Sunday, June 12, 2022

Building a School

Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813–1897) & Louisa M. Jacobs (1833–1917)
From The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It

Photograph of students and teachers at the Jacobs Free School, 1864. Harriet Jacobs is indicated with a small X beneath her. The image was distributed to Northern supporters who helped fund the school. (Stuart A. Rose Library, Emory University, via Wikimedia)
In the memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Ann Jacobs recalls an older Black man, also living in slavery, whose “most earnest desire” was to be able to read. “He came to me, and begged me to teach him. He said he could not pay me, for he had no money, but he would bring me nice fruit when the season for it came.” She reminded him that it was against the law and that they would be “whipped and imprisoned” if they were caught. When his face showed his disappointment, she quickly added, “I have no thoughts of refusing to teach you. I only told you of the law, that you might know the danger, and be on your guard.” In conclusion, she told readers, “There are thousands, who, like good uncle Fred, are thirsting for the water of life; but the law forbids it, and the churches withhold it. They send the Bible to heathen abroad, and neglect the heathen at home.” This episode from Jacobs’s past proved to be a hint of her future career, during which she would work to open schools for hundreds of adults and children who had been freed from slavery.

In the summer of 1862, the year after her book was anonymously published, she traveled to Washington, D.C., on assignment for William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator. Later in the summer she traveled to Alexandria, Virginia, which had become the temporary home to thousands of refugees, wounded soldiers, and prisoners, and in the months ahead she engaged in Quaker-sponsored relief work among the “contrabands”—enslaved men, women, and children who had escaped to areas under Union control. Before the war, Alexandria had been second only to New Orleans as a slave market; Jacobs visited the notorious slave pen owned by James Birch soon after her arrival in the city. “This place forms a singular contrast with what it was two years ago,” she wrote in her report. “The habitable part of the building is filled with contrabands, the old jail is filled with secesh prisoners—all within speaking distance of each other. Many a compliment is passed between them on the change in their positions.”

Within months after the refugees had begun to arrive, she noted in her article, schools were being established unsystematically among the camps and shanty towns. “It is pleasant to see that eager group of old and young, striving to learn their A, B, C, and Scripture sentences. Their great desire is to learn to read.” Near the end of the following year, Jacobs traveled north to arrange funds for a school; she returned with her daughter, Louisa, who had attended Young Ladies’ Domestic Seminary in Clinton, New York, and had taken teacher education courses in Boston. They discovered that, while Jacobs was away, white missionaries had insinuated themselves into the school and planned to manage it themselves. With the help of one of the trustees, Jacobs and her daughter wrested back control of the establishment. The Jacobs Free School opened its doors to seventy-five students in January 1864, with Louisa Jacobs in charge and Virginia Lawton, a friend from Boston, as a second teacher.

In March 1864 Harriet Jacobs sent a letter from both her and her daughter to Lydia Maria Child, the author and abolitionist who had edited Incidents in the Life and helped get it published. The Jacobses updated Child with news about the school and their need for help in funding it. The letter ended with a report of Harriet’s involvement in an event that had occurred the previous week: on March 20, the relief ship Marcia Day had returned to Alexandria from Haiti with nearly 300 destitute passengers. Fourteen months earlier, on New Year’s Eve 1862, President Lincoln had signed a contract with a cotton trader who proposed to transport 5,000 freedmen to Île à Vache, a small uninhabited island off the coast of Haiti. A total of 453 persons migrated to found the colony, but their attempts to establish a cotton plantation failed; 88 died of hunger and disease and 73 fled to the Haitian mainland before the remainder were rescued and brought back to the States.

Child forwarded the Jacobses’ letter to the abolitionist Oliver Johnson, editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, and in a cover note she wrote, “I am sure your readers will feel gratified, as I do, to see these two highly intelligent women laboring so zealously and faithfully for the good of their long-oppressed people; and also because the account they give of the conduct of the freedmen is so cheering.” Johnson reprinted the letter in the newspaper in mid-April.

Notes: In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA), a steadfast opponent of slavery, delivered a philippic against the Kansas-Nebraska Act on the House floor; two days later he was attacked by Congressman Preston S. Brooks (D-SC) so severely that he fell unconscious to the floor. His injuries would prevent him from returning to the Senate for more than three years. The vote to abolish slavery in Virginia occurred on March 10, 1864, during a constitutional convention called by the Unionist “Restored Government” that met in Alexandria. Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew commissioned Sergeant Stephen A. Swails of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry as a second lieutenant on March 11, 1864. The first African American soldier promoted to commissioned rank, Swails was not mustered in as an officer until January 17, 1865, because of opposition from the War Department. “A man’s a man for a’ that” is from Robert Burns’s poem, “For A’ That and A’ That” (1795). The 5th Massachusetts Cavalry was a Black regiment. George T. Downing of Rhode Island and Charles L. Remond of Massachusetts were prominent Black abolitionists.

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When I went to the North, last Fall, the Freedmen here were building a schoolhouse, and I expected it would have been finished by the time I returned. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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