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  • Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876
  • Adam Fairclough (bio)
Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876. By Ronald E. Butchart. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. 336. Cloth, $39.95.)

This long-awaited book summarizes the findings of the Freedmen's Teacher Project, a massive undertaking involving a team of researchers and entailing many years of work, and offers a broad interpretation of the historical legacy and political significance of the freedpeople's schools. [End Page 276]

The greatest strength of this study is that it adds hard facts and figures to a topic that historians had previously approached by means of limited samplings of archival material, an approach that led to impressionistic and often inaccurate findings. By combing through all the available archives, the Freedmen's Teacher Project identified 11,600 individuals representing about two-thirds of all those who taught in schools for blacks. On the basis of this enormous database, Butchart offers a number of generalizations that contradict many widely held assumptions. For example, he proves false the stereotype of the typical freedpeople's teacher as a white "schoolmarm" from New England. Four-fifths of northern teachers came from states outside New England. Moreover, men made up a substantial one-third of the northern teachers and a clear majority of all those who taught in freedpeople's schools. This last fact underlines two other significant findings. First, native white southerners—most of them men, many of them ex-Confederate soldiers—furnished more teachers for freedpeople's schools than did any other group. Second, black teachers outnumbered northern white teachers, comprised a third of all teachers during the entire period from 1861 to 1876, and by 1868-69 were in the majority.

Butchart takes aim at historians such as Walter L. Fleming, Edgar Knight, and Henry L. Swint, who long ago linked white resistance to freedpeople's schools to the alleged arrogance, fanaticism, or political proselytizing of the freedpeople's teachers. Although perhaps redundant, this allows Butchart to emphasize that the majority of whites hated black schools because, quite simply, they hindered their efforts to reestablish white supremacy in the wake of emancipation. White southerners did not wish to encourage black literacy or see evidence of black intellectual ability; they felt threatened by black ambition and achievement.

Butchart also takes aim at more recent historians. He takes Bertram Wyatt-Brown to task for asserting, inaccurately, that the freedpeople's teachers avoided giving arithmetic lessons. James McPherson receives criticism for claiming that white northern teachers' Puritan and evangelical religious background made them highly committed and long-suffering. Not so, says Butchart: the most committed teachers—judging by years of service—were nonevangelical Quakers and Unitarians. He also flatly contradicts Robert Morris's argument that wartime Unionists comprised a large portion of the white southerners who taught in freed-people's schools.

Some issues, however, cannot be clarified by means of a database, and the author is clearly influenced by the scholarly tendency to celebrate black agency. Whereas previous books on freedpeople's teachers focus on [End Page 277] northern whites, black teachers stand at the center of this narrative, and Butchart clearly admires them. Although all teachers encountered insults, threats, ostracism, and the possibility of injury and death, black teachers faced the most difficult circumstances of all. They taught in the more dangerous rural locations. Most had little or no support from the Freedmen's Bureau or northern aid societies. They also taught for a longer amount of time, which Butchart takes as evidence that they had a stronger interest in the welfare and advancement of the freedpeople than white teachers did. Like all correctives, however, Butchart may be taking a good argument too far. If, as he concedes, ex-slaves recognized the necessity to "appropriate the social and cultural capital of the dominant class," then black teachers could play only a limited role in this transfer, at least in the early years, because the great majority were ex-slaves who had received no formal education (152).

Butchart's discussion of motivation also raises difficulties. Far from being fanatical...


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