Editor’s Note: This article is part of “On Reconstruction,” a project about America’s most radical experiment.
Before the Civil War, America had few institutions like Antioch College. Founded in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1850, Antioch was coed and unaffiliated with any religious sect; it was also the first college in the nation to hire a woman to serve on its faculty as an equal with her male colleagues. It was unquestionably progressive, and would not have been that way without its first president: Horace Mann.
Mann, the politician and education reformer from Massachusetts, sought to mold a certain kind of student: conscientious, zealous, inquisitive. For years, Mann had opposed slavery; he hoped his students would as well. He charged those he taught at Antioch to dedicate themselves to eradicating injustice with sedulous care. “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity,” Mann told the graduating class of 1859.
Mary D. Brice was one of Mann’s students at Antioch, and she was a true believer in Mann’s vision. In December 1858, alongside her husband, Brice traveled 900 miles to New Orleans, to teach.
Brice found a city that was like no other in the antebellum South. In New Orleans, a small class of free Black people lived and worked as citizens alongside white people; they owned businesses and, in some cases, plantations. And if they were wealthy enough to afford tuition, or light-skinned enough to pass for white, they could attend school.
Yet the free Black New Orleanians who were neither wealthy nor light enough had few options. In 1865, Benjamin Rush Plumly, a white abolitionist politician who’d joined the Union army at the outset of the war, and who would eventually lead the Board of Education for the Department of the Gulf, described the antebellum situation in the region bluntly: “For the poor, of the free colored people, there was no school.”
Brice, a deeply religious person, believed that God meant for her to create one. She opened “a school for colored children and adults” in September 1860, at the corner of Franklin and Perdido Streets, near present-day city hall. The effort was short-lived. In June 1861, two months after Confederate troops fired the first shots of the Civil War, Brice was forced to close the school.
But the war could not stop Mary Brice. By November of that year, she had moved to Magnolia Street and reopened her doors. Again she was shut down, this time more forcefully. Confederates began a terror campaign against the school, leaving signs outside her home: Death to nigger teachers, they declared. So Brice began teaching in secret, sneaking to her students’ homes under cover of darkness.
By the end of April 1862, Union troops had captured New Orleans. Brice was now able to conduct her work without the constant threat of violence. With funding from northern missionary associations, other private teachers began to travel to New Orleans. The poor Black people of the city—including the formerly enslaved—wanted an education.
The educators’ efforts were slow and piecemeal at first, but eventually, with federal assistance, they helped create the infrastructure for public education in Louisiana. There, and across the South, education reformers and abolitionists like Brice carried out Mann’s vision for schools that were free and universal. The existence of public education today in the South—for all children—is largely their doing.
In the early days of the republic, the Founders often wrote and spoke about the need for an educated population. Yet schooling was typically reserved for the elite. Wealthy families hired private tutors, and those in the middle class sent their children to subscription schools (parents paid only for the period of time their students attended), where they learned the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Higher education was rarer still: Even into the late 1860s, only about 1 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds were enrolled in postsecondary schools. Before the Civil War, many children were limited to learning whatever their parents were able to teach them at home.
The idea of public common schools—that is, schools funded and organized directly by communities and free to most children—had been slow to take off, though Mann had been proselytizing for them since the 1830s. In time, his approach took root in the Northeast and crept into the rest of the country, but such schools were more typically found in cities than rural areas. White southerners, in particular, were skeptical of Mann’s ideas. The contours of a slave society were fundamentally incompatible with widespread free education—public goods of many kinds were eyed with suspicion as potential tools of insurrection.
New Orleans, however, had a rich history of parochial schools. In 1841, the state legislature hoped to extend this tradition when it first approved funds for a public-school system in New Orleans, one of the oldest in the South. The schools there thrived—but they were available only to white students.
