ERIC FONER Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877

Back to Unit 7

From Chapter 5, “The Meaning of Freedom”

Perhaps the most striking illustration of the freedmen’s quest for self-improvement was their seemingly unquenchable thirst for education. Before the war, every Southern state except Tennessee had prohibited the instruction of slaves, and while many free blacks had attended school and a number of slaves became literate through their own efforts or the aid of sympathetic masters, over 90 percent of the South’s adult black population was illiterate in 1860. Access to education for themselves and their children was, for blacks, central to the meaning of freedom, and white contemporaries were astonished by their “avidity for learning.” A Mississippi Freedmen’s Bureau agent reported in 1865 that when lie informed a gathering of 3,000 freedmen that they “were to have the advantages of schools and education, their joy knew no bounds. They fairly jumped and shouted in gladness. “The desire of learning led parents to migrate to towns and cities in search of education for their children, and plantation workers to make the establishment of a school-house “an absolute condition” of signing labor contracts. (One 1867 Louisiana contract specified that the planter pay a “5 per cent tax” to support black education.) Adults as well as children thronged the schools established during and after the Civil War. A Northern teacher in Florida reported how one sixty-year-old woman, “Just beginning to spell, seems as if she could not think of any thing but her book, says she spells her lesson all the evening, then she dreams about it, and wakes up thinking about it.”

For many adults, a craving “to read the word of God” provided the immediate spur to learning. One elderly freedman sitting beside his grandchild in a Mobile school explained to a Northern reporter, “he wouldn’t trouble the lady much, but he must learn to read the Bible and the Testament.” Others recognized education as indispensable for economic advancement. “I gets almost discouraged, but I does want to learn to cipher so I can do business,” an elderly Mississippi pupil told his teacher. But more generally, blacks’ hunger for education arose from the same desire for autonomy and self-improvement that inspired so many activities in the aftermath of emancipation. As a member of a North Carolina education society put it in 1866, “he thought a school-house would be the first proof of their independence.”

EXCERPT from RECONSTRUCTION by ERIC FONER. Copyright (c) 1988 by Eric Foner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Back to Unit 7

Prepared by Deborah Mercer and Edith Beckett of the New Jersey State Library.
Copyright 2003 © by the New Jersey Historical Commission,
New Jersey Department of State.
All rights reserved.
Please direct questions and comments to Deborah Mercer.
Updated:Thursday, April 24, 2003