The historic intellectual tapestry of African American women's education has been woven with high academic standards, unquestioned faith in God, warm compassion, uncompromising morality, and ardent activism. Since the eighteenth century, women educators articulated and practiced a model for education that enveloped a crucial and careful understanding of students' social and economic conditions. African American women educators advocated instruction based on sensitivities to free people locked in ethnic or economic segregation, to the enslaved, and later to former slaves. These...
The historic intellectual tapestry of African American women's education has been woven with high academic standards, unquestioned faith in God, warm compassion, uncompromising morality, and ardent activism. Since the eighteenth century, women educators articulated and practiced a model for education that enveloped a crucial and careful understanding of students' social and economic conditions. African American women educators advocated instruction based on sensitivities to free people locked in ethnic or economic segregation, to the enslaved, and later to former slaves. These were generations of women spanning over two hundred years, women who were acutely conscious of the larger society's lowly place for Africa's descendants. The educators' unabashedly bold and courageous activism stood as a bulwark for their community at large. As the American Missionary Association warned teachers headed into the South during and after the Civil War, educating African Americans was neither for the faint of heart nor for any cold heart.AntebellumPrior to 1835, the apex of the era of slave revolts, literacy was encouraged among slaves for a variety of reasons. The historian Carter G. Woodson explained that literate bondsmen served as a valuable tool for “economic efficiency” of the slaveholders' use of their “labor supply.” In addition, there were “sympathetic persons” who believed that they were helping the “oppressed,” and “zealous missionaries” who believed it was their Christian duty to catechize the slaves. Roman Catholic Spanish and French missionaries used literacy to bring more converts to the church. In contrast, English colonists—Anglicans, Puritans and Quakers—differed in their beliefs concerning slave ownership and literacy, though English law forbade Christians to own slaves. However, the creation of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Heathen in Foreign Parts (1701) solved that problem by lobbying for the law's repeal. Puritans, the Anglican Church's conscientious objectors, concluded that biblical Hebrews' ownership of slaves was justified as long as they provided them with instruction. And Quakers, who largely held that slavery was a moral wrong, were the first English to offer the same education to the slaves and free blacks as they did to English colonists.Although women were subordinated to men in every aspect of their lives, some male educators encouraged women to make teaching a part of their domestic spheres. For African American women, however, work normally encompassed more than the home. Living in a society that ostracized both women and blacks, those women worked to address the plight of both slave and free. African American women teachers seized upon their mission to pull their students from slavery and out of poverty.An illiterate escaped slave, living in New York City in the 1790s, was so moved by the numbers of homeless children around her that she opened her home to both black and white children. This was Catherine Ferguson (1749–1854), whose rote learning became the basis for many children's first education. Later, she brought in literate teachers to offer both secular and religious instruction. With that effort, Ferguson was credited with having started the first Sunday school in New York City. Ferguson was a forerunner and an example of women for whom work was ingrained as a mission. An active, sustained, and dedicated commitment to fight for freedom for the enslaved and social and economic equality for those who were free occupied a position equal to academic instruction for black women educators.African American women in Philadelphia established the Daughters of Africa Society, a benevolent organization, one year after Sarah Mapp Douglass (1806–1882) organized a school for Philadelphia's black children in 1820. Douglass, born free, was a graduate of the Ladies Institute of Pennsylvania Medical University and a member of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, the Freedmen's Aid Society, of which she was vice chair, and later, the New York Anti-Slavery Women. In 1853, she joined the faculty of the Institute of Colored Youth, as head of the Girls' Department. The school was founded in 1837 by Quakers for African Americans.The road to becoming a teacher was fraught with danger. Shortly after Prudence Crandall, a Quaker, opened a school in Canterbury, Connecticut, in 1831, a young black woman with earnest intentions approached her for admission. Crandell admitted that she was hesitant, but was encouraged by the young woman's appeals and desire to be schooled. She enrolled the girl, only to have many parents of the white students withdraw their children. Undaunted by such blatant prejudice, Crandell kept the school open. Deep-rooted prejudices subverted her efforts: her school was destroyed by fire in 1832. Shortly after, the Connecticut legislature made it a misdemeanor to teach blacks and Indians, and a felony to open a school for blacks. Crandell moved to Kansas—in her estimation, a more tolerant state. Her efforts were not in vain. One of Crandell's former students, Elizabeth N. Smith, later became a principal at the “colored school” in Rhode Island. Maritcha R. Lyons, who later became an educator and an activist, graduated from the integrated Girls' High School with highest honors.By the 1850s, some schools in Massachusetts were integrated. Susan Paul Vashon, living from 1838 to 1912, a sixteen-year old valedictorian, was the only black graduate of Miss O'Mears's Seminary in Somerville. She moved to