Public Schooling for African Americans in Georgia

In 1829, the State of Georgia followed patterns across the slaveholding south and passed a law that made it a crime to teach enslaved persons to read. A parallel situation was that free African Americans in the state were also discouraged from learning to read and write. Whites who were found guilty of teaching Black people could be fined or imprisoned or sometimes both. African Americans who were caught reading or writing could be whipped or suffer an amputation. As one slave narrative put it, “If they caught you trying to write, they would cut your finger off, and if they caught you again they would cut your head off” (Cornelius, 1983). Even so, learning found a way. In fact, it found many ways. African Americans learned from courageous whites who taught them anyway; from slave masters and mistresses who taught them for various reasons, including the economic advantages of literate skilled labor; from white children who shared knowledge with playmates. They learned when their work assignments were to accompany their white charges to their lessons, whether in the plantation household or at school, and they learned as household slaves by listening in and “picking up” knowledge that they subsequently shared with others – covertly, of course. Generally, African Americans who acquired reading and writing skills were inventive in sharing whatever they learned with others, and they did so sometimes in what we have come to call clandestine schools.

Because literacy for African Americans was prohibited and punishable by law, fully documenting literacy levels during this time period is fairly impossible. What the documentary record quite clearly confirms, however, is three-fold:

  1. A significant percentage of African Americans could actually read and write at the end of the Civil War.
  2. With the ending of slavery, when learning was no longer against the law, African Americans were deeply impassioned to acquire education. When venues for learning were officially opened, they were immediately overcrowded.
  3. In their quest for full citizenship rights and opportunities, African Americans benefitted from the support and advocacy of others, certainly. However, the African American community was itself very actively engaged in making sure that they took advantage of all opportunities that they could. They perceived education to be the pathway to a brighter future for individuals and for the community writ large.

More on the Port Royal Experiment — Six days before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1863 (with the proclamation issued on January 1, 1863), he sent a letter to the Board of Tax Commissioners for the District of South Carolina authorizing them to use taxes collected in this region to establish schools for recently freed African Americans and poor whites with the assumption that the salaries of teachers would be paid by private philanthropy. Three groups rose to address the invitation. Forten participated through the Port Royal Relief Association of Philadelphia. Notably, the islands off South Carolina and Georgia were the first areas where enslaved people were freed when Union troops won the battle on Hilton Head Island and established the blockade of Port Royal Sound. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase launched the Port Royal Experiment—to manage the large number of the freed people, to take advantage of economic opportunities based on the abandoned plantations, and to provide education for the ex-slaves and poor whites. A critical imperative for the educational interests of the project, as the very first Federally funded schools in the South for African Americans, was to demonstrate that African Americans were “worthy” of freedom.

When schooling started to become legally available after the Civil War, the challenges that they faced in gaining access to excellent – or even just adequate – opportunities did not end. Georgia – like the rest of the South in having only a minimal commitment to public education – struggled to provide high quality public education to all citizens, regardless of race, class, gender, or condition. Historical habits of differential, unequal, and unjust treatment continued. In essence, even though public education was tax supported education, with African Americans included in paying taxes, they were not included in the benefits of tax supported investments, as indicated in the episode on the Auburn Avenue Research Library. By social practice and by law, African Americans could not attend white schools. To the extent that public schools were available, then, these facilities were for whites only. In the context of these inequities, however, what remained very consistent was the dedication of the African American communities to defying these injustices and developing inventive strategies for creating the progress and change that they so fervently desired.

In their quest for education, this downtrodden community plunged right into the problem, pulling their habits for acquiring knowledge forward into freedom. Clandestine schools came into the light as an ongoing resource for the community. Churches established Sunday Schools, with classes led by those in the community who had knowledge to share. African Americans from the North, who had acquired education came South to help. One of the first examples, even before the Civil War ended, was Charlotte Forten. She was a free-born college-educated African American woman from a well-known Black Abolitionist family in Philadelphia. She journeyed South at her own peril to teach recently freed African American men, women, and children on St. Helena Island off the South Carolina/Georgia coast, as did others who participated in the Port Royal Experiment. To be emphasized here is that African American communities throughout worked in their own interests, including their consist effort in raising funds to establish their own schools and hire the teachers that they needed.