Education in the rest of Louisiana and the South was still rudimentary, even as the rest of the country made strides. In the years preceding the Civil War, Justin Morrill, a shopkeeper turned congressman from Vermont, tried to create a nationwide system for training workers by introducing a bill to give states land they could sell to fund colleges. The bill was opposed by southern congressmen wary of federal intervention in their states, and was ultimately vetoed by President James Buchanan.
After the war began, however, Morrill saw an opportunity. Southern lawmakers had been expelled from Congress for treason, and the nation was in need of skilled military minds. He reintroduced the bill in December 1861; the Morrill Act was signed by President Abraham Lincoln the following July. States in the North quickly began building land-grant universities.
Under the law, all southern states were barred from the program while in rebellion against the Union. But because New Orleans fell so early, the war presented an opportunity for the city. Major General Nathaniel Banks, the Union commander of the Department of the Gulf, issued General Order No. 38, which established a “Board of Education for Freedmen.”
The smattering of schools that had been established for Black students by missionary associations and individual citizens, including Brice’s, were quickly subsumed by this newly created board. The student rolls grew from an average of 1,422 in April 1864 to 9,571 by the end of the year. The board had established a foundation for education through a “unity of purpose and concert of action,” Plumly, the chair of the board, wrote. “In nine months we have succeeded, against the grave obstacles incident to the beginning of so great an enterprise, in gathering under instruction half of the colored juvenile population in the State.”
In 1865, Plumly released a report on the state of education in New Orleans, trumpeting his board’s success in expanding schooling through the example of Brice, whose school “continued to thrive” under his board, where she was known as “an efficient and honored principal.” Plumly’s report quickly spread across the nation, and after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April 1865, it served as a model for those who hoped to establish public education in the South. The reunification of the country would be an enormous task, and no one knew what would become of the millions of Black Americans who were now free citizens—not to mention the masses of white southerners who would need to be reintegrated into the nation. Perhaps, the thought went, education could help make citizens of both the white and Black poor.
On April 3, 1865, the Chicago Tribune, opining about the New Orleans project, noted that although many of the teachers struggled “with every manner of difficulty—insufficient accommodations—leaky sheds with ground floors,” they were heartened by the fact that the school system had grown at such a rapid pace. The editors thought that the project might serve as a model for children, both white and Black, across the entire South.
“This is … but the beginning of a work which must spread over the entire Southern States, until both freed blacks, and the almost equally ignorant and even more degraded and vicious ‘poor whites’ have been brought within its christianizing and civilizing influences,” the Tribune article read. The work of expanding the nation’s schools no longer had to be “slow or tedious,” it said, “but can be accomplished rapidly and encouragingly.”
Outside New Orleans, however, there was less infrastructure for this kind of rapid transformation. Southern states were in the early process of being readmitted into the union, which required the states to disavow secession, repudiate war debts, and write new constitutions, and they could not yet access funds from the Morrill Act. If there was any hope for the sort of mass education that the Tribune editors believed was necessary, it would require private associations to step into the void. Groups such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the American Baptist Home Missionary Society began establishing primary schools and colleges, as well as schools to train teachers.
Major General Oliver Otis Howard, who became the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, was unsure that his agency had the authority or money to set up such institutions on its own. Yet he found the schools operated by military governments, such as Louisiana’s under Major General Banks, to be a good model. “More than 200,000 people, old and young, in the insurrectionary states, have learned to read in the last three years,” Howard wrote in a letter to the American Institute of Instruction. The letter was read aloud to the nearly 1,000 people who had gathered in New Haven, Connecticut, for a meeting of the group on August 9, 1865.
Howard worked to establish a network similar to Banks’s, on a larger scale. Among the institutions founded in this effort were the Fisk Free Colored School, now Fisk University, and the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, Booker T. Washington’s alma mater. Howard also personally helped create Howard University, named in his honor, and later served as its president.
