Thursday, July 23, 2009

New book explores post-emancipation education of blacks in Mississippi

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – In the years immediately following the Civil War, the question of education for newly emancipated slaves in Mississippi centered on whether schools should seek to educate blacks as citizens or train them as subsistence laborers. While many whites favored the laborer option, those who had been freed wanted schools established by and for themselves as a means of achieving independence, equality and political empowerment – in essence, full citizenship, says Christopher M. Span, a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois.

The story of the politics and policies of public education for newly freed slaves in post-bellum Mississippi is the subject of Span's new book, "From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse: African American Education in Mississippi, 1862-1875" (The University of North Carolina Press).

Christopher M. Span, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Caption: Christopher M. Span, a professor of educational policy studies at Illinois, has written a new book, "From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse: African-American Education in Missisippi, 1862-1875," that explores the question of education for newly emancipated slaves in post-bellum Mississippi.

Credit: L. Brian Stauffer. Usage Restrictions: None.
Other books have traced the challenges of education in the South during the Reconstruction Era, but Span's book appears to be the first significant piece of contemporary scholarship to tell the story of the public education of formerly enslaved black Mississippians.

"I wanted to know what value knowledge and literacy had in the slave community, and how people who were once enslaved became literate," Span said. "I always knew that African-Americans valued education, even though that runs counter to popular consensus."
"There's an idea today that African-Americans devalue school," he said. "But if you look at the historical record, you would see it's anything but that."

Even though they lived in a country that had sanctioned their slavery and bondage for generations, Span said newly free black Mississippians still had "a fundamental belief in all of the things that makes America so great."

"Freedpeople were willing to risk their own lives to ensure that, if they couldn't have it – whether it's democracy, schooling, equality or land ownership – their children could."

In fact, the children of former slaves in Mississippi were going to school in record numbers. But despite the explosion of educational opportunities for blacks in the state, the type of schools they were attending didn't match with what they thought formal schooling would do for them – namely, become full-fledged citizens of society.

"The schools barely went beyond the elementary grades, and there were very few secondary schooling opportunities for them," Span said. "They may have had an opportunity to get, at best, what we would think of today as an eighth grade education. An overwhelming number of schools educated them to have a rudimentary understanding of literacy and mathematics and numeracy, but not very much beyond that. And there were very few opportunities for them to advance their education once they left school."

Although the newly freed made heroic efforts to get the most out of their educational opportunities, schooling was most often used to redirect their ambitions.

"Should freedpeople be educated as a full-fledged citizen or as a cheap source of labor? – that was the big question during that time," Span said. "You had northerners who would go south convinced that freedpeople needed help in their transition from slave to free. And then you had southern whites, particularly those in Mississippi, who thought that if anything they should be taught how to be laborers, and should continue to labor the land for those who enslaved them prior to the Civil War. And then you had the freedpeople themselves, who really desired to be equals."

"That's really how you began to see how those ideological strands play out in the schools and the type of curriculum and opportunity African-American school children would receive," Span said.

The pedagogy played out the way Mississippi's political economy existed before the Civil War – around the cotton cycle, and around the demand for having a steady, cheap and near-permanent labor force to work the fields.

But that ran contrary to what former slaves wanted in Mississippi, Span said.

"If they envisioned working the lands, it would be lands they owned and possessed themselves, and not for someone else's profit," he said.

Span said Mississippi was an interesting case study for black education in the South because it could be thought of as ground zero for the recalcitrance of ruling-class southern whites during Reconstruction.

"What happened was a significant minority of whites in Mississippi who would go to great lengths to ensure that the state was for whites only," Span said. "And you would see an equal number of African-Americans who wanted to be equals at the table. It wasn't just a call for equality for people who had been enslaved, it really was a call for equality for everybody, regardless of race, class or previous condition of servitude. It was really a call for universal access to education for everyone, including poor, dispossessed whites."

The history from that period of time reflects on the present in that "we should never doubt one's thirst for knowledge and education," Span said.

"Those values haven't been lost in the African-American community. I just think the most sensational acts and aspects of culture seem to have taken precedence over the things that are still at the foundation of ordinary, everyday people who live out their lives and attempt to do the best they can, and want to see something better for their children the next day. The quest for knowledge and for schools and for one to have something better is still there." ###

Contact: Phil Ciciora 217-333-2177 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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