12 Chapter 12: Post-Civil War and Reconstruction

This chapter introduces students to changes related to education in the South and elsewhere following the Civil War. Indeed the war’s aftermath left a political vacuum, which was initially filled by a more powerful federal government. With the South devastated, the federal government stepped in to set the parameters of political renewal, at least initially, which included a number of requirements placed on the southern states to reenter the Union including requiring them to submit new state constitutions that included public education provisions. This highlights the importance many members of Congress placed on education, not only as a future necessity in southern states, but a realization based on debates in the Congressional Globe that the lack of schooling in the South contributed to causes of rebellion.

Prior to the Civil War the federal government had only been involved in education matters indirectly. During the war the federal government became directly involved in an educational experiment on the Sea Islands, and after the war the federal government’s direct participation included the Freedman’s Bureau and federally created schools. In addition, more recent research uncovered the fact that ex-slaves devoted unprecedented self-help in creating their own schools and educating their communities. Centuries of oppressive bondage generated among slaves a special appreciation for literacy helping to explain the connection they made between education and freedom. No one had to convince an enslaved people the connection between knowledge and power.


Learning Objectives

Upon completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Articulate the contextual circumstances of ex-slaves following the Civil War and why the federal government created Freemen’s schools.
  • Understand the importance of education among federal members of Congress with regard to southern states’ reentry into the Union and the additional requirements of newly western states.
  • Describe the conflict between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois over educating ex-slaves.
  • Understand how northern industrialists, philanthropists, and southern politicians institutionalized unequal education opportunities for African Americans in the South during the mid-to late-nineteenth century.
  • Contrast the educational purposes of and actions taken among northern Yankee schoolmarms with African American self-help.
  • Articulate how the role that Manifest Destiny placed in westward expansion.
  • Articulate the federal government’s relationship with Native Indians and the boarding school experiments.
  • Describe how formal schooling was used generally to control various populations during the mid- to late-nineteenth century.
  • Make connections between these institutionalized forms of cultural imperialism and conflicts over multicultural and ethnic studies curricula today.


Part 2, Chapter 12 Preface to Readings


“Crisis Compels Centralization”

Daniel Elazar, a scholar of federalism, once asserted that “crisis compels centralization” meaning that when the nation undergoes a calamity, catastrophe, or war, it eventually leads to the federal government exercising extra-constitutional actions on its own will or as a result of demands made by state and local governments. (1969, 51). Either way, crises tends to increase federal power vis-à-vis the states, as history has shown, and the post-Civil War Era provides only one example. With the South devastated economically, politically, and socially, the war left a political vacuum. Southern states were not members of the Union; yet, they were positioned to reenter the Union after meeting a number of requirements imposed on them by the U.S. Congress. For example, all southern states were required to hold constitutional conventions, re-write their state constitutions, and to submit them for congressional approval before being readmitted to the Union. For our purposes, it is important to note that all states were required to include provisions for free public schooling in their constitutions. Radical Republicans, as they were identified after the Civil War, believed that the lack of common schooling in the South had contributed to the circumstances leading to war. A review of the congressional debates following the war illustrates that this was a concern, and this justified imposing educational requirements on the South since southern planters refused to voluntarily create such institutions prior to the war. Like so many other debates about common schooling during Mann’s crusade, schooling continued to be viewed as a necessary instrument in maintaining stability and unity. It is also important to note that ex-slaves participated in these constitutional conventions, and in South Carolina where the African American population outnumbered Whites, they took part for the first time in democratic deliberations over the content of their new state constitution.

Of course, southern states followed through with the requirements and drafted language supporting schools. However, the general language one typically finds in constitutional texts provided the impetus for southern redeemers to eventually make a mockery of these newly formed constitutions. Southern state systems of education did provide funds for separate and segregated schools, but Black schools received a pittance compared to White schools, creating yet another form of institutionalized racism that would have long-lasting consequences for African American communities. Once the southern planter class regained control of the South, African Americans were once again denied access to political institutions, lacked representation in political bodies at the state and local levels, and experienced horrific violence and intimidation inflicted by White supremacist groups. While African Americans enjoyed a brief bout of freedom following the Civil War while congressional supervision and control of the region took place, once the southern power structure regained control, Blacks found themselves to be the victims of a number of new forms of imposed degradation and institutionalized bigotry. In short, they were being enslaved by other means. Nevertheless, emancipation and the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution corrected its previous flaws by memorializing fundamental rights for ex-slaves. It gave hope and encouragement; however contested, the new Constitutional Amendments provided a new discursive archetype within which freedom and equality could be pursued. Granting dual citizenship, the right to vote, and equal protection under the law, African Americans could now readjust national discourse and mold it in ways that would increasingly, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “bend the arch of history toward justice.”

