- Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876
In 1903, Du Bois lamented America's failed effort to realize universal freedom in the aftermath of slavery. The Freedmen's Bureau in particular emerges as a lone bright spot in an otherwise bleak narrative of lost opportunities. But despite Du Bois' proclivity for placing black people at the center of American history, his portrayal of Reconstruction contains a curious twist. While discussing ex-slaves' pursuit of literacy, he credits not African Americans themselves but the "New England school-ma'am" for this herculean task.1 Butchart asserts that in this respect, Du Bois missed the mark. A product of prodigious research and painstaking archival analysis, Schooling the Freed People provides clear and convincing evidence that the teaching force that instructed emancipated African Americans was far more diverse than Du Bois and subsequent historians have thought.
Butchart set out to identify every person who schooled ex-slaves between 1861 and 1876 under the auspices of the Freedmen's Teacher Project. To accomplish this objective, he traversed beyond well-trodden archives like that of the Freedmen's Bureau and the American Missionary Association and excavated military and pension records, collegiate alumni records, the manuscript census, slave schedules, and city directories (xviii). He emerged with an impressive database of nearly 12,000 men and women who taught for at least one month in a freedmen's school. This composite picture suggests that the Yankee schoolmarm existed more in myth than in fact. First, he notes, "Freed people's education was . . . emphatically a work performed by African Americans for their own emancipation" (19). Specifically, one of every three educators was African American; one of every two was southern; and black teachers remained with their students far longer than their white counterparts. Second, an equal number of men and women taught in the freedmen's schools; with a mean age of thirty, these teachers were often much older than the stereotype suggests. Third, factors other than evangelical Protestantism and abolitionism prompted both black and white teachers to educate ex-slaves. Indeed, financial demands rather than spiritual callings led many teachers to school the freed people in the Reconstruction South.
Butchart plans to publish the Freemen's Teacher Project database and its findings at a later date. In this volume, he skillfully blends quantitative research with anecdotal analysis to produce a nuanced and sweeping account, rich with compassion, insight, and precision. Chapter 3 exemplifies the originality and breadth of Butchart's research, tracing the educational activities of former slaveholders, veterans of the Confederacy, [End Page 313] who were motivated more by poverty than by politics. Unlike teachers from the North and Midwest, who often published memoirs about their time in the South, these individuals rarely, if ever, wrote about teaching African Americans. Only by scouring both southern archives and census records could Butchart bring their experiences to light.
Although Butchart locates teachers at the center of his story, he never loses sight of freed people's educational agency. Like Du Bois, however, he also remains cognizant of the persistent power of white supremacy. Ex-slaves appreciated the spiritual, political, and economic benefits of educational opportunity, he notes, but without a sustained, national commitment to racial equality, literacy stood little chance against the terror, poverty, and segregation endemic in the post-Reconstruction South.
1. W. E. B. Du Bois (ed. David W. Blight and Robert Gooding-Williams), The Souls of Black Folk (New York, 1997; orig. pub. 1903), 52.