Hilary J. Moss. Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. xv + 274 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-54249-2; $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-10298-6.
Reviewed by Jayne R. Beilke (Department of Educational Studies, Ball State University Tchr Col)
Published on H-Education (October, 2014)
Commissioned by Jonathan Anuik
This book focuses on the American antebellum period, approximately 1812 to 1861, when school attendance increased for reasons that are still not entirely clear to historians. Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America examines school attendance patterns of African Americans in New Haven, Connecticut; Baltimore, Maryland; and Boston, Massachusetts. It consists of three parts, each covering one of the cities, plus a conclusion and an appendix. This is a study about not only the persistence of blacks who wanted education, but also the virile opposition of whites to black schooling. Within that crucible, black educational and political leadership began to form through the efforts of black leaders like Alexander Crummell (1819-98), Thomas S. Sidney (?-1840), and Henry Highland Garnett (1815-82)—all of whom attended Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire, before the school was destroyed by white opposition.
Hilary J. Moss states that “for the purposes of this study, I use the term the [sic] citizenship to connote a broad spectrum of civil rights necessary for individual liberty and for collective engagement with political power” (p. 9). Since blacks were considered to be noncitizens, the rationale for public schooling was based on the concept of citizenship, rather than equality; that is, schooling was supposed to develop a national identity, encourage patriotic loyalty, hasten the Americanization of immigrants, and convince blacks to uphold the moral and civic principles espoused by the McGuffey Readers, the most widely used textbooks in American schools during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This volume closely links citizenship to the black impetus for schooling and the white resistance to it, although somewhat at the exclusion of the abolition argument. The themes of the book include “‘whiteness,’ higher education, labor, self-education, segregation, and American identity” (p. 5).
Part 1 focuses on New Haven. The first chapter, “The Emergence of White Opposition to African American Education,” discusses the African Improvement Society (AIS), an association of white men in New Haven who were intent on improving the intellectual, moral, and spiritual condition of free people of color. This effort was immediately challenged in print by an unidentified editorialist using the pseudonym Aristides. Moss traces the evolution of the Temple Street Church, founded in 1825, as a center of African American literacy and religious education in New Haven. By 1829, Temple Street Church housed a sabbath school, a day school, and a women’s evening school. Supported by the AIS, the church typified the use of moral suasion, whereby middle-class and elite blacks used evidence of good behavior and character to discredit prejudicial white attitudes. White abolitionist Simeon Jocelyn envisioned a black men’s manual labor college, since most apprenticeships were closed to blacks by whites by 1830, while white resistance, in the form of the mysterious Aristides, advocated black removal through colonization. The Connecticut Constitution did not consider persons of color to be American citizens. So instead of using an argument against educational access, white resistors turned to the rights of citizenship, which included education. The proposed college was ultimately an unintended victim of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, a slave uprising that took place in Virginia in 1831 and struck fear among whites. It ushered in a more repressive approach to slaveholding. Connecticut remained vehemently hostile to the idea of African American education and continued to support colonization—returning blacks to Africa—as the solution.
The second chapter, “Interracial Activism and African American Higher Education,” focuses on the debate over appropriate education for blacks, either fitting them for manual labor through vocational training or elevating their morality and citizenship through classical training. Moss relies on nonformal educational primary sources from apprenticeships, families, workplaces, benevolent associations, and churches. She incorporates census records, city directories, apprenticeship contracts, and help-wanted advertisements in her analysis. She explains: “such an expansive conception of education is essential because so many antebellum African Americans received instruction outside the classroom” (p. 8).
Part 2, covering the case of Baltimore, includes two chapters: “Race, Labor, and Literacy in a Slaveholding City” and “African American Educational Activism under the Shadow of Slavery.” These chapters more directly address slavery, since slave labor was used in the region in a variety of endeavors. Tobacco production, prevalent in the area, relied on the labor of imported slaves. The economy eventually changed to wheat production, which used slaves seasonally. Shipbuilding became the largest employer of enslaved labor. Maryland “never developed a cohesive white abolitionist movement,” and by 1850, twenty-five thousand free people of color resided in Baltimore as opposed to three thousand enslaved African Americans (p. 65). Moss’s thesis is that the very presence of slavery, not abolitionist activism, contributed to African American educational opportunity in Baltimore. If black schooling could appear to be beneficial to white interests, it might face less opposition, especially if it promulgated the virtues of hard work, emphasis on domestic training, and obedience. To make the case that white dependence on free labor within the context of slavery fostered African American literacy, Moss examines apprenticeship contracts, help-wanted advertisements, and census schedules.