Pittsburgh and taught in the only black school. After having been married and widowed with seven children, Vashon moved to and taught in the schools of the District of Columbia from 1872 to 1880. During that time, she became principal of the Thaddeus Stevens School, an honor that validated her excellent skills both in the classroom and with her colleagues.Several of Vashon's contemporaries followed the same path. Sarah J. Smith (Tompkins) Garnet, living from 1831 to 1911, was well known as an educator in New York. She worked on behalf of the interests of black teachers, lobbying the state legislature for equitable treatment and pay. In addition, she was an ardent advocate for a pedagogy that was attentive to the many cultures of post-slavery and emerging immigrant populations. She pushed for administrative training for teachers and rose from classroom teacher to principal. Garnet founded the Equal Suffrage League, a social justice organization in Brooklyn; was superintendent of the suffrage department of the National Association of Colored Women; and, when she was seventy-eight years old, was a delegate along with her sister to the First Universal Races Congress.Perhaps the most vigilant of the educators of the period, regardless of gender, was Mary Ann Shadd Cary, living from 1823 to 1893. She was unequivocal and unapologetic in her fierce advocacy of social justice. Her family moved from Delaware to Pennsylvania when Cary was ten years old and enrolled her in a Quaker boarding school. She completed the coursework in six years and returned to Wilmington, where she taught at a private school until public schools admitted black children. She traveled to West Chester, Pennsylvania, moved to New York, and then moved back to Pennsylvania. Faced with the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), Cary and her brother emigrated to Canada. There, she started a school sponsored by the American Missionary Association.Canada proved to be a challenge: refugees poured into Windsor with slave catchers close on their heels. Cary reportedly fought off a slave catcher who was attempting to drag off a defenseless male child. Moreover, she had to contend with attacks from other blacks, such as Henry Bibb and his wife, who saw Cary as competition for the charitable donations of antislavery activists. According to Cary, the Bibbs sought to enrich themselves, rather than to benefit the cause of the refugees. Bibb used his newspaper to assail Cary with charges that she was deceptive, insincere, and ineffective in her teaching abilities.The fight with Bibb taught Cary the power of the press. This constant need to defend herself did not keep Cary from her commitment to the refugees, but it did redirect her focus from the classroom to her newspaper, the Provincial Freeman, founded in 1854. Her contemporaries noted that she was the “first woman editor of the race.” Her work on behalf of the cause of free and enslaved African Americans was not deterred. In May 1858, Cary attended a convention in Chatham, Canada, called by John Brown, the white abolitionist who later staged the unsuccessful Harper's Ferry raid. Later, Cary compiled the notes, titled “Voice from Harper's Ferry,” of Osborn P. Anderson, a survivor of Brown's raid on the United States Arsenal in Virginia.At the beginning of the Civil War, Cary was teaching in Michigan but accepted Governor Levi P. Morton's assignment as army recruiting officer to enlist black soldiers for the Union. At the end of the war, she resumed teaching in Washington, DC, under the direction of the recently established Howard University, and later she was appointed to public schools. During a seventeen-year tenure, Cary was appointed as principal of three large schools.As African American women educators migrated west, they carried their courage and determination with them. Elizabeth Thorn Scott, a native New Yorker who was educated in Massachusetts, went to San Francisco with her husband. Widowed shortly after the move, she relocated to Sacramento where, in 1854, she established the first school for African American children. When she remarried and moved to Oakland, Scott opened that town's first school for black children. She was not a lone voice for educating African Americans. Priscilla Stewart, a teacher, sounded loud protests against legislation passed in 1858 to rid California of free blacks. A former teacher, Lucy Sessions, an 1850 graduate of Oberlin College, founded the Sojourner Truth Home for girls in Los Angeles.Sessions was one of at least 140 black women students at Oberlin between 1833 and 1865. The school was co-educational with a color-blind admissions policy from its founding in 1833. Oberlin was not the first in the United States to admit on a color-blind basis, but it was the first to accept both men and women. African American women Oberlin alumnae who would become noted educators included Mary Jane Patterson, the first black woman in the United States to receive a bachelor of arts degree and, later, principal of the first Preparatory High School for Colored Youth in Washington, DC. Also, there were Frances Jackson Coppin, an 1865 graduate, identified in her professional life with her outstanding work at the Cheyney Training School for Teachers, Pennsylvania; Ann Hazle, an 1855 graduate from North Carolina; and Blanche V. Harris, a Michigan native and an 1860 graduate, who taught former slaves under the auspices of the American Missionary Association in Mississippi, North Carolina, and Kentucky.Civil WarThe American Missionary Association (AMA), a collaborative organization of black and white Christians, was first in sending teachers to the South during the Civil War and would account for one-third of all teachers who covered the South during the Reconstruction period. At the height of its efforts in 1870, the AMA had 533 teachers in the South.The work was grueling. Teachers worked every day for eight hours, then held night classes for adults for at least two hours. They conducted frequent prayer meetings, visited students' homes on Saturdays, and taught Sunday school classes. The