Kidada speaks with the historian and professor about how African American families have passed down their histories from generation to generation, and the differences between those who were free people of color and those who had been enslaved.
We also hear how many of the stereotypes that have been associated with Black people in the United States came to be, why they’re simply not true, and what the pursuit of knowledge meant and looked like to African Americans during and after Reconstruction.
Kidada Williams: Hi everyone. It’s Kidada. This is Seizing Freedom, the show where we dig into the archives to bring you stories about how African Americans freed themselves during the Civil War and built new lives during Reconstruction. And where we talk to the historians and artists who know the archives best.
On this episode, I speak with historian Hilary Green, author of Educational Reconstruction. We talk about her family and the knowledge they passed down to her, as well as the creative ways African Americans seized their education, how they led the charge for public school systems in the South, and why remembering the past matters today.
Hilary Green: So my name is Hilary Green. I’m Associate Professor of History in the department of gender and race studies at the University of Alabama. And I’m the author of Educational Reconstruction, that explores African-American public schools in the urban South after the Civil War.
KW: So what got you interested in studying the Civil War?
HG: This is easy: Family porches. So my mother’s family’s from outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and they were historically free people of color. My father’s family is from the Gullah Sea Islands, and they were enslaved during the Civil War.
And I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, and then the south shore of Boston. So family vacations, family stories on those porches and being able to connect the free people of color on my mother’s side of the family, the slave side of my dad’s side of the family and someone from Massachusetts who was indoctrinated with the Massachusetts 54th and 55th regiments. So the Civil War became a way to connect my entire family history and get a sense of myself.
KW: Do you remember a specific story that kind of stood out to you at the time?
HG: Yes, this is coming from my grandparents’ house. That was a gathering space for us, and every year we’d go to Gettysburg. And every year we’d come back, I would hear from my grandmother or grandfather, “So well, you know, there was the stolen ones. And people were stolen. Lee’s men came in, they stole African-Americans, they were enslaved. But we were never enslaved. We were never taken. We hid. But Lee in the Confederate army stole people.
But my aunts and the older black women in the community always told a story of the black community that was never in the textbooks. So we would be working at the church or on the porch and they would just start sharing information. So in the end we had these informal historians among women.
And now my dad’s side of the family, again, it’s the porches. That’s how I learned about the civil rights movement past, some of the slave past. And what it was like for them growing up in Jim Crow. So again, it’s these informal spaces, usually in a backyard, a porch, a church, anytime that we were there around family. The story started to be told however, as a kid, we were expected to listen and we were to hear, we weren’t allowed to share. We weren’t allowed to ask questions because children were to be seen and not heard. And I heard that from both my mother’s side of the family, my dad’s side of the family too.
KW: So, what do you think they were trying to instill in you all in terms of telling the stories they told you all?
HG: I think this is one of the things that you’re trying to say is that the history books we were getting were wrong. They had a lot of silences. They were based on a lot of stereotypes and that wasn’t their history, and trying to connect the local and family history to identity formation and parenting. And so these histories were parenting strategies as a community, but also individually, to tell us that we have a history, we came from something.
It wasn’t always great, but they survived. And that’s one of the things I got from both of them–both sides of the family–surviving, how to survive, how to learn from the past and those who survived previously. And in many ways, that kind of spilled into my first book and continued projects as these informal stories that we’re telling like you exist. Your history matters. What you have in your classroom is not always what you learn and is accurate or truthful or inclusive. And it’s that combination of formal and informal spaces that I think is as the most crucial part about this.
KW: What I find really fascinating is how much of their story continued to be passed down. Did your father’s side of the family pass down the history the same way your mother’s side of the family passed it down? Did they hold on to the same kind of knowledge?
HG: No, they didn’t. And one of the things that came clear, this is my mother’s side of the family were free people of color. So they really talked about that before the Civil War, how they were always farmers, they were rural, they were from that place and how the Civil War affected them.
My father’s side of the family, because they came from slavery–and this was one McLeod Plantation still had people living in those slave cabins–I had to pass that every single time we would go to see relatives that cause that’s the main turnoff.
So when you see people living in these cabins, they tended to focus on the Civil Rights movement, Jim Crow and how they survived in immense poverty on James Island, South Carolina, Johns Island. So they were like, “No, we came from this, but here’s the past that mattered.” And this is where I think the stories that were told the way the Civil War affected everyone and the way history impacted, it really came across what stories were passed down to us, but also to why I started to really go to the Civil War.
