On the eve of the Civil War, Mississippi was home to an estimated 436,000 enslaved African Americans. By 1865 the war, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution meant that all of these people were now free. But very few of them had received any education at all, leaving them ill equipped for their new lives.
As early as 1862 aid organizations from the North sent emissaries southward to assist the former slaves in making the transition to citizens. In Mississippi, this process began by the spring of 1863 and continued until 1870. These organizations established a network of grassroots “freedmen schools” to educate and uplift the freed slaves. These schools directly challenged the prewar ideology and laws that explicitly forbade African Americans—free or enslaved—from attending school.
The most active organization throughout the South was the US Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau), which assisted freedmen and poor whites in negotiating labor contracts, purchasing land, settling disputes and judicial affairs, voting, and attending school. The bureau consolidated three types of schools: private schools founded and maintained by free blacks; missionary schools staffed by northern-born teachers; and private schools started by Mississippi whites.
Between 1865 and 1870 approximately 10 percent of Mississippi’s former slaves attended schools consolidated by the bureau. The schools peaked in 1868, when 128 institutions enrolled a total of 6,250 pupils. The schools served as the foundation for the state’s first tax-supported public school system, which was established in 1870. Many more former slaves would likely have attended school if greater resources had been available and white opposition had been less intense: newly freed African Americans had an intense interest in education, which symbolized equality and societal uplift as well as provided vital skills for everyday living.
But the movement to provide education for Mississippi’s former slaves ended quickly. In 1875 Mississippi voters replaced Reconstruction-era Republican officeholders with white supremacist Democrats, who quickly moved to roll back many of the advances the state’s African Americans had gained over the preceding decade.
- Lerone Bennett, Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America (1968)
- Christopher M. Span, in Chartered Schools: Two Hundred Years of Independent Academies in the United States, 1727–1925, ed. Nancy Beadie and Kim Tolley (2002)
- Christopher M. Span, Journal of African-American History (Spring 2002)
- Randy Sparks, Journal of Mississippi History 54 (Summer 1992)