In Baltimore, in addition to producing skilled workers, apprenticeships gave apprentices at least a modicum of literacy and numeracy as part of their contract. Help-wanted advertisements sometimes stipulated that the person had to be able to read. This was especially true of black boys and men, not girls and women. In sum, Moss makes the case that the particular structure of Baltimore’s labor market, reliant on free black workers kept in check by slavery, inadvertently created an atmosphere conducive to African American literacy. It is not surprising that Frederick Douglass is included as a case study of literacy in Baltimore. In addition to Douglass’s unique self-taught circumstance, mental improvement societies developed and in turn sparked white resistance.
Since blacks were excluded from attending white schools, Baltimore’s black churches were among the first to embrace an educational mission. Sabbath schools taught reading and writing to young and old. The Union Seminary offered classical training to boys and girls alike. The proliferation of schooling opportunities made for a complex blend of seminaries, church schools, philanthropic efforts, and tutoring. The author uses census data to ascertain school attendance in various wards, and finds that more boys than girls were sent to school. She also notes that blacks resisted the school tax that supported white schools but not black, and financial problems were a constant threat to black schools.
Part 3 shows that Boston preceded New Haven and Baltimore in regard to all of its 1,174 African American residents being declared free people of color. Chapter 5, “Race, Space, and Educational Opportunity,” and chapter 6, “Common Schools, Revolutionary Memory, and the Crisis of Black Citizenship in the Mid-nineteenth Century,” focus on two episodes in which the white desire for racial segregation collided with their enthusiasm for universal public education. In 1834, white citizens of Beacon Hill blocked the city from building a school for black children with public money. Belknap Street Church maintained sabbath schools and other educational opportunities for black children and adults. It became the educational center for Boston’s black residents. When the school building deteriorated, they attempted to build a new school on Southack Street. Moss looks at demographics of the Southack Street petitioners who opposed the presence of the black school in their neighborhood, finding that many did not even own their own homes. However, as a result, Boston located the new school on Belknap Street. Although Bostonians worried about the Irish Catholic presence, skin color was another issue. They maintained that since blacks were perceived to not be part of the general public, there was no need to prepare them to be citizens. Irish immigrants, in contrast, could become more efficient workers, it was argued, as a result of education. After the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, black Bostonians came to believe that their liberty depended on their identity as Americans, and began to push for equality rather than citizenship.
Chapter 6 describes early instances of testing for competency comparing students in black versus white schools. The story of Thomas Paul Smith, a twenty-four-year-old black Bostonian, and his opposition to integration is interesting but it could also be idiosyncratic. Smith appears to have had personal motivation for maintaining the Smith School for African Americans. His case serves, however, as an example of the fact that black opposition to equality existed in Boston, in the shadow of the Revolutionary War. In comparison to New Haven and Baltimore, Boston is portrayed as less hostile to black advancement.
It is telling that the conclusion to the book asks if education is “the great equalizer?” The phrase has been attributed to Horace Mann for his desire to equalize the rich and poor within the context of the common school. Moss focuses on how his campaign for the expansion of public schools disregarded the movement for school desegregation. She makes the point that inequity was embedded from the start, as was white resistance.
Moss confesses to a mea culpa of sorts in the introduction when she states, “I did not set out to write an educational history” (p. 8). Historians of education may have wished to see a reference to Lawrence Cremin’s trilogy, particularly American Education: The National Experience, 1783-1876 (1988), in regard to using informal and nonformal primary sources. Her treatment of apprenticeship and its educational dimensions as well as her examination of the common school could have been more thorough. Her use of the materials in the appendices to denote occupational categories and names, addresses, and occupations of the Southack Street petitioners remind one of The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-nineteenth Century Massachusetts (1968) by Michael B. Katz. However, Katz only appears once in the index, and the page number referring to Katz in the index is incorrect (it is page 149, not page 150). But all in all, this is a very well-researched book that expands our understanding of antebellum schooling for African Americans and contributes to black educational history.
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Jayne R. Beilke. Review of Moss, Hilary J., Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America.
H-Education, H-Net Reviews.
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