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.

The Storrs facilities were shared by another congregation of worshippers who began gathering in May 1867. The school would evolve into Atlanta University. The worshippers would evolve into the First Congregational Church of Atlanta, Georgia, the largest Congregational church in the South, with the current building being constructed in 1908.

By 1866, the AMA and Freedmen’s Bureau activities were escalating across the State of Georgia. The AMA decided to bring Edmund Asa Ware to be Superintendent of Schools. With the arrival of Ware, the Storrs School was dedicated in December 1866 with Ware as principal and with the teachers and students of Jenkins School and the Walton Springs School moving into the new space. Despite less than adequate conditions, the Storrs School was very successful and gained a reputation in the AMA as one of the best in this network. With Ware overseeing the Atlanta schools and serving as President of Atlanta University, Frederick Ayer’s AMA responsibilities shifted from teaching to the management of educational facilities and to religious activities. As a final act, Ayer supervised the completion of a third school on Martin Street in the Summer Hill neighborhood. It was completed on September 28, 1867, on the date of Ayer’s death. In honor of his dedicated service, the new school was named for him and functioned under his name for several years.

More on Edmund Asa Ware A graduate of Yale University, Edmund Asa Ware (1837-1885) began his teaching career at Norwich Academy in Connecticut, before joining the AMA and being posted to a white school in Nashville, Tennessee. He was posted to Atlanta in September 1866, where he built a distinctive career. He served as President of Atlanta University from its incorporation in 1867 until his death in 1885. One of the first public elementary schools built for African American children in Atlanta in 1922 was named in his honor. The Ware School was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

In 1872, two key events occurred. The first was the dismantling of the Freedmen’s Bureau, an important marker of the transfer of political authority, power, and control back into the hands of white southern elites and the rise over the next few years of the discriminatory laws and practices of the Jim Crow Era. This trajectory for the South would have a stronghold in the nation until the escalation of the Modern Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The second event in 1872 was the passing of a city ordinance in Atlanta that created the Atlanta Public Schools. With this tax supported action, Atlanta established three grammar schools and two high schools—for white children. For African American children, the Atlanta Public Schools brought into its radar the Storrs School. In addition, they purchased the Ayer school and re-named it the Summerhill School, signaling with the re-naming, presumably, that the APS did not wish to honor Frederick Ayer. With these seven sites (three grammar schools and two high schools for white children only, and two grammar schools for African American children), the Atlanta Public Schools were officially segregated and unequal, with the glaring inequity that there was no publicly funded high school for African American students, which meant that no publicly funded opportunity for education beyond the sixth grade. High schools for African American students in Atlanta were private, conducted by the African American colleges and universities, as evidenced, for example, by the curricular offerings of: Atlanta University (1865), Morehouse College (1869), Clark College (1869), Morris Brown College (1881), and Spelman College (1881), who focused opportunity of African American women.

More on Storrs School With the success of the Storrs School, the AMA developed plans for a university for African American students. Atlanta University was incorporated on October 16, 1867.

The Neighborhood Union

For citizens of African descent, access to high quality educational equality has been and continues to be into the twenty-first century a crucial priority. These citizens have enacted a clear understanding of education as the core enabler of freedom, social justice, empowerment; the sustaining of progress, prosperity, and social change; and quite essentially key leverage for achieving a full measure of the rights of citizenship. This community wanted access to education at all levels, but they desperately needed a publicly funded high school. One of advocacy groups for a public high school for African American students was the Neighborhood Union, a group of African American women reformers who worked passionately and tirelessly to help the community to reach this important goal.

Lugenia Burns Hope, undated. Neighborhood Union Collection, Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library. Hope was president of the Neighborhood Union from 1908 – 1935.

Lugenia Burns Hope (1871-1947), wife of John Hope, had been an active community activist since she was a teenager growing up in Chicago and working with several charitable organizations there. By the time she married John Hope in 1897, she was already a very experienced social reformer. She brought this experience and commitment to socio-political activism with her when she and her husband moved to Atlanta in 1898. Hope immediately joined with other African American women leaders who were working on issues related to child welfare, and particularly on establishing daycare centers in the West Fair Street area. In 1908, a catalyst for more coherent action was compassion. Hope and eight other women founded the Atlanta Neighborhood Union when a woman in the neighborhood died alone in her home without anyone knowing or immediately noticing. With renewed energy for reform, the Union created a compelling model for grassroots organizing and social work that was based on ground-level connections and neighborhood surveys that the Union conducted and analyzed. Using these evidence-based processes, the Union articulated an array of critical issues in the community, including: unsanitary living conditions, poor housing, improper sewage, unclean water, inadequate lighting, the lack of recreational facilities, the lack of health resources, issues related to crime and delinquency, and more.

John Hope (1868-1936) originally from Augusta, Georgia, had been educated at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts and Brown University in Rhode Island. His first teaching position was in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1898, he accepted a position at Atlanta Baptist College (later Morehouse College). In 1906, he became the first African American President of Morehouse and in 1929 the first African American President of Atlanta University, serving as President of both institutions until his death in 1936.