The Beginning of Education in the South

American Progress

In the meantime, following the Civil War, it was clear that the federal government had a new crisis on its hands –how to respond to the needs of nearly four million ex-slaves who were homeless, property-less, and illiterate. One remedy the Congress pursued was the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau (officially referred to as the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands). Supervised by northern military officers, the Freedmen’s Bureau distributed food, clothing, and medial aid to ex-slaves (and poor whites) and created over 1,000 schools throughout the southern states. The Freedmen’s Bureau effectively lasted only for seven years due to southern redemption, but it represented a massive federal effort that provided some benefits.

While Freedmen’s schools benefited tens of thousands of ex-slaves, Yankee schoolmarms also headed south as missionaries to help educate ex-slaves. With their religious fervor, they sought to mutually benefit themselves in the eyes of their God by educating the illiterate. The missionary sensibilities were ingrained in the newly feminized teaching profession, which opened new opportunities for women while also limiting those opportunities. As missionaries, female teachers learned that their work was a calling to inculcate morality in the nation’s students. A calling doesn’t require one to seek higher salaries or profits; it is pursued for the good of mankind. This same missionary status fueled both the migration of teachers westward following national expansion, and the thousands of schoolmarms that migrated to the South to educate ex-slaves who, they believed, had to be redeemed through literacy, Christian morality, and republican virtue. Through good works, the schoolmarms could secure their worth in the eyes of God. (Butchart, 2010).

While the schoolmarms provided positive assistance, they were sometimes surprised to find that ex-slaves had already taken on efforts to self-educate. In other words, African Americans were preemptively educating their own. The few who were literate were often teaching children and adults alike and pulling together what little they had to build their own one-room schoolhouses. Again, ex-slaves placed a significant value on knowledge and its connection to freedom. Ignorance was itself oppressive; knowledge, on the other hand, was liberating. James Anderson’s extensive research on Black education in the South illustrates that, “By the fall of 1866, Georgia blacks were financing in whole or in part 96 of the 123 evening schools then operative and owned 57 school buildings.” Likewise, “A black newspaper in Savannah reported that sixteen schools in operation in that city were ‘under the control of an Educational Board of Colored Men, taught by colored teachers, and sustained by the freed people’” (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, 163). The northern schoolmarms came south “bent on treating the freedmen almost wholly as objects.” According to Anderson,

Many missionaries were astonished, and later chagrined…to discover that many ex-slaves had established their own educational collectives and associations, staffed schools entirely with black teachers, and were unwilling to allow their educational movement to be controlled by the ‘civilized’ Yankees. In vital respects, missionary propaganda continued in spite of the social reality that contradicted it…” (1988, 6).

Southern Power Structure, Northern Industrialists, and Philanthropists: An Iron Triangle

In general the white power structure in the South obfuscated every federal attempt to expand political, economic, and social opportunities for ex-slaves. Having created segregated and unequal primary schools, the southern political class expended a great deal of effort in segregating and limiting higher education. Rather than giving full access to segregated colleges, southern policymakers colluded with northern industrialists and philanthropy groups to create a system of industrial schools for Blacks. Mutual benefits included fulfilling the segregation demands of southern politicians and their hopes to impose a system of segregated higher education on the Black community that would further inhibit their opportunities to gain equality. Northern industrialists were happy to assist in the effort in order to secure a large pool of skilled labor, and philanthropists contributed funds to help build industrial schools, often initiating these efforts with good intentions. However, once philanthropists began working with southern white leaders, the funds provided by these wealthy donors were negotiated in a way that would further the interests of the white power structure. Clearly, the Peabody, Slater, and Rosenwald philanthropic funds helped in establishing industrial institutions like Hampton and Tuskegee, and normal schools for Black teachers to prepare them for careers in the industrial schools, all of which gave Blacks new opportunities. However, the political negotiation and colluding that determined how these funds were to be spent ended up creating new institutionalized form of segregation as Blacks continued to be restricted from White institutions of higher education and access to mainstream society. Below is a summary of how the Peabody, Slater, and Rosenwald philanthropic funds were used to institutionalize unequal and segregated black education in the South following the Civil War.

