Presented below are excerpts from the report of the Board of Education for Freedmen, Department of the Gulf, submitted on February 28, 1865. The report begins with a description of the reasons virtually no schools for blacks - whether free or slave - existed before 1864. It then gives the number of students enrolled as of the report date - 9571 plus 2000 adults taking night classes. The excerpts below list some of the challenges of starting schools for freedmen. What problems are identified? What benefits of education are described? What evidence of prejudice against African Americans can you find in the document? What might the effects of these prejudices be?
DIFFICULTIES ATTENDING THE ESTABLISHMENT OF COUNTRY SCHOOLS
It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the difficulty of establishing these schools in the country parishes.
Considering the expense and the probability of change in the school districts, the Board decided not to build school-houses at present, but to avail themselves of such accommodations as could be found. . . .
Cabins, sheds, unused houses, were appropriated, roughly repaired, fitted with a cheap stove for the winter, a window or two for light and air a teacher sent to the locality, the neighboring children gathered in, and the school started. . . .
...it frequently occurs, that in a desirable locality for a school, it is impossible to obtain boarding for the teachers. In such cases, a weather-proof shelter of some kind--very poor at best--is obtained, some simple furniture provided, and a teacher sent who is willing to undergo the privations--often hardships-of boarding herself, in addition to the fatigues of her school.
Compelled to live on the coarsest diet of corn bread and bacon; often no tea, coffee, butter, eggs, or flour; separated by miles of bad roads from the nearest provision store; refused credit because she is a negro teacher, unable to pay cash because the Government is unavoidably in arrears; subjected to the jeers and hatred of her neighbors; cut off from society, with unfrequent and irregular mails; swamped in mud--the school shed a drip, and her quarters little better; raided occasionally by rebels, her school broken up and herself insulted, banished, or run off to rebeldom; under all this, it is really suprising how some of these brave women manage to live, much more how they are able to render the service they do as teachers.
Despite all the efforts of our agents, the assistance of the Provost Marshals, and the devotion of the teachers, many of these schools would have to be abandoned but for the freedmen themselves. These, fully alive to all that is being done for them, gratefully aid the teachers from their small store, and mount guard against the enemy of the schools, whether he be a rebel, a guerilla, or a pro-slavery professed unionist skulking behind the oath.
INSTANCES OF PRIVATION AND PERIL.
In a parish, some distance from New Orleans, a building was procured, an energetic teacher sent, scholars gathered, and the work begun. The first week brought no report. It came subsequently, as follows: "Arrived. Found a place to live a mile and a half from the school-shed! Dreadful people, dirty and vulgar, but the best I can do. Went about gathering scholars, have forty. Did well enough till it rained, since then have walked three miles a day, ankle deep in thick black mud that pulls off my shoes. Nothing to eat but strong pork and sour bread. Insulted for being a `nigger teacher.' Can't buy anything on credit, and have'nt a cent of money. The school shed has no floor, and the rains sweep clean across it, through the places where the windows should be. I have to huddle the children first in one corner and then in another to keep them from drowning or swamping. The Provost Marshal won't help me. Says 'he don't believe in nigger teachers--did'nt 'list to help them.' The children come rain or shine, plunging through the mud--some of them as far as I do. Pretty pictures they are. What shall I do? If it will ever stop raining I can get along."
Who ever has attempted to march through the adhesive mud of this delta, under a Louisiana rain-storm, will realize the accuracy of that report. It is one of a score.
Another class of obstacles is fairly indicated by the following extract from the report of a country teacher:
"I have, in vain, attempted to form a night school. I never dared take more than two pupils, because some of the officers are so opposed to the instruction of negroes. One use to let his dogs loose after supper to bite the night-scholars, till I told him I would kill them if they bit my pupils. A great many would come to night-school only they are afraid.". . .
In Thibodeaux the school-house has been broken open, on successive nights, for months past, the furniture defaced, the books destroyed and the house made untenable by nuisance. Bricks and missiles have been hurled through the windows, greatly risking limb and life, and making general commotion. Complaint after complaint has not yet afforded relief or protection. . . .
While the teachers in the city and towns are not subjected to the same sort of annoyance and outrage, they are still the objects of scorn and vituperation, from many of their early friends, who refuse to recognize them on the street, and place them under the social ban for accepting the new order of things. . . .
EMPLOYMENT OF SOUTHERN WOMEN.
The cases cited and many others have seemed to justify the Board in the adoption of the policy expressed in a previous report, and since adhered to--that of employing, not exclusively, but mainly, Southern women as teachers. They understand the negro. They have a competent knowledge of the people. Their Southern origin and education fit them to combat the prejudices of their former friends and associates against negro education. . . .
Whenever colored teachers, with the requisite ability, have presented themselves, we have made no distinction whatever.
ABSENCE AND THE CAUSES.
A much larger percentage of absences is found in our schools during the winter than the summer months. This is owing to the very general want of warm and suitable clothing. At least one-fifth of the school children are suffering from this cause. These, for the most part, belong to those families who have entered our State within the past year.
They come to school with singular diligence, week after week, bare-footed and bare-limbed, with garments ragged and thin, shivering over their lessons from cold and wet, but still persistent to learn.
We have made our plea for bare feet and naked shoulders to Northern charitable societies, some of which may make the Board the almoner of their benefactions.
In many localities the small-pox has been making sad havoc; some schools have had one-third of their number ill at the same time. Others have been forced to suspend temporarily. Our efforts to induce general vaccination have failed, in consequence of the fears of the children and the superstition of many of the parents. Owing to the severity and almost malignancy of the epidemic, about thirty per cent, of the cases die. There is reason to believe that it is still upon the increase, and that before the coming summer is over it will decimate the colored population, if it is permitted to go on unchecked. . . .
. . . It is respectfully suggested that an order declaring vaccination to be a military necessity, would save many lives among these poor people. If physicians and surgeons were required to vaccinate all who apply, at a moderate public charge, and all were required to apply, it might arrest the ravages of this dreadful scourge. . . .
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE PUPILS
The pupils, as a class, are orderly, industrious, and easily governed. They are exceedingly grateful for any interest and kindness shown to them. It is the testimony of our teachers, who have taught in both white and colored schools, that these children do not suffer in comparison with the white in the activity of most of their faculties, and in the acquisition of knowledge. . . .
Another habitude of these colored children is their care of books and school furniture. There is an absence of that Young America lawlessness so common on Caucasian play grounds. The walls and fences about the colored schools are not defaced, either by violence or vulgar scratching. They do not whittle or ply the jack-knife at the expense of desks and benches. It may also be said that the imagination of these juveniles is generally incorrupt and pure, and from the two most prevailing and disgusting vices of school children, profanity and obscenity, they are singularly free.
INFLUENCE OF THE SCHOOLS.
The beneficial influence of these schools is not limited to the pupils. The children go from the school-room to their homes as Instructors. One of the immediate and visible results, is upon the colored adult and his household, in the increase of family respect, the promotion of cleanliness and thrift, and generally and in equal degree in those good effects that like influences have produced upon the populations of other races.
Another almost immediate and marked influence of these schools is seen upon the white people in the lessening prejudice, in the admission of the African's ability to learn, and his consequent fitness for places in the world, from which we have hitherto excluded him. . . .