Because I had, “Okay, what’s the pre-war? What’s the post-war? What’s this pivot point that led to these different types of stories?”
KW: Right. And it makes sense, you know, that one side of the family, especially the side that comes directly out of slavery would have a different kind of memory and understanding of the past and there would be stories they wouldn’t necessarily pass on. But I think it’s really interesting that, at this point, at least when at the time you’re born or you’re coming of age, families are telling these stories less, but we know that a century earlier, some of them were still telling them.
HG: Yeah, and this is one of the things I find fascinating. I didn’t know this as a kid, they were starting writing down those oral histories and putting them in books and a volume that came out, the earliest memory I heard about the stolen ones, I was about three years old, they had assembled because of the series Roots. They created the volume and were doing these oral histories.
On my dad’s side of the family, they weren’t doing that same documentary impulse. And so the stories became less salient, especially when you add in Jim Crow, the great migration that affected some of the family members that continued poverty, but also race. And just that’s where I really got from them: That the Civil War was there, but it was the continued aftermath that continued violences.
And I think I was too young at the time for them to tell those types of stories. But as I got older, what’s sad is most of those people who knew those stories are no longer alive. So they can’t pass it down to me. And now I’m part of this genealogy family history, telling those stories because I was young enough to remember and hear those stories.
So how that passes you use in that generational divide and also the loss of those stories are coming clear, but earlier they would have been so involved, they would have been everyday life. And they did it themselves for living history. So they would have made sure that their children and the children of their communities knew their experience and understand what life was like without slavery and how to mobilize that moment, because they knew what slavery was. They knew what the Civil War did.
KW: And I also think that they knew and made a point to make sure their children and grandchildren knew for that period of time, which is a testament to their understanding of the importance of that sort of first education, or the first school being the one of your family, the one of your immediate community, not necessarily the institution you go to for formal learning.
HG: Yeah. And then it gets cemented and you will go to school. You will do your best. We don’t care if you’re an A-student or B-student, but as long as you give 110%, and that came from both sides of the family, they would not allow us to slack off on education.
Like, no you’re going to get every single bit of education you can do. Plus you have this on the side, but we’re gonna make sure you’re there. So that surveillance and that police have to make sure that we were good students, that we took education seriously. And those social economic benefits that came from education too. And I see that generational divide like here’s some formal source, here’s that thing, but you will go to school, you will do this work.
KW: With some States passing laws that prohibit free and enslaved African-Americans from gaining literacy and with some enslavers forbidding it, it could be dangerous to seek an education. And yet we know African-Americans knew the value of literacy and tried to get it wherever they could. Why were they willing to embark on such risky…such a risky endeavor? And how did they do it?
HG: One of the things I find interesting is that African Americans are in the background, and the way they talk about acquiring an education, they talk about the same language they would do to liberate themselves physically from slavery. They “stole” an education. Like they would steal themselves, you know what I’m saying? They would liberate out and they learned quite quickly around them. Especially if there are children holding the books of their white peers, at that point as their playmates, they learn there’s something in those books. There’s something there.
And it’s a liberation of the mind that they can actually write and forge passes for themselves, for families, but quite early, they learn by not knowing how to read and write that that’s one of the things that keep them in bondage. And so they would steal their education any time there, they would hire and give extra food and whatever supplies they had to anyone who knew how to read and write and operate these illegal schools. Like the church, they’re operating these illegal classrooms and schools, ‘cause they knew the value.
And Frederick Douglass said it best: “Knowledge is power.” And you hear that consistently by formerly enslaved people.
KW: What kinds of educations about the world, about black life, about the U.S., do we know the African-Americans born during this period might’ve been receiving at home from their parents and grandparents?
HG: One of the things you get a lot of is family genealogy and family history. Who are their parents? Their grandparents? Who are their community members? And especially for those who came from Africa. And so had ties that, “What were those experiences like on the boats coming over? What were those early experiences? What was life like in Africa?”
So from that oral tradition on these porches that they were learned–it wasn’t in classrooms– but also in the naming conventions that they would give their children. And to remember “You come from greatness; you have this family.” And then being able to write down in the family Bible, write down that genealogy and continue on that family history is something that you get from the communities themselves and their parents, themselves.
The other value they get is learning as much as they learn as much book learning there as possible, buying those books, making sure they have the supplies. But they understood the value of both. Not that one was better than the other; that you needed both together to survive.