Philanthropic funds for Black education in the South during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Peabody Fund Slater Fund Rosenwald Fund
Established in 1867 by philanthropist, George Peabody Established in 1882 by industrialist and philanthropist, John F. Slater Established in 1912 and 1917 by philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald
Prohibited use in mixed schools
Black schools received about two-thirds the amount received by comparable white schools Supported industrial and agricultural schools for Blacks. Included funds for the Tuskegee Institute, Hampton Institute, Atlanta, Spellman,
Fisk, and high schools to train African American teachers
Constructed nearly 5,000 throughout southern states for black schoolchildren and teachers
A portion of funds were distributed to white private schools
A majority of funds were distributed to urban areas
Information in this chart provided by: B. C. Caldwell. (1913). The Negro’s Progress in Fifty Years.The Annals of The American Academy of Political and Social Science, 49, 173-176, and James D. Anderson. (1988). The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Moreover, by the early twentieth century Blacks, unlike Whites, were often subject to double taxation, according to Anderson. “Black southerners paid their taxes as citizens, and while white taxpayers got a system of free public education, black taxpayers got virtually nothing except when they taxed themselves again” (1988, 183). This kind of redistribution of school funds offered another example of how the white power structure utilized institutionalized taxation systems to further oppress blacks.

The Schism between Booker T. Washington and William Edward Burghardt

Booker T Washington

The development of industrial schools in this southern context created a schism between two African American leaders in the late nineteenth century. Booker T. Washington was born a slave in 1856 and grew up in Virginia. He attended the Hampton Institute in that state and “adopted the outlook of its founder, General Samuel Armstrong, who emphasized that obtaining farms or skilled jobs was far more important to African-Americans emerging from slavery than the rights of citizenship,” according to Foner. Likewise, Washington adopted this view and “put it into practice when he became head of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (2012, 652-653). In his famous 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech given at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. Washington “repudiated the abolitionist tradition that stressed ceaseless agitation for full equality.” Rather, he announced to the audience that included blacks and whites, “In all the things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” (Foner, 653). According to Foner, “Washington advised his people to seek the assistance of white employers who, in a land racked by labor turmoil, would prefer a docile, dependable black labor force to unionized whites” (2012, 653). Washington’s background and training informed his pragmatic approach, which complemented the desires and goals of white southern politicians. Washington feared that if demands for greater equality were impelled, it would result in a white backlash and destroy what little progress had been made.

W.E.B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois viewed the situation differently. Born free in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868, Du Bois’ path led him to earn scholarly degrees at Fisk and Harvard universities. He was served as a professor at Atlanta University and helped establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1905, the aims of which included seeking legal and political equality for African Americans. In fact, Du Bois was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, and while he certainly experienced segregation and racial discrimination throughout his years, the context within which he matured provided some distance from brutal slavery and greater educational opportunities to learn the classics, to develop scholarly research skills, and to develop an overall progressive and critical mindset compared to Washington. He opposed Washington’s pragmatic approach, considering it a form of “submission and silence on civil and political rights” (Urban and Wagoner, 176. In a chapter titled “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” Du Bois criticized “Washington’s ‘Atlanta Compromise’ [as] a complete surrender of the demand for equality and a ploy to win the esteem of whites that had resulted in his becoming the ‘most distinguished Southerner since Jefferson Davis, and the one with the largest personal following.” Moreover, Du Bois “accused Washington of preaching a ‘gospel of Work and Money’ to such an extent that the higher aims of life were almost completely overshadowed.” Du Bois responded to Washington’s “Atlantic Compromise” with his essay, “The Talented Tenth,” wherein he asserted,

If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools –intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it –this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life” (quoted in Urban and Wagoner, 177).

Both men made rational and logical arguments, but hindsight illustrates that within the context of Reconstruction, Washington’s advocacy, combined with the desires of white southern leaders, facilitated the development of industrial schooling. It’s not that Washington opposed Du Bois’s ideas; rather, he interpreted the context differently and preferred a measured or gradual approach, which he believed would eventually bring about the goals sought by Du Bois.