The Neighborhood Union identified problems, and they also identified an impressive range of strategies and solutions to address the problems. This woman-led social welfare agency was very successful in providing for African American communities in Atlanta medical, educational, recreational, and civic services. Their work, in fact, laid the ground work for the founding of the School of Social Work at Atlanta University and served as a prototype for similar work across the nation.

Lugenia Burns Hope and members of the Neighborhood Union of Atlanta Georgia, undated. Neighborhood Union Collection, Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library.

In 1913, one initiative stands out as particularly distinctive. The Union created the Women’s Civic and Social Improvement Committee to lead a group of one hundred African American women leaders in conducting a thorough survey of conditions in African American public schools. They solicited the alliance of influential white women to advocate with them for better educational facilities and better conditions; submitted a petition for improvement to the Atlanta Board of Education; and waged a robust campaign for change that would last for many years. The persistence of their advocacy achieved small victories over the next decade. Their organized efforts constituted, in fact, a significant factor in the most important victory for education of the time period, the establishing of the very first public high school for African American students in the State of Georgia.

The First Public High School for African American Children in Georgia

Booker T. Washington High School. Photo courtesy of These Halls Can Talk, Inc.

Booker T. Washington High School (BTW) was the first public high school in the State of Georgia for African American students and remained the only one in the City of Atlanta until 1947. The doors opened in September 1924, with Charles Lincoln Harper serving as the first principal. BTW served as a point of great pride and a beacon of hope for African Americans in the city, the state, and the region, drawing thousands of students to its doors. It is located across from Washington Park (also named after Booker T. Washington). Notably, like BTW, the establishing of Washington Park was also a special point of focus for the Neighborhood Union agenda – in their advocacy for recreational facilities for the community. The park was the first public park for African Americans in the City of Atlanta and celebrates its centennial anniversary in 2019.

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was the most highly recognized African American of his era. He was the founder of Tuskegee University, a dominant voice in education, and a leading voice generally for the race.

Charles Lincoln Harper, first principal of Booker T. Washington High School.

Charles Lincoln Harper (1877-1955), from Sparta, Georgia, was a graduate of Morris Brown College. He built a distinctive reputation as an educator and as a thoroughly dedicated civil rights activist. He served as principal of the Morris Brown College High School Program and as the first principal of the Young Street Night School before becoming the first principal of BTW (1924-1942). After leaving BTW, he became the President and Executive Secretary of the Georgia Teachers and Education Association, the professional organization of African American teachers in the State of Georgia. He served, as well, as the Atlanta Chapter President of the NAACP and also the Vice President of the State NAACP Chapter. In tribute to his many accomplishments and his dedication, the Atlanta Public Schools named Harper High School (currently Harper-Archer Middle School) in his honor, and the City of Atlanta named a small park near the Ashby Street Marta Station for him – the Charles L. Harper Memorial Park.

BTW was built by an Atlanta-born architect, Eugene C. Wachendorff (1880-1955) in a style that is a mixture of medieval and Byzantine elements. The building has three-stories and a fourth basement level. The main entrance has two tiers of five arches each, decorated with terra cotta and twisted columns. The site is distinctive also because of two major works of art. One is the sculpture mounted at the front entrance, a replica of the original piece mounted at Tuskegee University. It depicts Booker T. Washington lifting the “veil of ignorance” from the head of a crouched African American ex-slave. Both pieces were created by renowned sculptor Charles Keck (1875-1951). The second work of art is a mural located right inside the main entrance. It celebrates the dignity of manual labor. It was painted in 1928 by a BTW student, Wilmer Angier Jennings (1910-1990), who went from BTW to Morehouse College (B.A. 1931), where he studied with renowned artist Hale Woodruff. Jennings went on to fashion a noteworthy career for himself as a well-respected artist in printmaking and jewelry design.

The BTW building is a commanding presence in the Southwest cityscape, described often as a medieval cathedral. Since 1924, there have been six additions to the structure and one renovation, and it stands iconically, not only as an ongoing site of learning in the Atlanta Public Schools, but also as a reminder of the advocacy and activism of African American citizens in garnering public funding for the education of their children.

In 1961, the Atlanta Public Schools desegregated, without violent incidents, when nine African American students enrolled in four white schools. Desegregation mattered with regard to the opening of access to educational opportunity on a more even basis. However, challenges continue into the twenty-first century as numbers of students in urban centers and in rural areas continue to suffer inequities of various kinds, confirming the interwoven effects in the United States of struggles related to issues of race, class, gender, and the intricate impacts and consequences of a stunning slate of socio-economic and socio-historical factors.