KW: And they’re building on that with the coming of freedom, acquiring access to literacy, acquiring access to a wider world of knowledge and even the formal histories. So they’ve got their family histories and then they’d get the formal histories of the U S. Of the world…in the broader world.
HG: Exactly. And so the other “textbooks” that you will see are black newspapers. Being able to read and understand the news of black newspapers, which I found the world is in there too, because the first page, or either one of the last pages, is world history. So they know what’s going on in Europe. They know what’s going on Latin America and they also know what’s going on in their community.
So they really see these as other textbooks in themselves. Plus the formal blue-back speller that they will always talk about in their normal classroom materials. It’s all about access to knowledge, their place in the world and how they can be actors of change and being able to make a difference rather than it being things subjected to them.
KW: And speaking of that, given the realities of anti-blackness in the world and what their parents are trying to instill in them, this knowledge is power in terms of their own survival, their own progress as a people. Which contradicts a lot of the popular understandings of this sort of white narrative that black people only want to be in physical proximity to white people. And African-Americans during this period, make clear that that’s not necessarily what they want. They want access to the same resources and access to the same rights and privileges, but not necessarily enjoying them in the exact same space.
HG: Exactly, and for school they are to protect their children at all costs. They do. Then this is one of the things I love about this period: Children can be children. They can actually go to school and not to work. And parents are shielding themselves from the violences that they would encounter as adults, but they’re like, “take this time to learn, to be a child, to play. And then when you come of age, you can then come into these things.” So you see a separation that wasn’t even there under slavery.
And that’s one of the things I also see coming in why these parents and community members are fighting. They’re fighting for their children to have access to what every other people would have, but they’re also building communities by black people for black people. But they’re going to have equal resources for everyone else. They will never be subpar.
KW: Today more people are trying to understand and amplify African-American history, especially that history that’s missing from the mainstream school curriculum. And we know that education was segregated for a long period of time. Can you tell us what black school children were learning in black schools coming out of the Civil War?
HG: This is one of the things I find fascinating. Their education level kind of mirrored what I had as a student in Massachusetts. They were in reading, writing, geography, history. They’re not getting a simplified education at all.
And one of the things I find that’s added is stuff like hygiene, how to sew (because they have to make clothes; they have to be able to do those practical things). But the fact that they’re doing full on geometry and algebra, and especially those higher grades and not just the primer ones. I just thought like, Kindergarten and so they’d read books, and they kept on getting advanced, advanced, advanced. And by the end, they were really in a high school type curriculum.
And that I find very fascinating because how it’s been written, we know schools were created. But we assume that they were substandard, they weren’t given an empowering curriculum, and that it was automatically menial education because of the Jim Crow era narratives to overturn. So when you look at those curriculum guides are in the state boards of education, the city superintendent reports, and then also the Freedman schools. You realize they got a high quality of education that was more of a liberal arts curriculum.
And when you go side by side with a New England school, a school and the Midwest, you find very little difference between race and the place of the South and what black children were learning.
KW: And as you said, that goes completely against what we think we know they’re getting. So I’m wondering, could you give us any specific examples, you know, what you would see in terms of geometry or history?
HG: So one of the things of history that they are definitely learning is more of a black history. And this is where having a white, New England school woman in the classroom matters versus a black woman from New England or New Jersey who comes south to teach. Because white women and men who were teaching in those Southern schools right out in the Freedmen’s Bureau, and whatever’s in the textbook, even though it’s coming from Boston, the Bible track society…That’s what they’re getting.
Black teachers though, especially like Charlotte Forten Grimke and others, they are talking about Africa and colonial understandings of Africa. They’re talking about Crispus Attucks and the Revolution. They are talking about African-American heroes and sheroes that came before, as alongside of this. So they’re going at more the early black history movement that, we think about Carter G. Woodson and those type of kids books, but they are reading about Africa was a great continent, it had this, we came from great people, so they’re adding more.
And this is where the geography lessons come in, how they are able to locate places on the world. And then, that curriculum would expand because school children made newspapers. So they are coming up with their first newspaper. So they’re coming out with the content so you can see them applying and seeing themselves in the news.
So they are very attuned to political events, and children are debating whether or not they should support Grant in the election…Garfield in the election. They are really engaged with politics at a young age. And they’re writing about this in their classes. They’re doing their theme papers on this, and that’s because the teachers that they have. And they’re high quality, they are engaged and they see education, politics and economic success as linked, and they have a voice to say something, not just the adults over them.
