residents, debates over education were proxies for disagreements about African Americans' rights more broadly.

In section two on Baltimore, Moss discusses how the presence of slavery in that city meant that education and citizenship were fundamentally unconnected, [End Page 167] unlike in the free states of the North. While the community of free blacks in Baltimore was the largest in the country, expanded in part by the popularity of gradual manumission agreements there, the total percentage of African Americans in Baltimore was lower than in southern cities such as New Orleans and Charleston. Moss argues that the free blacks of Baltimore subsequently had greater educational opportunity than those of other southern cities, where the education of blacks was perceived as more of a threat.

The final section, examining Boston, traces the ways in which the rise of public education coincided with debates over school desegregation, which was achieved in that city in 1855. While many blacks sought integrated schools as a sign of their equality with whites, others worried about losing control over their children's education. Whites who opposed the building of one particular school for African Americans tended to fear neighborhood decline rather than the effects of the education itself, Moss finds.

Moss offers an important corrective to the literature of the common schools by identifying race as a factor in their development to be considered alongside the motivating factors previously identified by Carl Kaestle: "republicanism, Protestantism, and the development of capitalism" (p. 9). American public schools, then as now, developed unevenly based on local priorities and conditions. With her detailed case examinations, Moss brings into focus the localized debates that contributed to the patchwork nature of American educational policy during these decades. For readers better versed in the civil rights struggles of the mid-twentieth century than the nineteenth century, this book provides awareness of both white and black activism surrounding integration that preceded Brown v. Board of Education by more than a century.

Moss does not shape her analysis toward extensive conversation with historians of childhood, largely steering clear of questions about children's lived experiences. Nevertheless, readers so inclined can certainly find intriguing details in this monograph. One learns, for example, about the comparative educational opportunities available to children of different races in the same city: in Providence, Rhode Island, in the 1820s, African American children could attend public school until age ten, while whites could attend until age fifteen (p. 46). Moss also discusses parental decisions about their children's apprenticeships and how masters...


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