American Missionary Association

The Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter had barely penetrated northern consciousness when the American Missionary Association (AMA) exulted that the war had opened a grand field for missionary labor. Organized as a nonsectarian antislavery society in 1846, it quickly focused on establishing schools and churches for southern blacks. It sent a missionary to escaped Virginia slaves in September 1861, and its teachers tracked the Union Army so closely that booming cannons sometimes interrupted classes.

In late 1862 approaching Confederates forced Rose Kinney to flee Corinth, where she was teaching children of black refugees, but by May 1863 nine AMA teachers were providing relief and instruction there. In 1864 Lizzie Welsh began a class at Natchez under a large magnolia tree, and Fannie Campbell lived in a tent while teaching black soldiers in Vicksburg. “I have taught in the North,” Campbell wrote, “and have never seen such zeal on the part of pupils, nor such advancement.”

The AMA quickly increased its presence in Mississippi after the war. It supported twenty-four teachers in eight schools in 1866, numbers that grew to eleven schools and thirty-three teachers in 1868 and thirteen and forty-five the following year. AMA institutions were coeducational, open to all races, and staffed by both black and white teachers. African Americans in Natchez joyously welcomed northern black teachers Blanche V. Harris and Pauline Freeman in 1865. Although the association’s attempts to establish churches were mostly unsuccessful, its teachers often emphasized religion in schools. In June 1863 G. M. Carruthers opened his Corinth school with Scripture reading, prayer, and religious songs. Harris proudly reported from Vicksburg that “a deep seriousness seems to have settled over my whole school and many with streaming eyes” are asking “what shall I do to be saved?” Nearly all of the AMA schools established temperance societies.

The AMA concluded that blacks must be empowered by being trained to teach their own. By 1869 Columbus’s Union Academy was educating youth to teach in elementary schools, and in 1871 Tougaloo College established a normal department for teacher training. Its graduates subsequently earned widespread praise from public school officials.

African Americans eagerly accepted AMA teachers, but whites were less enthusiastic. Many at first opposed black education, and even supporters were often hostile to the AMA’s interracial faculties and to its advocacy of suffrage and equal rights for former slaves. Whites frequently refused to rent to teachers and insulted, ostracized, and occasionally molested them. When Mary Close went to Brandon in early 1866, whites refused to board or acknowledge her. Close moved in with a mulatto woman and opened both a day and a night school, but white boys disrupted her classes by throwing rocks through the windows. In Grenada, a white citizen backed by a mob choked, struck, and viciously beat AMA agent J. P. Bardwell with a cane. In 1871 the Ku Klux Klan closed or destroyed numerous black schools, including AMA institutions, and forced teachers of both races to abandon their students. As late as 1875, armed men seized and roughly handled the Union Academy principal in Columbus.

Although AMA officials believed that the state should be responsible for the education of all its citizens and turned its students over to public schools as soon as they were available, it operated a few primary and secondary institutions until the 1930s. In 1892 the AMA opened Mound Bayou Normal Institute on land donated in part by Isaiah T. Montgomery, the only black man to attend the 1890 Mississippi constitutional convention, which effectively disfranchised African Americans. The Mound Bayou school had 226 students and six teachers in 1914, and the association continued to operate it until 1918, when it was transferred to the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi. Although the AMA favored coeducation, two of its elementary schools, Girls’ Industrial School (later Almeda Gardner Industrial School) in Moorhead and Mount Herman Seminary near Clinton, were for females. The AMA opened the former in 1892 in a virtual forest, with the aim of providing elementary, industrial, and character training to females aged seven to fifteen. An elderly black neighbor called the school the House of Principle. In 1902 a boarding department for those living beyond walking distance housed sixty young women. Sarah A. Dickey, the founder and principal of Mount Herman Seminary, which had five teachers, eighty-one students, and dormitory space for forty-five boarders, deeded the school to the AMA in 1905. Both schools closed when adequate public schools became available, which in the case of Almeda Gardner was not until 1930.

The AMA trained thousands of black students in primary and secondary schools, but its most significant contribution to Mississippi was Tougaloo College, chartered in 1871. Tougaloo initially emphasized normal, elementary, secondary, and industrial education. Thirteen students graduated from the normal and high school departments in 1897. It awarded its first bachelor’s degree in 1901 and grew steadily thereafter. In 1945 Tougaloo had a college enrollment of 217, with 36 graduates. As late as 1950 it was the only college in the state where black youth could acquire a liberal arts education. Tougaloo College played an active role in the civil rights movement and remains a significant institution for African Americans.

Further Reading

  • Lura Beam, He Called Them by the Lightning: A Teacher’s Odyssey in the Negro South (1967)
  • Augustus Field Beard, A Crusade of Brotherhood (1909)
  • Fred L. Brownlee, New Day Ascending (1946); Clarice T. Campbell and Oscar A. Rogers, Mississippi: The View from Tougaloo (1979)
  • Harlan Paul Douglass, Christian Reconstruction in the South (1909); Helen Griffith, Dauntless in Mississippi: The Life of Sara A. Dickey, 1838–1904 (1966)
  • Joe M. Richardson, Christian Reconstruction: The American Missionary Association and Southern Blacks, 1861–1890 (1986)
  • Joe M. Richardson and Maxine D. Jones, Education for Liberation: The American Missionary Association and African Americans, 1890 to the Civil Rights Movement (2009)
  • Randy Sparks, Journal of Mississippi History (February 1992); Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi, 1865–1890 (1947)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title American Missionary Association
  • Author
  • Keywords American Missionary Association
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 9, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 13, 2018