From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse

From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse: African American Education in Mississippi, 1862-1875

CHRISTOPHER M. SPAN
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469601335_span
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  • Book Info
    From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse
    Book Description:

    In the years immediately following the Civil War--the formative years for an emerging society of freed African Americans in Mississippi--there was much debate over the general purpose of black schools and who would control them.From Cotton Field to Schoolhouseis the first comprehensive examination of Mississippi's politics and policies of postwar racial education.The primary debate centered on whether schools for African Americans (mostly freedpeople) should seek to develop blacks as citizens, train them to be free but subordinate laborers, or produce some other outcome. African Americans envisioned schools established by and for themselves as a primary means of achieving independence, equality, political empowerment, and some degree of social and economic mobility--in essence, full citizenship. Most northerners assisting freedpeople regarded such expectations as unrealistic and expected African Americans to labor under contract for those who had previously enslaved them and their families. Meanwhile, many white Mississippians objected to any educational opportunities for the former slaves. Christopher Span finds that newly freed slaves made heroic efforts to participate in their own education, but too often the schooling was used to control and redirect the aspirations of the newly freed.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-1971-2
    Subjects: Sociology, Education, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-1)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 3-20)

    In June 1937, at the age of ninety-one, an ex-slave from Holly Springs, Mississippi, by the name of George Washington Albright was interviewed by theDaily Workerregarding his legislative and educational activities during and after the Civil War.¹ Albright proffered the above statement, and his intentions seemed unmistakable. Cognizant of Mississippi blacks’ existing educational opportunities and their vulnerable and denigrated status, he wanted to inform the public of the important contributions African Americans—in particular former slaves—played in the establishment of Mississippi’s first comprehensive tax-supported public school system. Albright knew firsthand that the status of African Americans in...

  5. PART ONE 1862–1870

    • 1 LIBERATION THROUGH LITERACY
      (pp. 23-48)

      Freedom and education for African Americans begin in and around Holly Springs. In a symbolic sense, they begin around the birth of one slave child in particular. Amid the devastation of a nation at war and a turbulent Mississippi society, a future crusader for justice and the rights of African Americans was born a slave on a cotton plantation in Holly Springs; her name was Ida Bell Wells. The timing of Wells’s birth—July 16, 1862—with regard to the rise of emancipation in Mississippi was without question coincidental, but, given the times, it was significant. Ida, the future crusader...

    • 2 EDUCATED LABOR
      (pp. 49-83)

      Similarly to the self-supporting schools established by formerly enslaved African Americans throughout Mississippi, grassroots schools for freed-people established by teachers from the North had auspicious beginnings. The schools arose and flourished for two primary reasons: first, the initiative of formerly enslaved African Americans to seek out freedom in Union lines, and second, the developments of the war. As the war entered Mississippi, preachers and teachers from the North accompanied the Union army, arming themselves not with guns, but with Bibles, clothes, food, and knowledge. These teachers did not have to venture from the protection of the military to find their...

    • 3 EDUCATION FOR SERVITUDE
      (pp. 84-114)

      The self-improving and educational measures taken by freedpeople and the northerners that assisted them produced mixed reactions among whites in Mississippi. Reactions ranged from a gradual acceptance of the inevitable changes to befall the state’s postwar political economy, to political and legal measures implemented to challenge the overall initiatives of freedpeople, to tacit disapproval, to violence and outright hostility. Overall, whites in Mississippi detested emancipation and the proactive demeanor of formerly enslaved African Americans. Ira Berlin correctly asserts, “Former masters did not accept the new circumstances easily, interpreting the freedpeople’s actions as ingratitude or insolence.”¹ Landowning whites in Mississippi in...

  6. PART TWO 1870–1875

    • 4 UNIVERSAL SCHOOLING
      (pp. 117-152)

      Grassroots activities by freedpeople, northerners, and assenting whites were not the only educational initiatives occurring in postwar Mississippi. Schooling initiatives were also being debated and hammered out on the legislative floor as well. The state constitution, which was approved in 1869, authorized the establishment of a uniform system of tax-supported public schools for all children between the ages of five and twenty-one.¹ While some members of the Constitutional Convention wanted compulsory schooling and integration initiatives, these resolutions never received serious consideration. What was instituted was a de facto system of segregated public and private schools for Mississippi’s white and “colored”...

    • 5 PUBLIC SCHOOLS, 1871–1875
      (pp. 153-176)

      Mississippi’s dual public school system, despite its limitations, was a promising start for African Americans. On the whole, blacks were very receptive to their initial public school opportunities. While they promptly recognized that their opportunities were not equal to whites or reflective of their total need, they nonetheless viewed public schools as a progressive beginning. They maintained this attitude because public schools gave them an additional and virtually permanent prospect to improve their personal and professional lives and to demonstrate to all naysayers that African Americans were capable and deserving of equal consideration under the law. They held this attitude...

  7. EPILOGUE
    (pp. 177-180)

    In June 2002, a family gathered in the college town of Urbana, Illinois, for a high school graduation. It was not your typical graduation; the graduate was a sixty-nine-year-old woman by the name of Johnnie Mae Dorris. The local newspaper carried the story and the front page headline read: “From Cotton Field to Cap, Gown.” She was the oldest graduate of Urbana High School. She recalled for the newspaper how she grew up on a cotton farm in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, where formal schooling was severely limited. “From December, when all the cotton was picked,” Dorris told the newspaper staff...

  8. APPENDIX KNOWN AFRICAN AMERICAN POLITICIANS AND LEGISLATORS IN MISSISSIPPI DURING RECONSTRUCTION, 1870–1875
    (pp. 181-184)
  9. NOTES
    (pp. 185-222)
  10. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 223-236)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 237-252)