Liberation and education
UGA professor researches education of freed slaves in the 1800s
When Ron Butchart was a master’s degree student at Northern Arizona University in the early 1970s, he wrote a paper about the education of freed slaves. While conducting research, he read a book that argued educating slaves was a way for the North to undo the South. Perplexed by this idea, Butchart, in his paper, argued that the teachers were in fact heroes.
That was three decades ago. Since then, Butchart, a professor in the College of Education and head of the Department of Educational Theory and Practice, has studied the history of those early teachers and the freedmen they taught. And he’s created a database—30 years in the making—to catalog information about the educators.
“I did not realize that almost half of the people teaching during this time were themselves African American,” Butchart says. At that time in America’s history, literate African Americans made up around 3 percent of the country’s population.
“But African Americans were the ones really doing this work.”
His database of those early educators now includes more than 11,000 names and won him a UGA Creative Research Award last year. In 2012 his book Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning and the Struggle for Black Freedom, published in 2010, was named Outstanding Book of the Year by the History of Education Society. He published his first book on freedmen’s education, Northern Schools, Southern Blacks, and Reconstruction: Freedmen’s Education, 1862-1875, in 1980.
It was tedious work.
To find the teachers, he needed at minimum to know their last name, where and what year they taught. To find names of these people, he searched historical records and publications. Newsletters published at the end of the Civil War, magazines and Freedmen’s Bureau records gave him the first 4,000 to 5,000 names. Diaries, military records and census data produced others.
At one point he went to the Alabama Statehouse to look through documents that had not been touched since they were boxed in 1874.
“I got a call that they had these documents and boom, we were there,” he says. “Talk about getting your hands dirty.” He gathered 1,100 more names from that search.
What he found surprised him. The average Northern teacher lasted about two years in the educational workforce, while black teachers stretched that time to an average of six. He became interested in their motives.
Some of the teachers were driven by salvation, rather than selfless missionary service. They would teach for a few years and, satisfied with themselves, would move on.
“Those who were there to make sure they got more stars in their crown, they didn’t last,” Butchart says.
Not to be overlooked, though, are Southern white teachers, whose stories had never before been told. Some were Confederate veterans, officers, even past slave owners. They didn’t leave much information to be found, but they didn’t like their work and were driven to teach because they needed money in the suffering economy of the South.
“Some of them were probably standing in front of the classroom in their Confederate gray uniforms,” Butchart says.
However, there were heroes who sought to make a difference in the lives of the freed people.
“They were lynched, they were beaten, they faced hell,” Butchart says. “But they’re the ones who lasted.”
Currently only Butchart has access to the database because of its complex filing system, but he provides information to other scholars by request. He hopes to increase accessibility in the future.