Alternating Currents: Empowerment and Disempowerment in Nineteenth-Century Black Education Networks

Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Civil War and Reconstruction; Education


Networks have the dual ability to bind and to loose. Nowhere in recent scholarship has their twofold power been more clearly illustrated than in nineteenth-century African American historiography. Of late, historians of slavery and capitalism have vividly illustrated the immediate and violent impact of global market forces on enslaved people, while historians of Black abolitionism and Black nationalism have underscored the importance of Colored Conventions, print culture, and covert communciations to sustaining resistance and securing rights. In short, to explain systems of racial subjugation and liberation, historians have stressed the networks that made each possible. This panel builds on the trend by examining networks of African American education in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Focusing on connections between educators, activists, and students, the three presenters demonstrate how educational exchanges shaped Black student experiences in the nineteenth century. They argue learning networks alternately enhanced and diminished education’s potential as a pathway to multiracial democracy, depending on the network's origins, leadership, and circumstances. Michael Jirik shows how Black student abolitionists and other Black leaders, dissatisfied with the limited opportunities afforded African Americans and outraged over universities’ complicity in slavery and colonization, formed intellectual networks to contest the meaning of freedom, equality, and democracy on campus. His paper explains how these activists collectively envisioned radical, Black-centered alternatives that would both educate their people and advance their interests. ShaVonte’ Mills analyzes a partnership that formed in the 1860s between the American Missionary Association (AMA) and the American Tract Society (ATS), the leading educator of freedpeople and the leading producer of educational texts for freedpeople, respectively. Exchanges with AMA missionaries in Jamaica informed the curricula the ATS developed for classrooms in the post-emancipation South. Mills argues Afro-Jamaicans and African Americans contested U.S. reform networks’ proscriptive curricula and navigated the structures of white benevolence for their benefit. John Frederick Bell demonstrates how an 1872 conflict over interracial intimacy strained the educational network between the nation’s leading interracial colleges, Oberlin and Berea. His paper argues Oberlin’s influence ultimately stifled Black radicalism at Berea, weakening what had been the strongest bastion of racial reform in the Reconstruction South. Together, these papers reveal how educational networks both relayed ideals of Black freedom and liberation and channeled white doubts about the implications and implementation of those ideals. Social connections among white reformers could reinforce racial hegemony, while exchanges between Black reformers, sometimes operating within the very same networks, could resist it. Analyzing these processes illuminates the currents of power at work within Black education, demonstrating the importance of schooling and higher learning to racial formation in the nineteenth-century United States.

Papers Presented

Black Abolitionists’ Radical Vision of Higher Learning

Over the course of the early nineteenth century, Black abolitionists made institutions of higher learning contested spaces over the meaning of freedom, equality, and democracy. Black women and men’s demands for admission at colleges and theological seminaries were part of their abolitionist vision, believing that equality at the highest levels of learning would irrefutability demonstrate Black intellectuality and lead to Black rights. They also conceptualized an expansive notion of higher learning that benefited all African Americans, not simply a gifted elite. Black student abolitionists especially manifested abolition’s project on campuses where they faced racism as lived experience and encountered its intellectual underpinnings in the works and activities of proslavery and colonizationist faculty and students. Black student abolitionists were proximate, radical challenges to racist theories emanating from institutions of higher learning. They were agitators on campuses and they became significant activists in their communities as educators and leaders in major antislavery organizations. In doing so, Black students benefited from abolitionist networks which played a formative role in their college admissions. They also created new networks as they linked the movement to the campus. Through the networks connecting antislavery organizations, Black communities, and Black students on campus, Black and white abolitionists fought to sever colleges’ financial and ideological ties to slavery and racism. As a result, abolitionist networks underpinned by Black students created a novel concept of higher learning, one with political utility to advance the cause for a multiracial democracy.

Presented By
Michael E. Jirik, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Guided Freedom: The American Missionary Associations’ Educational Curricula in Post-Emancipated Jamaica and the United States South

On June 1864, Israel Warren, secretary of the American Tract Society (Boston), asked American Missionary Association Secretary, George Whipple, to report white missionaries’ and teachers’ letters regarding their teaching experiences in Kingston, Jamaica. Warren hoped to use their letters to inform the work the American Tract Society “should do for the freedmen” after the U.S. Civil War. By 1866, the American Tract Society was the nation’s leading publishing company that sold textbooks for former slaves’ transition from slavery to freedom. Warren’s request requires a transnational analysis of missionaries’ and reformers’ educational curricula in post-emancipated Jamaica and the United States. Afro-Jamaicans and African Americans contested U.S. reform networks’ proscriptive curricula and navigated white benevolence for their benefit. This paper examines pamphlets, textbooks, letters, and newspapers, toreveal the transnational reach of U.S. reform networks in post emancipated societies. I argue that the schoolhouse, particularly the educational text, was a prominent political site for the social constructions of freedom and citizenship after slavery. The social constructions and limitations of black freedom and citizenship were not solely in the legal system, but in the mundanity of the schoolhouse and curricula.

