To the Home Page of the National Humanities Center Web Site National Humanities Center Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
contact us | site guide | search
Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Identity

8.
Tom McAlpin, former slave, 10 July 1937
"I ain't never had no schoolin"
Education
- On the pursuit of learning by antebellum African Americans, narrative selections, 19th-20th century (PDF)
- On the drive for equal educational opportunity, two reports in The Anglo-African Magazine, 1859 (PDF)
- On teaching newly freed slaves in South Carolina, Charlotte Forten and the St. Helena Island freedmen's school, 1862

I was never sent to school, nor allowed to go to church. They were afraid we would have more sense than they.
Mrs. James Seward, 1855   


Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us.
John W. Fields, ca. 1937  


It is wonderful how a people who have been so long crushed to the earth . . . can have so great a desire for knowledge, and such a capability for attaining it.
Charlotte Forten, 1864  


"Us didn' have no schoolin," remembers Susan Snow, who had been enslaved in Alabama. "I's educated, but I ain't educated in de books. I's educated by de licks an' bumps I got." Many enslaved African Americans pursued learning surreptitiously, risking severe punishment if caught with a book. Free blacks faced their own obstacles—discrimination, restricted access to "colored schools," and lack of funds (or the willingness of white school boards to provide funds). Here we explore the educational pursuits of antebellum blacks in the South, the North, and the West.

  • The pursuit of learning by free and enslaved African Americans. From the narratives of twenty-three African Americans we survey the many paths to learning they forged, from glancing at white children's school books to struggling for fugitives' children right to attend Canadian public schools.
    • - 19th-century narratives of James Curry (1840), Frederick Douglass (1855), Noah Davis (1859), and John Sella Martin (1867); narratives of fugitive slaves in Canada in Benjamin Drew, A North-side View of Slavery. The Refugee, 1856; 20th-century WPA narratives of former slaves, ca. 1937; excerpts.

  • The drive for equal educational opportunity. From The Anglo-African Magazine, a black journal in New York City, come two reports in 1859 on campaigns to improve the "colored schools" in New York City and California (where a petition for desegregating the San Francisco schools is also noted).
    • - The Anglo-African Magazine, March & July 1859.

  • A free black teacher of newly freed slaves. Charlotte Forten, a freeborn African American woman (whose teenaged diary is excerpted in #3: Free-born), traveled to the South Carolina sea islands in 1862 to teach black children and adults who had been freed by the invading Union army. Two years later her account of the "freedmen's school," one of the first, was published in The Atlantic Monthly. "I never before saw children so eager to learn," she remarks, "although I had had several years' experience in New England schools."
    • - Charlotte Forten, "Life on the Sea Islands," The Atlantic Monthly, May 1864.

Compare these struggles for educational opportunities with those described in Willis Hodges's autobiography and Charlotte Forten's diary (#3: Free-born) and in The Making of African American Identity, Vol. II, INSTITUTIONS, and Vol. III, SEGREGATION, PROTEST, and OVERCOME?. (13 pages.)


Discussion questions
  1. How did slaves, former slaves, and free-born African Americans differ in their pursuit of educational opportunities?
  2. How did they differ in their definition of "education"?
  3. What obstacles did they face in gaining access to educational opportunities? in maximizing their gain from the opportunities?
  4. How did white people respond to African Americans' pursuit of education? How did African Americans perceive and adjust to the white people's responses? (Consider Henry Bibb's letters for aid in founding schools for fugitives' children in Canada; see Supplemental Sites below.)
  5. Compare the freedmen's school in South Carolina, the first "colored school" in California, and the "school-houses for colored children" in New York City. How did they address the differing needs and goals of their students?
  6. What techniques are used by the New York Society for the Promotion of Education Among School Children in its petition to the state commission? How does it use data and logical reasoning to present its case for improved facilities? How and why does it emphasize blacks as taxpayers?
  7. Imagine a discussion between any two speakers in these selections (e.g., Charlotte Forten with Rev. John J. Moore, J. Holland Townsend with Noah Davis, or John W. Fields with John Sella Martin). What aspects of education, and the pursuit of educational opportunities, would become front-and-center in each conversation?
  8. How did many former slaves pursue education after the Civil War? What factors caused many former slaves to remain uneducated (i.e., unschooled) into the 1930s? (See the WPA narratives.)
  9. Compare the antebellum and postbellum campaigns by African Americans for equal educational opportunities. What marked "success" before and after the Civil War?
  10. Specifically, compare the drives for "separate but equal" and for fully integrated public schools before and after the Civil War. What seemed to be achievable at different times?
  11. Amplify on these statements from the narratives. Extend each statement into a paragraph, perhaps as a diary entry, a letter to a former slaveholder, a formal petition, an announcement of an event, a newspaper editorial or letter to the editor, an obituary, or the first chapter of a history of African Americans.
    I's educated, but I ain't educated in de books. I's educated by de licks an' bumps I got.
    Susan Snow, ca. 1937