The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890

In addition to the Freedman’s Bureau, the federal government implemented two more important legislative acts related to education. Both were proposed by and named after Congressman Justin Morrill from Vermont. According to Urban and Wagoner, the 1862 Morrill Act “provided financial support for every state that sponsored at least one college ‘where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanical arts.’” Specifically, “each state was…allotted public [federal] lands within its borders…equal to 30,000 acres for each senator and representative in Congress.” Thereafter, “each state was to sell or lease its lands to establish an endowment for the perpetual support of these land-grant institutions” (2009, 187). Indeed, this was largely a response to the growing industrial economy, clearly viewed as requiring a national response by investing in the mechanical and industrial arts across the states. What we witness during this time period with the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Morrill Acts is a federal government becoming increasingly, albeit sporadically, involved in education policy driven by industrialization, westward expansion, and an expanding set of nationalized policies intended to remedy national needs. According to Urban and Wagoner, “Land-grant institutions in time expanded by absorbing formerly independent schools in professional fields such as medicine and law and initiated new programs in fields such as business.”

The second Morrill Act, passed in 1890, “extended the reach of the federal government even more,” by requiring “land-grant institutions seeking increased federal support…to either provide equal access to the existing A&M colleges or establish separate institutions for the ‘people of color’ in their state.” Subsequently, Congress implemented the Hatch Act of 1887 and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which “funded agricultural experiment stations at…A&M institutions…and enabled land grant colleges and universities to establish agricultural extension stations” (2009, 188).

Native American Boarding Schools: Cultural Imperialism and Cultural Genocide

Chiricahua Apaches

Federal involvement in education took on a new harmful turn toward the end of the nineteenth century in relation to Native Indian civilizations. Using its military, the national government created a number of Native American boarding schools throughout the country. The first and most famous of these was the Carlisle school founded in Pennsylvania in 1879 by Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt. Generally, the federal government was able to convince many Native American parents to allow officers to transport their children to these off-reservation boarding schools under the assumption that their children would be educated in a way that would improve their economic and social opportunities in mainstream America. Of course, many Native Americans rebuffed these requests, but others agreed, resulting in thousands of children being transported by train to these boarding schools. What officers did not tell parents was that this experiment was intended to deculturalize Native Indian children, famously referred to at the time as an educational process intended to “Kill the Indian and save the man.” The basis for this deculturalization was, of course, tied to the ethnocentrism among the dominant White, Protestant, population and their concomitant belief in Native Indians as “savages” and in need of “civilizing” and Christianity. With a motive to strip children of their native heritage and language, supervisors at the boarding schools destroyed their native clothing, cut their hair, and renamed many of them with names chosen from the Protestant Bible. The curriculum in these schools taught basic literacy, but not unlike the schools developed in the South, they focused on industrial training, intended to sort graduates of these boarding schools into agricultural and mechanical occupations. Much of this effort rested on a harsher form of assimilation, the latter serving as a fundamental feature of common schooling. A total of 25 off-reservation boarding schools were created throughout the United States educating nearly 30,000 students. Schools existed in several western states and territories, as well as in the upper Great Lakes region.


Questions to Consider

  • Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois both offered rational arguments representing their very different perspectives on African American education in the South during the second-half of the nineteenth century. What are your impressions of their arguments? Explain.
  • The federal government’s control over the South immediately following the Civil War opened up a number of new opportunities for emancipated slaves. However, once the southern aristocracy was able to redeem the South from northern supervision, new form of institutionalized slavery took place. Speculate how history might have been changed further had the federal government maintained its control throughout the end of the nineteenth century?
  • Can you think of any parallels regarding the “iron triangle” mentioned above with schooling today? Explain.
  • Reflecting on the federal government’s Native American boarding schools, what are your thoughts on the notion of assimilation in American schools? Should assimilation be a goal? If so, to what degree should assimilation exist, and how would you assimilate students? To what ends?
  • How do schools today reflect the institutionalized vestiges of segregated schooling during the nineteenth century? Explain. Do any of the ideas that drove Manifest Destiny continued to exist today? Explain.

Table 2 Relevant Court Cases


Charles E. Stuart v. School District 1 of Kalamazoo


Challenge to publically funded high schools
Plessy v. Ferguson
Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education


Segregated schools


Anderson, James D. (1988). The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Butchart, Ronald E. (2010). Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Elazar, Daniel J. (1969). Cooperation and Conflict: Readings in American Federalism. Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock, Inc.
Foner, Eric. (2012). Give Me Liberty! An American History. Third Edition. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Urban, Wayne J. and Wagoner, Jennings L., Jr. (2009). American Education: A History. Fourth Edition. New York, NY: Routledge.


Have groups of students research the arguments put forth by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois and present their conclusions to the class.