Because of its small budget, the bureau primarily operated in a supervisory role. Howard appointed superintendents to oversee the logistics of the schools, which included training and hiring teachers, ensuring that they had military protection to conduct their work safely, and providing schoolmasters with fuel and provisions.
Most of this work was conducted out of the public eye, with missionary organizations in leadership roles. Even so, the bureau’s efforts ran the risk of vexing white southerners, many of whom simply opposed the idea of educating Black people at all. White objections to the involvement of the Freedmen’s Bureau in southern affairs often mentioned reports of ineptitude, poor administration, or outright fraud in its operations. Certainly, the administration of these new public schools left much to be desired. As Plumly wrote in his report about local schools, 1864 was a year “of great financial delays and embarrassments in this Department.” Teachers would routinely go months without pay—and although Plumly noted that the educators rarely complained, conditions wore on their morale.
But, in the main, the white objection to the bureau was still, simply, its existence. “Even the most friendly studies of the Bureau have exaggerated its weaknesses and minimized its strengths,” the Reconstruction historians John and LaWanda Cox wrote in 1953. “At the vital core of the Bureau’s activities was the explosive and still unresolved problem of the nature of race relationships that should follow the forcible destruction of slavery.” And as prominent physical reminders of the bureau’s presence, schools became a target.
Mobs routinely burned buildings and churches where classes were held. In some cases, teachers and agents of the bureau were murdered. According to James D. Anderson, professor emeritus of education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at least 126 public schools in Louisiana overseen by the bureau faced closure from the combination of white terrorism, financial woes, and incompetence.
Still, the bureau’s work improved the educational outlook for millions of people who’d previously had no access to formal schooling. According to records gathered by Kamilah Stinnett, a specialist with the Smithsonian’s Freedmen’s Bureau Project, many Black people felt empowered to shape their education themselves. On March 17, 1866, a school official in Louisiana wrote to the bureau that Black residents were requesting Black instructors because they “object to paying [white] persons who continually insult them.” In 1868, the board of a “colored” school in Henderson, North Carolina, asked the bureau for $300 “for assistance in finishing our school house.”
Soon the number of people in the South entitled to common education was expanded even further. In 1867, Louisiana held an election for its constitutional convention; ultimately, aided by votes from freedmen and the disenfranchisement of former Confederates, 49 white delegates and 49 Black delegates were chosen. The constitution they produced guaranteed integrated public schools.
Across the South, state conventions established similar constitutional provisions, and states were subsequently readmitted to the union, which also allowed for the expansion of college access through federal programs such as the Morrill Act. By 1870, five years after the bureau was established, roughly 78 percent of children of all races between the ages of 5 and 14 were enrolled in public schools.
That would prove to be the high-water mark for most of the next century. When the bureau was dissolved by Congress in 1872, a large share of the federal government’s oversight of common schools disappeared. Over the next decades, the educational foundation built by the Freedmen’s Bureau endured a concerted assault from white supremacists. The so-called Redeemers, who sought to reclaim political power through coercion and violence, had objected to the Reconstruction constitutions from the beginning and fought to overthrow them. They also objected to integrated education. Faculty at the University of Mississippi revolted, arguing that they would rather resign and the university close its doors than educate a single Black student. State legislators in North Carolina went even further, stripping UNC of its funding and forcing it to close in 1871. When the university finally reopened in 1875, several avowed white supremacists sat on its new board of trustees, including one former leader of the state Ku Klux Klan.
That same year, members of Congress introduced legislation that would endow common schools via land grants, and expand Morrill’s funding for land-grant colleges. Southern lawmakers helped kill the legislation, fearing that introducing additional federal money also meant introducing federal oversight of their activities. Such oversight of the public schools in New Orleans, for example, would have revealed that, in 1877, the state legislature reduced school-tax rates by 80 percent, dramatically cutting back resources for education.
Meanwhile, violent campaigns raged across the South. School buildings were once again burned. Educators were threatened. The network of common schools established by the Freedmen’s Bureau remained, although diminished. Some struggled until they fell apart; others hobbled along, underfunded but resolved to continue the work of educating those who were being shut out of other institutions.