sometimes infrequent pay, a meager fifteen dollars a month, attracted New England and Midwestern, well-educated, white Protestant middle-class women, who could support themselves in spite of the small financial rewards.Although the profile of the teacher was of a young adult white female—and there were many of these—the AMA made a concerted effort to seek out African American teachers. Generally, where there were none, schools were encouraged to select teachers from the cadre of trained students who had completed the course. This effort was not meant to segregate the faculty. Rather, pressed by teachers such as Edmonia Highgate, the AMA agreed that African American teachers, having understood the plight of former slaves, would bring a more sagacious approach to the classroom than would white teachers. Moreover, Highgate warned, having too many whites in leadership roles would lull the former slaves into a continued dependence upon white Americans. She believed, and the AMA concurred, that African Americans had to learn to stand independently. Nonetheless, the first teachers to be called were African American women. Some had taught in private home schools and some, like Susie King Taylor, were plucked out of refugee camps during the Civil War.Mary Smith Kelsey Peake, living from 1823 to 1862, a Norfolk, Virginia, native, was the first teacher hired by the American Missionary Association in 1861. Peake initially taught without pay. Sometime later, she was placed on a regular salary. Peake's idea of education was congruent with the AMA's philosophy: it was strictly evangelical and meant for an “eternity” with weekday instruction as “rehearsals” for Sunday school. Prayer, catechetical instruction, and singing were used at every opportunity. Her work was exhausting. She had fifty-three day students and twenty night students. Long days and nights, busy weekends, and a diminishing immunity took its toll. She refused to rest in her home, preferring to teach from her sickbed, in a room above the school. She died at thirty-nine from tuberculosis, leaving a school which became the framework for Hampton University.Disease and the Confederate rebels were twin conspirators at war with the Union, the refugees, and their teachers. Charlotte Forten Grimké, living from 1837 to 1914, taught on St. Helena Island in 1864. There was a constant threat from rebels and yellow fever, both of which seemed to be winning. Smallpox was the culprit in the refugee camps where Susie King Taylor served. She had been vaccinated but continued to sip sassafras tea to cleanse her blood.Taylor's uncle had taken her along with him and his family when they escaped to the protection of the Union forces. Shortly after boarding the gunboat, she was asked if she could read, write, sew, and launder. She had been schooled through surreptitious meetings with a private teacher during slavery. After answering yes, she later taught forty children during the day and a number of adults at night. At the war's end, since there were no public schools, Taylor opened a school in her home, charging one dollar a month for tuition. Twenty students immediately enrolled. However, as free schools supplanted private instruction, Taylor, who had no formal training, moved and opened schools in other locations. The need diminished for private instruction, and she later moved to Boston, where she became a domestic. In 1886, she helped to organize and held various offices in the Women's Relief Corps, aided in the Spanish-American War, criticized the prejudice against black Cubans, and expressed great dismay with the plight of blacks at the turn of the nineteenth century. Recalling the Civil War, she asked, “Was the War in vain?”ReconstructionThe beginning of the Reconstruction era (1865–1877) had a two-sided answer to Susie Taylor's question later in the nineteenth century. Schools, businesses, churches, and many benevolent organizations were formed for and by African Americans. In less than thirty-five years, former slaves laid claim to millions of dollars in real estate, became more literate, and worked along with whites on behalf of African Americans. There was, however, a dark side. Violence and vigilantism against former slaves and their white teachers and supporters went largely unchecked. Edmonia G. Highgate had taught in Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia, and had organized a school in Darlington, Maryland, on behalf of the AMA. In December 1866, she left New Orleans to organize schools in the southwest Louisiana towns of Lafayette and Vermillionville, two hundred miles from the city. Out there, Highgate was at the mercy of vigilantes. Teacher and students were shot at, although there were no fatalities. That caused her to return to New Orleans, where she became embroiled in plans to segregate the schools. Adamantly opposed to such a move, Highgate warned that she would go back to the country, which she did. She died there of causes unknown.Violence against teachers was common, among whites no less than blacks. They were called “white fanatics” by a Memphis paper and “a most abominable nuisance” by the Norfolk, Virginia, paper. Missouri, North Carolina, and Louisiana offered no protection for either freed people or teachers. In Alabama, an AMA student was beaten by the Ku Klux Klan, and in Mississippi, the KKK drove teachers away. Schools were burned in Mobile, Alabama, and Macon and Savannah, Georgia. In spite of cruelties and atrocities, teachers were undeterred, and many black organizations, such as the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, joined the AMA to build schools.By the end of Reconstruction, schools for and those run by African Americans had budded everywhere in the South. Women were instrumental in establishing the schools as well as in filling their classrooms. Approximately two-thirds of all teachers at the preparatory schools and colleges were women. In Louisiana, by the mid-1900s, three-fourths of all teachers were women.SegregationWith the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), segregation became essentially the law