Since South Carolina’s black population outnumbered its white population at the end of the Civil War, have students research the constitutional convention debates from that state following the War. Have them locate discussions and issues related to the interests of ex-slaves and present these to the class.

Have students research the Rosenwald schools, their number, student body, curricula, and other details and report their results to the class. Groups of students can be assigned different states or regions to focus on.

Have students watch In the White Man’s Image, and research oral narratives related to Native American boarding school experiences. Maps, photographs, and other artifacts can easily be reviewed online or in university libraries. Have students, either individually or in groups, create presentations on their findings.

Have students research the Congressional Globe in order to review debates in Congress following the Civil War. A number of search terms can be used to narrow their research including but not limited to schools, education, etc. This will give students examples of how education was perceived by Radical Republicans in Congress at the time, as well as some southern agreement to these proposals and, of course, disagreements. Students can then debate the merits of these arguments.

External Readings & Resources

Katz, Michael B. (1989). The Origins of Public Education. In Reconstructing American Education. Harvard University Press.

Lomawaima, Tsianina K. (1993). Domesticity in the Federal Indian Schools: The Power of Authority Over Mind and Body. American Ethnologist, 20(2): 227-240.

Messerli, Jonathan. (1972). Circuit Rider to the Next Generation. In Horace Mann: A Biography. New York, NY: Knopf Publishing.

Ravitch, Diane. (2000). The Birth of a Reform Movement. In The Great School Wars: A History of the New York Public Schools. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tyack, David, and Lowe, Robert. (1991). The Constitutional Moment: Reconstruction and Black Education in the South, 1867-1954. In David Tyack, Thomas James, and Aaron Benavot (Eds.) Law and the Shaping of Public Education, 1785-1954. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Williams, Heather Andrea. (2007). A Long and Tedious Road to Travel for Knowledge. In Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Emerson: The Ideal in America

This film, released in 2007, provides a biography of “America’s Founding Thinker,” Ralph Waldo Emerson and his circle of friends, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Margaret Fuller. This film was produced in the United States by the Ralph Waldo Emerson Institute and directed by David A. Beardsley. Length: 53 min.

The Common School, 1770-1890

The first in a four-part disc series produced by Stone Lantern Films for PBS, this film provides a nice brief overview of colonial education and a bit more detail on the educational ideas of the American Founders. The second half of this film reviews the nineteenth century common school crusade, led by Horace Mann, and the battle over public school funds between Protestants and Catholics in New York City. The lack of and illegal aspects of education for slaves is covered, and the expansion of common schooling westward is also briefly covered. Length: 1 hour.

The Education of Little Tree.

This film was produced by Paramount Pictures and released in 1997. It is based on the novel by Asa Earl Carter about a Native Indian child who goes to live with his grandparents in the Tennessee Appalachian Mountains. After making a home with his grandparents, Little Tree is taken from his grandparents and transported to a Native American Boarding School. The film illustrates the differences between “learning the way” in Native American child rearing practices and the harsh and punitive environment of federally established Native American boarding schools. Directed by Richard Friedenberg. Length: 2 hr.

Supplemental Materials

Boarding Schools: Struggling with Cultural Repression, courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian’s Education Office.

Marr, Carolyn J. Assimilation Through Education: Indian Boarding Schools in the Pacific Northwest, courtesy of the University of Washington’s Digital Collections.

The Freedmen’s Bureau, 1865-1872. Records available courtesy of the National Archives

The Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways. (2011). American Indian Boarding Schools: An Exploration of Global Ethnic & Cultural Cleansing.

Adams, David Wallace. (1995). Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Anderson, James D. (1988). The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Butchart, Ronald E. (1980). Northern Schools, Southern Blacks, and Reconstruction: Freedmen’s Education, 1862-1875. Westwood, CT: Greenwood Press.

Churchill, Ward. (2004). Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indiana Residential Schools. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Publishers.

Demos, John. (2014). The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic. New York, NY: Knopf Publishing.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1994). The Souls of Black Folk. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Fairclough, Adam. (2007). A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Menand, Louis. (2002). The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Reese, William J. (1995). The Origins of the American High School. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rury, John L. (1991). Education and Women’s Work. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Tyack, David B. (1974). The One Best System: A History of Urban Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Warren, Donald R. (1974). To Enforce Education: A History of the Founding Years of the United States Office of Education. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

Washington, Booker T. (1995). Up from Slavery. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Watkins, William H. (2001). The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Woodson, Carter Goodwin. (2013). The Mis-Education of the Negro. New York, NY: Tribeca Books.


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