KW: I think that’s really important, but I’m wondering if you could square that kind of education that they’re receiving from some of their black teachers…with some of their black teachers–especially from the North–their discomfort with, you know, I’m thinking about like some of Charlotte Forten’s…her journals, some of her discomfort with being there in the South and what she’s seeing.
HG: Yeah. And you do see that with, especially like Forten…She’s not in the city. If she was in the city, I think she would’ve been happier than anything else because this is where regionalism and class and, for them, this is their first time in very rural areas and having to come to grips with that. So their placement in these rural communities are isolated from social life that they know they have to be in tune with the community and learn the breakdown, the language dialect differences and everything else.
So one of the things I find is that isolation affects how long a black teacher or a white teacher remains in the field. And those who are dedicated like Maria Waterbury, a white woman who teaches for over 10 years in Mobile, Alabama. She comes back every year to teach because she saw an invested community that was able to put away the discomfort in being isolated and ostracized by the white community, because it was hard.
And she saw, really, her role as part of this larger mission. But other teachers didn’t stay that long. But the ones who do, the ones who go from the Freedman schools, their first public schools–and some of them die while teaching–they’re the ones who are the persistent ones who were able to overcome that discomfort.
But for all the teachers, you see that first couple of weeks of discomfort, lack of housing, lack of food, no one knows them cause they don’t trust them. And then over time they build that trust. They build those relationships and then it starts to ease off and they persist. But one of the things that allows them to persist are their students and their scholastic success and their ability to learn and the capacity to learn that defy stereotypes.
KW: I think that’s really important because I think sometimes what can happen is that we can see in the primary sources, one thing, but what you’re sort of highlighting is that we capture, for example, Charlotte Forten at one moment where she may have been particularly isolated and vulnerable, and then what you’re showing us is that there’s a much longer and larger history where she and other teachers may have grown more comfortable, but that didn’t stop them from being able to give a high quality education to their students.
Really important for people to hear today about their full complexity, their full humanity, the understanding that people had at the time of their potential and what they were willing to invest in it. And then what the kids got out of it themselves. And then the work they went on to do. Because a lot of them, you know, they come up through the schools and they go on to do these great things.
While Mattie Jackson was held in bondage, she fought for control over her own labor. And as a free woman, we know she saw education as a means of having control over her mind and her means to freedom. But that contrasted with some white Northern missionaries’ vision of education, as a means to control newly freed people and to remake the South in the image of the North.
So how did African-Americans resist some of the efforts to control their quest for education?
HG: And this is where I think it’s very interesting. One of the ways they did it was move. They actually would leave the schools and they would move and find a school and a teacher that was more attuned to them, so they just didn’t stay in a school because it was the only option.
And you see in the case of a lot of school districts, especially in large cities that have many Northern associations in them, during winter one school might charge money for fuel. They would leave for that year because they’re like, “I’m not paying money.” The same thing with the quality of teacher. They’re like, “You know what? They’re not really attuned to us and our needs, you know, there’s this other person over here, let us leave. And it’s this constant debate in the reports that the fluctuations, and you can tell which schools they’re going to when you look at the teachers and the reports, you’re like, oh, they’re going to the black teacher over here in the AME school or in this church that they went to.
And then during the spring months where they don’t have to pay for coal anymore, they’re going over here. So, this is where their flexibility and their willingness and the use of their feet to determine what education they wanted.
The other way they do this is a lot of them will supplement by becoming tutors. They will hire tutors to also train them in what they wanted, especially on the issues of the day with voting. Night schools, night schools led in churches by black teachers, become another source of education. So we don’t have individuals just in one school or staying there the whole time.
They are moving and thinking about what is best for me? What is best for my child? And they did not put up with teachers who only wanted them to be menial laborers. They would have left that school and that teacher would have been gone because no one would attend their school.
So you have that, and that subtleness and those acts are so important. And you find those…you find those in the reports, you also find those in the unclassified letters of all the organizations, because they will write to New York and Boston saying “This teacher is not a good teacher. They are racist and we’re not sending our child there.” And that I think is important, and Mattie Jackson’s really key on that issue.
KW: And I think that it speaks to their understanding of what they want and what they need, and they’re not suffering too much foolishness around their future and that of their children.
And I think even with that you see a lot of parallels today with parents who are–particularly African-American parents–who will move their children in and out of schools because they run into some of these problems in terms of the quality of the building, the quality of the instruction, where even some of the things in terms of the teachers.
