- Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America
Education, African American education, New Haven, Baltimore, Boston
Hilary Moss has produced a compelling study of African American access to education—both public and private—in antebellum America. She focuses on the urban Northeast, although she also investigates these matters on the middle ground of Baltimore. She intends “to make sense of the widespread, often violent, white opposition to African American education that erupted in northern and southern communities in the early 1830s, a period that coincides with the birth of public education . . . in America” (3). Moss examines three cities where the pursuit of education by black parents and activists white and black elicited keen reactions from the surrounding white communities—New Haven in the late 1820s–30s, Baltimore in the 1840s, and Boston in the mid 1830s and late 1840s–50s. She concludes that the emerging public school system of the antebellum North worked hand-in-hand with an increasingly pervasive culture of white domination to deny African Americans equal access to schools and education—key vehicles for creating citizens—and thereby reinforced the popular understanding that they were noncitizens.
New Haven’s Negro College crisis of September 1831 embodied one of the first of many pitched white reactions against African American educational aspirations. Black and white proponents of the college, including the wealthy New York City merchant Arthur Tappan, determined that New Haven afforded it a particularly favorable site, in part because of the city’s interracial association, the African Improvement Society. Yet a mass meeting of more than 700 local whites denounced it, and the homes of blacks and Tappan were attacked. Moss pinpoints “dormant white anxieties over black aspiration [colliding] with news of Nat Turner’s rebellion” (54) as the reaction’s furnace. The white working class focused its anxiety on “the confluence of industrialization, immigration, and gradual emancipation [jeopardizing] their own financial independence and social status” (56) and pushing them closer to cheap and degraded black labor, while the white elite feared that a Negro College derogated their own college education.
Events in Baltimore differed but equally served to marginalize African Americans. Baltimore interests Moss because whites there accepted the [End Page 159] city’s relatively high incidence of free black literacy when efforts to expand it in northern towns often sparked controversy. She finds that a parallel system of private schools for blacks—they were banned from the public schools—existed because some Baltimore employers sought literate free blacks and their education neither threatened the system of slavery nor challenged the strict boundaries separating the races. When black leaders petitioned the City Council for relief from public school taxes or for financial support for expansion, they emphasized black orderliness and deference. Thus where black education complied with white domination, its existence was tolerated, maybe even encouraged.
Boston’s Horace Mann proclaimed that public schools would “prepare children for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship” (157), yet, Moss argues, the city consistently denied black children inclusion in this project. From the inception of black schools in the 1790s through the 1840s, the Boston School Committee sustained them as separate and inferior institutions. By the mid 1840s, however, black parents began petitioning to integrate the school system, convinced that it alone would alleviate their schools’ deficiencies. Over the ensuing decade, the campaign embroiled blacks and whites in a complicated—sometimes violent—contest of alliances and divisions that occurred as much within as between each racial group. By 1855, black parents and their white allies celebrated the integration of the schools. Moss notes this accomplishment in the chapter’s concluding paragraph, yet counters it with the Dred Scott decision three years later, which only tightened “the constraints upon black citizenship” (189).
Some confusion emerges in Moss’s interpretation of these developments. In the Introduction, she asserts: “The expansion of public schooling and white opposition to black education . . . were part and parcel of a larger impulse to expel black people from the polity in the...