Presented By
ShaVonte' Mills, Pennsylvania State University

Family Feud: Abolitionist Colleges Debate the Limits of Reconstruction

Berea College, incorporated in 1859, became the first in the South to admit women and African Americans on an equal basis with white men once the college was up and running after the Civil War. Its founders intended Berea to “be for Kentucky what Oberlin is to Ohio,” and a conduit of faculty and administrators formed between the two schools, facilitated by the American Missionary Association (AMA). In short order, however, it became clear that Berea exceeded Oberlin and the AMA in its enthusiasm for racial reform. This paper shows how an 1872 conflict over interracial intimacy strained the educational network between these sibling institutions. Oberlin alumni arriving at Berea as teachers and administrators were stunned by the mingling of races and sexes they observed and took steps to regulate campus life. Black students protested these incursions, which they considered a violation of Berea’s credo of the one-bloodedness of humankind. When the faculty could not quell dissent, the board of trustees intervened to delineate the boundaries of “social equality.” This paper argues that the outcome of their deliberations reflected Oberlin’s moderating influence. The trustees’ ruling, which endorsed racial equality per se but disavowed interracialism, carried significance well beyond Berea’s campus. It was the first time an affiliate of the AMA, the largest educational organization in the Reconstruction South, formally articulated the implications of racial difference. As Black alumni later argued, the ruling set the stage racial retrenchment at Berea. The brightest hope for postbellum racial pluralism was effectively extinguished.

Presented By
John Frederick Bell, Assumption University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Kabria Baumgartner, University of New Hampshire
Kabria Baumgartner is assistant professor of American studies and core faculty in Women's Studies at the University of New Hampshire. She is a leading expert on the subject of African American women's education in the United States. Generally, her research interests focus on early American culture and history, with an emphasis on race and gender. Her first book, In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America, was published by New York University Press in 2019.

Her research has been supported by the Library Company of Philadelphia, the American Antiquarian Society, and, most recently, the Peabody Essex Museum/Phillips Library. In 2016, Professor Baumgartner was selected as a Postdoctoral Fellow by the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation. She earned her Ph.D. in African American Studies and a Certificate in Feminist Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a M.A. summa cum laude in African American Studies and B.A. cum laude in English from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Presenter: John Frederick Bell, Assumption University
John Frederick Bell is a historian of the nineteenth-century United States specializing in race, education, and social reform. His research and review have appeared in Education’s Histories, Journal of the Civil War Era, Civil War History, History of Education Quarterly, and the Journal of the Early Republic. His forthcoming book, The Abolitionist College: Dreams of Racial Equality Deferred, will be published by Louisiana State University Press.

He received his M.A. in History and Ph.D. in American Studies from Harvard. He was a 2016-2017 Spencer Dissertation Fellow at the National Academy of Education and a Kilachand Postdoctoral Fellow at Boston University from 2017 to 2019. Presently, he is Assistant Professor of History at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Presenter: Michael E. Jirik, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Michael Jirik, Ph.D., teaches in the History Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and in the Departments of History and Black Studies at Amherst College. His research and teaching areas include African American History, Slavery and Universities, Slavery and Abolition, the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Black Atlantic. His current book manuscript assesses the relationship between slavery and abolition at British and American institutions of higher learning. His research and book reviews have been published in Slavery and Abolition (forthcoming), a scholarly volume on the history of Amehrst College (forthcoming), History of Education Quarterly, the Journal of American Studies, and the African American Intellectual History Society's blog, Black Perspectives.

Presenter: ShaVonte' Mills, Pennsylvania State University
ShaVonte’ Mills is a doctoral candidate in the Departments of History and African American and
Diaspora Studies under the direction of Dr. Christina Snyder at Pennsylvania State University.
She earned her BA in History and minored in African, African American and Diaspora Studies at
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her current research focuses on nineteenth
century education, black educational networks, evangelical abolitionism, and the contentious
constructions of freedom and citizenship in post-emancipated societies. Her dissertation,
tentatively titled, “Visionaries: The Black Educational Network as Transnational Diasporic
Politics, 1840-1880,” examines the impromptu black education network that emerged in
juxtaposition to the Oberlin Missions’ curricula of freedom and citizenship which was taught
across the Americas and the Caribbean. Her research has been supported by Oberlin College’s
Frederick B. Artz Summer Research Grants Program and the Justin Schiller fellowship at the
American Antiquarian Society.