The Booker T. Washington Alumni Association

Over almost one hundred years, BTW has graduated thousands of students. They formed the Booker T. Washington Alumni Association more than half a century ago, and it continues to be one of the largest and most involved alumni associations in the Atlanta Public School System. Among the most famous alums is Martin Luther King, Jr. for his courageous leadership of the Modern Civil Rights Movement, but the list of high performers is long across all arenas, from music (for example, multiple award-winning vocalist Gladys Knight) to medicine (for example, David Sacher, Four-Star Admiral in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps who served as the 10th Assistant Secretary for Health and as the 16th Surgeon General of the United States (1998-2002) under President William Clinton).

Booker T. Washington Alumni have been leading the way for a tidal wave of preservation efforts with regard to the school’s history, from artifacts and documents, to the These Halls Can Talk oral history project, to helping to get the school listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Currently, the Atlanta Association, under the leadership of Valerie Williams and in collaboration with the Atlanta Public Schools, has secured space within the school to be renovated for an archives and museum to display and celebrate the school’s remarkable history.

Students who were participants in the oral history project organized by Shalesia Brewer (BTW, Class of 2008) via her non-profit organization These Halls Can Talk, Inc.

Contemporary Challenges

Today, Booker T. Washington High School exists amid an array of challenges in Westside communities that are typical for historic urban spaces that are now undergoing incredible and often traumatic change. The communities face many needs, from the need for affordable housing for a broader range of long-time residents, to job training opportunities for the general sustainability of individuals and families, to the need for substantial upgrades in resources related to healthy foods, walkable streets, high caliber parks and recreational facilities, to public safety, and so much more. These contemporary enterprises matter greatly as public schools in such areas must continue to provide, despite various and sundry urban crises, critical learning opportunities and services. Public schools must still fulfill with excellence the incalculable function of enabling students, regardless of background, to enter successfully a highly technological and highly scientific world but a world, as well, that continues to require excellence in arts and culture, in governance and civic engagement, in the preparation of students for leadership in a full range of work arenas.

As BTW draws near to 100 years of service to its Westside communities, it remains a key anchor for the Atlanta Public School System. It remains also an iconic symbol of its glorious past, as it stands as a sentinel for opportunity in welcoming new generations of Westside Atlanta students into its hallowed halls to learn and to be inspired.

Selected References

  • “African American Records: Freedmen’s Bureau.” National Archives. 14 September 2018.
  • Anderson, James D. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
  • “APS History.” Atlanta Public Schools.
  • “ASCD Faculty Bio: Shirley C. Kilgore.” ASCD Professional Learning Services. 1 September 2018
  • “Atlanta, GA:Booker T. Washington High School.” 1 September 2018.
  • Bacote, Clarence A. The Story of Atlanta University: A Century of Service, 1865-1965. Atlanta: Atlanta University,1969.
  • “Booker T Washington High School.” City of Atlanta. 1 September 2018.
  • Butchart, Ronald E. “Freedmen’s Education during Reconstruction.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 13 April 2013. Web. 18 September 2018.
  • Clark Atlanta University. 22 September 2018.
  • Cornelius, Janet. “‘We Slipped and Learned to Read’: Slave Accounts of the Literacy Process, 1830-1865.” Phylon. 44.3 (1983): 171-86.
  • Howard University. 22 September 2018.
  • “Jennings, Wilmer Angier.” Black Printmakers and the WPA. Leslie King-Hammond, Curator. 1 September 2018.
  • Rouse, Jacqueline A. Lugenia Burns Hope: Black Southern Reformer. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
  • Royster, Jacqueline J. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.
  • Sharfstein, Daniel. “The Namesake of Howard University Spent Years Kicking Native Americans off of Their Land.” 22 September 2018.
  • Shivery, Louie Davis and Smythe, Hugh H. ” The Neighborhood Union: A Survey of the Beginnings of Social Welfare Movements among Negroes in Atlanta. Phylon. 3.2 (1942): 149-162.
  • These Halls Can Talk. 7 October 2018.
  • Walker, Vanessa Siddle. The Lost Education of Horace Tate. New York: The New Press, 2018.
  • Wiggan, Greg with Scott, Lakia. Last of the Black Titans: The Role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the 21st Century. Rotterdam Sense Publishers, 2015.
  • “Wright, Richard R., Sr.” Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. 15 September 2018.


  • Authors: Jacqueline Jones Royster, Dean, Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, with Charles Cardot, Building Memories Intern
  • Building Memories Project Team:

    • Jacqueline Jones Royster, Executive Producer
    • Steve Hodges, Project Manager
    • Gene Kansas, Co-producer, Building Memories Podcast
    • Stephen Key, Co-producer, Building Memories Podcast
    • Interns: Charles A. Cardot and Maura F. Currie

Community Partner:

We are grateful for the partnership on this episode of The Atlanta Alumni Association of the Booker T. Washington High School. We are particularly grateful to Dr. Shirley Kilgore, who served as principal of Booker T. Washington High School from 1996-2005, and to Valerie Williams, the President of the Atlanta Alumni Association for their cooperation in the production of the BTW podcast.