The General and the Young Man: “We Are Rising”

Credit: Wikipedia

General Oliver Otis Howard (1830-1909) was a Civil War general who fought with William Tecumseh Sherman in his march to the sea. After the Civil War, he was appointed Commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau) from 1865-1874 and dedicated most of the Bureau’s resources to education. Also in 1867, he was a member of the group who founded an institution of higher education for African Americans in Washington, D.C. It was named after him (Howard University), and he served as its President from 1869-1874. By 1872, the Freedmen’s Bureau had lost political support and funding, and it was dismantled. Howard moved West, becoming active again in the military. He was instrumental in the questionable act of removing Native Americans to reservations, and he finished his career with several postings that were not prestigious.

Speaking to the children at the Storrs School in Atlanta in 1868 General Oliver Otis Howard, asked: “What should I tell the children in the North about you?”

Credit: Wikipedia

Richard Robert Wright (1855-1947) was a twelve year old student at the time of Howard’s question. He would go on to graduate in Atlanta University’s first class in 1876 and build a distinctive career for himself as an educator (in founding the institution currently known as Savannah State University), a businessman (in founding Philadelphia’s Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company, the only African American owned bank in the North at the time and the first African American Trust company), and as a community leader (in being a founding member of the most prestigious African American intellectual organization of its day, the American Negro Academy). Credit: Wikipedia

Richard Robert Wright answered: “Tell them, General, we are rising.”

The First Schools in Atlanta for African American Children

In the City of Atlanta, as the Civil War was drawing to a close, two literate African Americans, James Tate, who came to Atlanta from Elbert County, Georgia, in the 1860s [see also Building Memories episode on Friendship Baptist Church], and Grandison B. Daniels (who may have moved to Atlanta during this time from North Carolina), established the first school in Atlanta for African American children on the corner of Courtland and Jenkins Streets in a building owned by Bethel A.M.E. Church. When white missionary Reverend Frederick Ayer, along with his wife, arrived in Atlanta in November of 1865 under the auspices of the American Missionary Association, Tate and Daniels readily transferred their responsibilities to Ayer who was better prepared to lead the educational effort. The American Missionary Association was the first of two organizations that joined hands with the African American community in Atlanta to build on the infrastructure and foundation for education that the community had developed before 1865. The second organization was the Bureau for Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau), established by the Federal Government in 1865 to help in the reconstruction of a devastated South after the Civil War.

The American Missionary Association and the Freedmen’s Bureau

The American Missionary Association (AMA), a Protestant-based group, was founded in September 1846 in Albany, New York, by both African American and white Abolitionists with the mission of supporting freedom, education, equality, and Christian values. In 1865, this group sent Ayers to Atlanta from their Middle West Department headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio. Ayer and two other missionaries, Rose and Lucy Kinney of Oberlin, Ohio, conducted courses at the Jenkins Street School. At this same time, the AMA purchased a discarded boxcar for $310 and transported it to Atlanta for makeshift classroom purposes. In the meantime, as indicated in the episode on Friendship Baptist Church, this congregation, under the leadership of Reverend Frank Quarles, had purchased land between Cain and Luckie Streets near Walton Springs to erect a church [see also Building Memories episode on Friendship Baptist Church]. The Walton Springs School and Friendship Baptist Church shared the boxcar for these dual educational and religious purposes. Ayer and Lucy Kinney taught in the Jenkins Street School. Mrs. Ayer and Rose Kinney taught in the Walton Springs School.

Throughout this period, the Freedmen’s Bureau (1865-1872) partnered with the AMA to maximize the efficiency of the work of both organizations. They provided both advocacy and much needed financial support, as demonstrated when it became evident that both the Jenkins Street School and the Walton Springs School were inadequate and overcrowded. To address the challenges, General David Tillson who directed the Freedman’s Bureau in Georgia authorized giving to the AMA a Federal-government-owned building that had been used formerly used as a commissary for the Confederate Army. The AMA paid $400 to have it moved to the corner of Calhoun Street (now Piedmont Avenue) and Houston Street next to the housing that the AMA had secured for the white teachers with the intention of converting the new structure into a school.

The Field Secretary of the AMA, Reverend Edward P. Smith, realized that the Commissary Building would still not be inadequate for the level of need. He secured a $1000 gift from the First Orthodox Congregational Church of Cincinnati to build a four-room addition onto the building. The new building was named the Storrs School in honor of the contribution of the Cincinnati church and its pastor, Reverend Henry Martyn Storrs.