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March 7, 2023 | by Laura Wakefield, National Council for History Education
It seems appropriate to recognize women who were teachers at a challenging time in our history. During the Civil War and throughout Reconstruction, thousands of teachers taught the newly emancipated people of the South. Most of the teachers were young women, black and white, who traveled south to instruct formerly enslaved men, women and children who were determined to acquire literacy. Some of them, like Charlotte Forten, a black abolitionist from Philadelphia who taught in the Sea Islands of Georgia beginning in 1861, wrote extensively of their experiences and became well known. However, many others served for decades, and we can only glean their stories from letters written to northern missionary organizations that sponsored them or reports from the Freedmen’s Bureau.
They describe a constant shortage of teachers and physically demanding work. Despite being marginalized and in many cases threatened by southern white society, most teachers taught both day and night classes to accommodate their pupils' work schedules. An 1873 article in the New York Post about a teacher in Florida described freedmen as "so eager to learn that she gave, last summer, lessons to washerwomen at ten o’clock in the evening, after the labors of the day were over, and found others waiting at her door for their daily lessons at six o’clock in the morning, before their work was begun.” (1) Classrooms were crowded and inadequate, and teachers taught with limited resources.
Despite this, the desire for education by the southern black populace meant that many dedicated teachers remained at their posts even after the Freedmen’s Bureau dissolved to ensure the growth of education in the south. As one teacher wrote of the purpose of her teaching, “When you set a light in a dark place it is seen and felt.” (2) These were the teachers who taught the children who grew to become teachers, ministers, businessmen, and community leaders who guided the black communities through the difficult years to come. Despite societal opposition, these teachers changed the lives of their students.
What historical women inspire you? Share your thoughts with us on social media. #NCHEinspiringwomen
Photograph: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "Lottie Grimke." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 7, 2023. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-cd9a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
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