By 1890, Morrill had untethered his new bill to endow land-grant colleges from the common-school bill, and it passed—with a caveat. Colleges could not make a distinction of race in the admission of students; states could, however, operate separate colleges for Black students. They used a portion of the funds to endow schools born of necessity—Black colleges such as Tuskegee University, North Carolina A&T State University, and Langston University.
Six years later, after the mixed-race activist Homer Plessy sued for the right to ride Louisiana railway cars reserved for white people, the United States Supreme Court decided that state-mandated segregation laws did not violate the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Plessy v. Ferguson ushered in the era of formalized segregation in the South, but America’s higher-education infrastructure had already taken to the idea. Soon, its common schools formally did so as well.
When Mary Brice moved from Ohio, she hoped that she might be able to bring education to Black New Orleanians—and, in the spirit of Horace Mann, win a victory for humanity. The Freedmen’s Bureau helped expand Brice’s vision to the entire South through federal intervention, providing what became the political and administrative scaffolding for all public education. But as remarkable as that achievement was, it could not withstand the extraordinary efforts by Redeemers to claim the benefits of such an education for white Americans and deny them to Black Americans.
On February 8, 1898, a group of white Louisiana Democrats gathered in Tulane Hall, in New Orleans, for a constitutional convention. The primary agenda item: to settle the question of whether Black men in the state should be allowed to vote. There was little question of what the convention’s result would be.
The convention could not explicitly circumvent the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, but Democrats got as close as they could. They established a poll tax and literacy tests, and required voters to own property. Ernest B. Kruttschnitt, the president of the convention, bluntly admitted the purpose of these laws. “What care I whether it be more or less ridiculous or not?” he said to applause. “Doesn’t it meet the case? Doesn’t it let the white man vote, and doesn’t it stop the negro from voting, and isn’t that what we came here for?”
This Jim Crow constitution worked as intended. There were 127,923 Black voters on Louisiana’s rolls in 1888; by 1910, that number had dropped to 730. From 1896 to 1900 alone, there was a 96 percent decline in registered Black voters. When the convention ended, Kruttschnitt returned to his day job—leading the New Orleans school board.
With the Plessy decision propping him up, Kruttschnitt launched what Donald E. DeVore and Joseph Logsdon, the authors of Crescent City Schools, called a “massive cutback in educational opportunities for black children.” Under his leadership, the district cut public schooling for Black students down to grades one through five, and the board announced, as DeVore and Logsdon put it, “that they were giving up all pretense of creating separate schools ‘identical with that of white schools.’ ” By 1920, there were about four times as many schools for white students as there were for Black students in New Orleans. The city’s idea of a universal, free public-education system, established in large part to serve Black students, now only feigned doing so.
It would take 40 more years, another federal intervention, and the protection of U.S. Marshals before Ruby Bridges and the McDonogh Three would reintegrate public schools in New Orleans—schools that likely never would have existed in the first place if not for the work of the federal government and the Freedmen’s Bureau.
For Black people who’d been emancipated, the full experience of citizenship that the Founders believed comes with education was short-lived. The country has been shaped in many ways by their subsequent exclusion. Even after court-mandated desegregation, educational opportunity has been highly stratified by race, and both educational attainment and quality in America as a whole have lagged relative to other wealthy countries. In 2023, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action, the most serious effort to date at realizing Brice’s dream nationally. The history of the South illustrates that efforts to splinter or deny education on the basis of race will inevitably diminish even those who lead those efforts. “Create a serf caste and debar them from education, and you necessarily debar a great portion of the privileged class from education also,” Mann once argued. But the history also demonstrates the inverse: Making public education truly public and equal for all is the cornerstone of a nation.
This article appears in the December 2023 print edition with the headline “The Black Roots of American Education.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.