    "Dey say we git smarter den dey was if we learn anything . . ."
    Jenny Proctor, ca. 1937


    If we got learning, we stole it.
    Mrs. Coleman Freeman, 1855


    Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us.
    John W. Fields, ca. 1937


    I fought, and fought, and fought, and at last it got to the governor, and the law was declared, that all had equal rights [to attend public schools in Canada].
    William Thompson, 1855


    It is wonderful how a people who have been so long crushed to the earth . . . can have so great a desire for knowledge, and such a capability for attaining it.
    Charlotte Forten, 1864


    America will soon become the mid-way of the earth, the center and heart of the world, and with a common school system that shall educate all of her sons and daughters alike . . .
    J. Holland Townsend, 1859

Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans construct identity in antebellum America?
  •  How did enslaved and free blacks differ in their exercise of power and self-determination?
  •  How did African Americans define themselves as members of groups?

Printing
On the pursuit of learning by free and enslaved blacks:   5
On the drive for equal educational opportunity:   6
On teaching newly freed slaves in South Carolina:   2
TOTAL  13 pages
Supplemental Sites
Education, Arts, and Culture, primary texts and resources, in Slavery and the Making of America (WNET/PBS)

Language, Literacy, and Education , in Lest We Forget: The Triumph over Slavery, from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

The Black Canadian Experience in Ontario, 1834-1914: Flight, Freedom, Foundation, from The Archives of Ontario, Canada

Examination Days: The New York African Free School Collection, from the New York Historical Society

Elizabeth Thorn Scott Flood, antebellum proponent of desegregated education in California, overview from BlackPast.org

North American Slave Narratives, full text of 18th- & 19th-century slave narratives, in Documenting the American South, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library
WPA narratives, 1930s, full text as digital images, from the Library of Congress
An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)




Images:
- Free African School, Mulberry Street, New York City; engraving based on a drawing by pupil Patrick Reason, ca. 1830; printed in Carter G. Woodson, The Negro in Our History, 1927. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, Digital ID #1219240. Permission pending.
- Freedmen's school, illustration captioned "Sea-island School, No. 1,—St. Helena Island. Established in April 1862" (detail), in Education among the Freedmen, broadside, ca. 1866-70, published by the Pennsylvania Freedmen's Relief Association. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, #LC-USZ62-107754 (5-2).
- Images of formerly enslaved African Americans interviewed in the WPA Federal Writers' Project; courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division:
  • - Lorenza Ezell, age app. 87, at his home in Beaumont, Texas, ca. 1937.
  • - Tom McAlpin, age app. 90, at his home in Birmingham, Alabama, 10 July 1937.
  • - Jenny Proctor, age 87, at her home in San Angelo, Texas, ca. 1937.


*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.






IDENTITY
1. Slave   2. Slave to Free   3. Free-born   4. Entrepreneurs   5. Artists
6. Poets   7. Soldiers   8. Education   9. Citizenship   10. Emigration








TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation


Contact Us | Site Guide | Search


Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
National Humanities Center
Web site comments and questions, contact: lmorgan@nationalhumanitiescenter.org
Copyright © National Humanities Center. All rights reserved.
Revised: June 2009
nationalhumanitiescenter.org