Saturday, July 7, 2018

Freedmen's Schools

By Michelle Shocklee

When the American Civil War ended in April 1865, nearly four million slaves embraced freedom for the first time. They were free to make their own choices, free to move about the country, and free to be educated if they so desired. Due to anti-literacy laws in many southern states dating back to the early 1800s, most of the former slaves could not read or write. It's difficult to imagine elected government officials creating laws that prevent people from learning to read or write, yet, shamefully, those very laws stood for decades.

From the first days of their freedom, the former slaves desired formal education. And not just for children, as we think of school attendees, but for adults too. Opening the doors to schools that already existed where white children were educated sadly wasn't an option, so new schools had to be created. To help with the reconstruction of the South, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land, or the Freedmen's Bureau, an organization that provided assistance to newly freed slaves, offered rations to refugees and freed people displaced by the war, supervised the development of a labor system, and established Freedmen's schools throughout the South. Gaining an education was not only a symbol of freedom, but it also provided the former slaves the means of protecting themselves when dealing with potential employers. Understanding labor contracts and other legal documents was vital to the newly freed men and women.  

A freedmen's school on the James' plantation in North Carolina

In Richmond, Virginia, one of the earliest freedmen's schools was established in the eastern end of the city at Chimborazo in June 1865, on the site where a large Confederate hospital had operated just a few weeks before. During reconstruction the Freedmen's Bureau used its authority over former Confederate properties to provide buildings for schools. The Freedmen's Bureau, missionary associations, and African Americans themselves funded the schools. The New York Friends' Association supported the Chimborazo School, which had enrolled over three hundred students by November 1865. The register for October 1868 reflected students ranging in age from four to twenty-nine. Chimborazo School became a part of the City of Richmond's newly established school system in 1870.

Teachers for the new schools came from all walks of life. There were both men and women, single and married. Some came from the North, but some also came from the South. Some were black, like Charlotte Forten and Mary Peake, who taught in "contraband schools" prior to the end of the war, and had been born, raised, and educated as free citizens. While teaching reading, writing, and math skills was important, not all schools for freedmen were devoted exclusively to academic training. Most provided instruction in some vocational skills, and some were designed as plantation schools, farm schools, sewing schools, or industrial schools. Although the work was difficult, it was also rewarding. As one teacher wrote in a letter to her family, "This is a most absorbing life: there is so much to be done, one never feels like stopping anywhere through the hours of the day. It is death to ennui. I, for one, was never so truly happy as in this work."

Everyone, however, was not pleased with educating blacks. Many freedmen's schools were burned, as described in this quotation from the Nashville Press in September 1866:

A freedmen's school burning during the Memphis riots in 1866

"We are sorry to say that some very mean rascals burned down the freedmen's school at Decherd the other day. The fellows who perpetrated the act deserve to be kicked out of civilized society. As they will be required to rebuild the school-house, and will have colored troops sent there by the bureau forthwith to prevent any further interference with the humble and laudable efforts of a poor people to educate and improve themselves, they will find out that laying schoolhouses in ashes is a very unprofitable sort of amusement to indulge in."

The newspaper went on to publish a letter from Major General Johnson to General Fisk, commander, stating that in areas of Nashville where Union troops had withdrawn, "colored schools" were being forced to close and the teachers ordered to leave. The Major assures the General that he will "post colored troops there to enforce the laws, and protect the schools."

Despite hardships, lack of funds, and opposition, the schools grew and thrived. By the end of 1865, more than 90,000 former slaves were enrolled as students in such public schools. By 1870, there were more than 1,000 schools for freedmen in the South. Colleges were also established under the Freedmen's Bureau, offering higher education to young black men and women.

Freedom had brought many changes for blacks, and education was one key to making sure those changes were positive ones.

A marker commemorating a Freedmen's School
in Morgan County, Georgia

Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection. Michelle and her husband of 31 years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at


Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself solely responsible for Rose Hill plantation. When Union troops arrive with a proclamation freeing the slaves, all seems lost. How can she run the plantation without slaves? In order to save her son’s inheritance she strikes a deal with the arrogant, albeit handsome, Colonel Maish. In exchange for use of her family’s property, the army will provide workers to bring in her cotton crop. But as her admiration for the colonel grows, a shocking secret is uncovered. Can she trust him with her heart and her young, fatherless son?


  1. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post.

  2. Thank you Connie and Melanie! I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's a fascinating subject. Have a blessed day!