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Former slaves made education a top priority.

African American history has been of particular interest to me since my days as an undergraduate student back in the 1980s. I have facilitated the observance of Black History Month every February since being hired at FRCC in 1998.

Eventually my enthusiasm for the topic convinced me to offer a course on African American history at FRCC, beginning in the fall of 2014. One of the great benefits of teaching the class has been the opportunity to continue learning. One of the most exciting and inspiring examples I have come across, which I love sharing with my students, is the story of former slaves seeking education amidst and after the US Civil War.

Establishing Schools

During the first Reconstruction period after the war—1865 to 1877—as Black Americans escaped from chains, one of their initial actions was to establish schools for themselves, their families and their friends. Indeed, they started this noble work even before the war ended. While there is much horrifying and tragic history from the Civil War and Reconstruction era, the efforts of African Americans to acquire education ranks among the most inspiring aspects of all US history.

In 1863 near Alexandria, Virginia, more than 400 Black children—who had recently been liberated from bondage—attended schools established by their parents, who provided the labor and funds for construction. Similarly, when the Union Army arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, they found more than 800 African American pupils attending schools that their parents had built. Many of the adults took classes in the same buildings in the evenings. Teachers came from the small ranks of free Blacks or former slaves who knew how to read.

A Teacher Goes to War

On the coast of the Carolinas, former slaves also built schools as the war still raged in 1862-63, and many of the teachers were Black women such as Charlotte Forten. Born free into an influential family in Philadelphia, Forten opted to give up her privileged life and travel to a war zone and uplift her fellow Blacks Americans through the power of learning. While serving, she befriended the famous Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts regiment (portrayed in the classic film Glory), describing him in her journal as “in every way one of the most delightful persons I have ever met.”

Charlotte Forten

News of Shaw’s death in the attack on Fort Wagner devastated young Charlotte. Hundreds of African American troops under Shaw’s command were killed or wounded alongside him during the attack. The sacrifice of Black men and women in the Union military continued for two more years, adding to the urgency felt by their brothers and sisters to be sure that something positive should result from all the bloodshed.

War’s End, New Opportunities

As the war finally ended in April of 1865, efforts by former slaves to foster education escalated exponentially. When the doors opened at a new school in Richmond, Virginia, that month, more than 1,000 Black students lined up for admission. Their parents used some of their first-ever earnings to buy books and supplies. Simultaneously in Charleston, South Carolina, more than 1,200 Black students attended new schools funded by their parents. More than half of the teachers were African American.

As impressive as these examples are, the efforts by Black Americans in Georgia to promote education during Reconstruction were even more widespread. Immediately after liberation, they opened schools in churches, kitchens and even boxcars. Not satisfied with such temporary arrangements, education activists solicited funds from other former slaves. By June of 1867—just two years after the Civil War and slavery ended—more than 13,000 African American students learned their lessons in 232 schools built and financed by former slaves in the Peach State.

The Poet Extols Education

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black woman born free in 1825 in Maryland but orphaned early in life, went on to become a teacher and a poet. She celebrated the African American desire for education in her poem, “Learning to Read”:

“And I longed to read my Bible,

For precious words it said;

But when I begun to learn it,

Folks just shook their heads,

And said there is no use trying,

Oh! Chloe your too late;

But as I was rising sixty,

I had no time to wait.

So I got a pair of glasses,

And straight to work I went,

And never stopped till I could read

The hymns and Testament.

Then I got a little cabin –

A place to call my own –

And I felt as independent

As the queen upon her throne.”

 ~Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1872

As we celebrate Black History Month in February 2021, may the words of Frances Harper—along with these stories of thousands of former slaves seeking an education during Reconstruction—inspire you.

Learn More

Want to learn more about African American history? Check out these links:

Read: Origins of Black History Month

Watch: 10 “Must Watch” Black History Documentaries

Do: 28 Ways to Celebrate Black History Month

The American Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s theme for this year’s Black History Month is The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.

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