of the land. Integrationists understood that separation was the adversary and not the ally. That which vigilantes had enforced with threats and violence outside the bounds of the law came to fruition as southern state governments took every possible means to ensure that the “races” remained segregated. The national educational community read the message quite clearly and knew what its next action must be—to take on the full responsibility of educating African Americans, albeit in a closed community.The most vocal and best-known leaders in the black community were men. However, there were women whose voices did not go unheard. Black educators debated the type of education that should be taught to black students. In an agrarian society, Booker T. Washington argued for a skills-based education. Seeking a pool from which leaders could be drawn, W. E. B. Du Bois and women such as Anna Cooper argued for a classical education. Neither camp believed that one or the other was a perfect fit for the entire African American populace. In fact, Cooper supported industrial training, worked with a settlement house and the Young Women's Christian Association, and spent several summers at Hampton Institute. Yet she refused to keep her students at the M Street High School, known for its high educational standards, from the opportunities offered by the finest universities.Against the demands of the Washington, DC, School Board, Cooper's students were immersed in Greek, Latin, higher mathematics, and literature. Several of her students were prepared for and passed stringent college entrance examinations. A glowing commentary by the Abbé Klein, a foreign visitor, propelled her in the middle of the classical versus vocational educational ideological controversy in African American society. In 1906, Cooper lost her job as principal, a position she had held since 1901, at a school where she had taught since 1887. Nonetheless, M Street High School continued to offer a college preparatory curriculum. It was the premier secondary school for blacks in the country. There was only one M Street High School. For the most part, schools for blacks followed the industrial model. Segregation ensured that the education the schools could offer was not equal to one given their white counterparts. Poor funding, poor pay, little to no capital investment, and lack of control by African American educators all served as terribly difficult, but surmountable, obstacles.Turning inward to their closed communities and looking at their charges, African American women continued to meet the challenges set before them. In 1901, Nannie Helen Burroughs, living from 1879 to 1961, helped to organize and then became president of the National Training School for Women. Burroughs was active in the antilynching campaign, was a member of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, aided in the organization of the Women's Industrial Club of Louisville, and was responsible for organizing the first black self-help program in Washington, DC.Likewise, Fannie C. Williams, living from 1882 to 1980, a Mississippi Gulf Coast native, graduated from Straight College in New Orleans and secured additional graduate credentials from several leading universities. She taught and became principal at several different schools in New Orleans, where in 1929 she started a health program and opened a nursery and kindergarten, the first for black children in New Orleans, and in the early 1940s initiated a Parents' Study Group. She conducted teacher workshops during summers at several African American universities, and, upon her retirement, she tutored slow learners, adults, and Hispanics learning English as a second language, and volunteered in Adult Education with the Council of Jewish Women.The Haines School, established in 1886 by Lucy Lainey in Augusta, Georgia, offered liberal arts courses in addition to its industrial curriculum and filled a void where there was no high school for blacks. It remained open for nearly fifty years. Three of its most famous students were Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Janie Porter Barrett, and Mary McLeod Bethune.Mary McLeod Bethune, living from 1875 to 1955, had the attentions of presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt appointed her to the advisory board of the National Youth Administration. Founder of the Normal Institute for Girls in 1904, she had become a respected educator and organizer. She became director of the Negro Division of the Youth Administration, a member of Roosevelt's so-called Black Cabinet, and a founder of several organizations.Bethune and many others exemplified the resilient spirit of African American women educators. In 1930, Dr. Mary E. Branch was elected president of Tillotson College in Austin, Texas, and saved it from obscurity by developing a sound financial program to increase its enrollment and pave the way for the future union with Huston College. Mary Gibson Hudley, living from 1897 to 1986, integrated a white high school in the Washington, DC, area, then taught at Howard University. Septima Poinsette Clark, living from 1898 to 1987, after teaching for thirty-nine years, came out of her retirement in 1961 to work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to fight for civil rights, and social and economic justice for African Americans and the poor. For well over two hundred years, these women and their predecessors believed that the source of freedom was education, but that education in a hostile society meant nothing without willful, committed, and carefully directed activism. African American women merged the textbook, the Bible, life's horrors, and life's possibilities and forged a society unwilling to accept the world as it was given to them. (1875–1955) was an educator and civic leader whose distinguished career spanned more than half a century. Moorland-Spingarn Research CenterSee also Bethune, Mary McLeod; Cary, Mary Ann Shadd; Grimké, Charlotte L. Forten; and Taylor, Susie Baker King.
Reference Entry. 5967 words. Illustrated.
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