HG: Yeah. And you see that with the black homeschool movement. I say that as a modern day parallel, because in this moment, people are looking at education to job and successful job, not just a menial one. Today, that classroom to prison pipeline and people are starting to say like, “Nope. We’re not…I’m not having my son in the school where they’re getting abused and disciplined every day.” They either find another school or they take them out altogether and are willing to homeschool.
You see that too earlier, and they’re using private schools and tutors instead until they find something that’s amenable for them and their families, but also their children’s education and future.
KW: So we kind of talked a little bit about this earlier about the fact that education isn’t just about formal instruction. It’s about knowledge. And I think you, you speak to that when you discuss the fact that they’re learning geometry, geography, history–including, you know, black history–which affirms some of the suspicions that I’ve had about some that generation of people who come of age in the turn of the 20th century, like Du Bois, Ida B, Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and even like the generation after like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
They’re learning something about themselves, about who they were and are as a people, where they came from, their potential. And it’s informing their work, and their activism and their view of the world. And so what I’m hearing from you is that…like, I’ve suspected that they’re receiving that education, and I feel like what I’m hearing from you is that they absolutely are.
HG: Yeah. And it’s definitely there, especially when you look at Emancipation Day celebrations and Memorial Days. And who’s always there? School children. School children are at every single event, they are performing songs. And one of the things I think about especially, someone like Carter G. Woodson, who would write about how he heard from the Civil War veterans around him and people who were enslaved and people in Pennsylvania, on the border with Maryland, also talking about that.
These informal spaces, these segregated spaces of church, school, but home…were just as important in learning and it’s also reinforcing one another. They’re getting the same messages over and over about empowerment, and it’s that empowerment in a world where race matters and their humanity is not always recognized and is legible. But also their life too. It’s not always recognized as legitimate.
Having those tools and language to equip themselves–emotionally, economically, socially–I think is important that you can see why we have at the turn of the century a whole generation that seems bold and defiant. Well, they got that from the previous generation who was telling them that they were great. They came from great people, that they come from a people with a history that matters, and it was empowering.
And look what they did less than 50 years after slavery, where they are now. And that transformation and having access to that, I think shaped generations in ways we don’t think about. That you can have a Carter G. Woodson, you can have the son of Rosa Dixon Bowser, for instance, that becomes this prominent medical physician, but also helps with anti-lynching campaigns.
These people are coming of age because they’re hearing from these communities, and are reinforcing the schools taught by members of their communities.
KW: I think that’s really important because what you see is that there’s this really fierce pursuit of an education, because they understand not just that it matters, but how it matters in terms of something more than just bare survival.
HG: Yeah. That’s what I think it is, too. It was never about just them; It was always about the community, because the community invested in the individual child. And that investment, and also that guilt? I’m sorry, I would not want to be a child at this time period with the guilt of everyone in my community expecting me to be great and not living up to their ideals and expectations. But they really saw every person as investment in the future for everyone.
KW: And it makes sense because you know that you wouldn’t have something like a New Negro movement and Renaissance, you wouldn’t have something like a Civil Rights movement if you didn’t already have several generations of that kind of work.
HG: I look at the growth of black education as part of that original Civil Rights movement. And when I think it’s telling that we’re talking about a third reconstruction and education’s number there. You see the second reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement, education’s there. This is the first, this is the true first civil rights movement we think about in which education and the desire to become educated is a non-negotiable term of freedom.
KW: Do we know when and why some African-Americans’ collective memory of their history and roles in the war faded?
HG: Yes, this is one of the things I really see once the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the school boards take over, and they start to determine what the textbooks are. And so if you’re in a school district that is very much understanding the role of textbooks and what can be there–so you’re talking about the late 1870s, 1880s–those textbooks that are in the superintendent report are like very much white standard: Let’s erase that empowerment message that would have been in the Freedman’s Bureau schools of abolitionist…former abolitionist textbooks.
But in the 1890s, with the rewrite of The Constitution, up until the early 20th century, you see this conscious effort to make sure that the textbooks written by the United Daughters of the Confederacy are the main textbooks. And so it leads to some creativity by black teachers who have already been empowered of these stories, but the creation of the Association for Negro Life and History–or what we now know as ASALH–and Carter G. Woodson to have the Negro Bulletin, the Journal of Negro History, and then to add the Negro History Week to bring back in black history.
