- Schooling in the Antebellum South: The Rise of Public and Private Education in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama by Sarah L. Hyde
In Schooling in the Antebellum South: The Rise of Public and Private Education in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, Sarah L. Hyde dispels the myth that white southerners showed little interest in education or public schools before the Civil War. Through an analysis of "lessons and learning" in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, she argues that southerners worked hard to overcome the obstacles of their "frontier-like" environment and provide their children with an education (p. 2). In her most innovative chapters, Hyde shows that these states also appropriated government resources for schools, first private schools and then public schools, before the war. Hyde admits that southern public schools lagged behind northern schools and that southern education was never universal, as it was illegal for free people of color and the enslaved to attend public schools. Nonetheless, she shows that white southerners invested more in public education than historians have previously acknowledged.
Using manuscript collections, memoirs, and government documents, Hyde weaves together the stories of parents, teachers, pupils, governors, legislators, and education advocates to reveal the various forms of schooling in the antebellum Gulf South. Hyde first explores the role of learning inside the southern home, especially through the use of tutors and family members. Southerners who lived in rural communities embraced this system as it was an adaptable form of education. She then focuses on one of the earliest forms of antebellum southern education: the private school. In the Gulf South, private schools "provided one of the most consistent and dependable means of learning" (p. 25). Thus, early government subsidies for education went to private schools and academies. State legislatures even appropriated money for poor children to attend free of charge, but few accepted these funds because of social stigma. Still, Hyde argues, these attempts reveal that southerners had a "clear belief that state governments bore some responsibility for helping to bring basic instruction to their younger constituents" (p. 46).
When limited funding failed to provide adequate access to education, state legislators, encouraged by their constituents, worked to create statewide public school systems. Hyde argues that as universal white manhood suffrage expanded with Jacksonian democracy, demands for universal access to education [End Page 159] intensified. Public schools in urban centers like New Orleans, Louisiana, Natchez, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama, provided a model for statewide public school systems. With economic growth after the Panic of 1837, states were able to devote their resources to building public schools in meaningful ways. Still, progress was not constant. For example, in 1852, when wealthy planters regained power in Louisiana, the new state constitution drastically curtailed funding for public schools, leaving these institutions in an uncertain state as the Civil War approached.
Hyde has written a detailed narrative that aptly describes the development of public education in the antebellum Gulf South. Her research, especially in the political world of public school funding and administration, is impressive. However, in a few places, her book falls short. As her copious citations reveal, historians certainly have not ignored the role of education in southern life, and Hyde may overstate the extent to which subjects like relatives providing home schooling have been "almost entirely overlooked" (p. 8). She also argues that historians have failed to acknowledge how southern voters demanded education, regardless of their legislators' wishes. Yet some of her evidence appears to contradict her point. She repeatedly describes how some areas established "successful schools that served large numbers of children while other locales had trouble procuring accommodations, finding teachers, and attracting students" (p. 110). Finally, this reader would have liked a more thorough analysis of how gender and class influenced the education that different southern students received. Nonetheless, Hyde has written a book that is sure to challenge conventional thinking about public schools in the South.