And that would be the only time that it would legitimately be there in the schools. All other times, it’s subversive resistance by black teachers. And this is where the community aspect really takes hold because in the schools it’s being faded, but in their communities they’re getting these outside messages, these oral traditions, these other spaces, segregated libraries…They’re using those spaces to empower, but it’s not in the schools anymore.
And then when you get to desegregation and the firing of black teachers and just white teachers in the classroom who don’t know black history, that’s where those textbooks, the lack of teachers who understand but also, too, a generation of children don’t want to learn that history.
And I will say that I was one of those kids who loved it, but my brothers hated it. Like they were like, “Why are we listening to this old history? I’d rather be down here playing this.” And so it just was time you had that, because those living monuments aren’t there. So now you’re talking about their children, their grandchildren, and distance, and the schools are no longer reinforcing that message that was once there.
KW: And so you’ll have to imagine that the passing of the generation of veterans would play a role in muting the memory and things like the great migrations out of the South would create greater distance between the people and the memory of that specific history. So you can get a sense that it might still be there, but it might not be as loud, or the volume might not be as high going into the middle or the late part of the 20th century.
HG: Yeah. Especially this is where…the great migration, we can’t discount that that was a major shift in terms of African-American collective memory, but also the institutions built by black people to sustain that memory: cemeteries, schools, churches, streets, neighborhoods start to get erased.
So instead that goes to radio and other new things. The black newspapers are still there in columns and in February and then occasionally black history month, but the passing of that generation–the demographic shift of the great migration–decimated what I would think in Richmond because most of them left. They left. So who’s there to remind the children, the next generation there, if you’re no longer present in the city?
And what gets lost in there and how it goes to other places beyond the South, and then how those audiences and conflicted memories between a Northern memory versus a Southern memory and that conflicts who gets to tell the story.
Is it appropriate? All that starts to come in and fade. So it then goes down to family genealogists. People who are maintaining will sustain those oral traditions because they see as a form of erasure on a different level because of new realities. And they are adapting, but they also see in many ways that what was there is being lost. And they’re trying to stem the tide, but they ultimately will not be able to fully capture what was there once that generation’s gone and once the great migration demographic shifts have happened.
KW: There is a poem I love that I think speaks to this moment, and it’s Lucille Clifton’s “i am accused of tending to the past.”
Reader: i am accused of tending to the past, as if i made it, as if i sculpted it with my own hands. i did not. this past was waiting for me when i came, a monstrous unnamed baby, and i with my mother’s itch took it to breast and named it History. she is more human now, learning languages everyday, remembering faces, names and dates. when she is strong enough to travel on her own, beware, she will.
KW: For a long time, African-Americans, tending to the past, covered everything but the Civil War and Reconstruction, which is surprising given what you’ve told us about how important it was and how important African-Americans remembered and understood it was. So what happened?
HG: I think they internalize that period. And how do you survive a trauma of African-Americans being free, having rights, being able to shape society. And the violences of the overturning of it? And one of the things I see, especially with”tending to the past,” we’re human. We don’t want to deal with the traumas and have to engage with those traumas. So those who are able to be bold and brave and to remember is more than those who are…it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to put away. It’s easy to keep it unspoken.
So I look here too, and some of the people who are doing are black women who are teachers. As the preservers of memory to shapers of memory, they are persistent because they see the harm in those silences. So for me, I love that, that poem, because it says a lot about not just forgetting, but who chooses to remember. And having remembrance and having the remembrance of Reconstruction, the Civil War, the USCT soldiers and their contributions, but also the schools that came out the naming practices of the schools afterwards is because they refuse to forget the sacrifices that made it possible.
One of the things I find interesting is why we miss how black education shaped larger education. Black vision for education gets enshrined in those first constitutions after the Civil War. We wouldn’t have public schools as we know it in these places.
And the fact that that is a black vision of the future, but yet our current narratives say that black people don’t value education shows you the power to shift it, all of that reason and why this history is not being taught. Because what does it mean? The greatest lie that people have been told over years is grounded in the lost cause and fabrications and outright mistruths when you include this history.
By asking “Where is Reconstruction education? Where is this moment? How did people seize their freedom?” We realize how much of American history is built on lies. And what needs to be told and how it’s taught matters.
KW: And I agree absolutely. Because you would imagine that if people understood this history of how committed African-Americans were to education, how much violence they endured or their institutions experienced because of that, then you have a better understanding of the world. And as you said, the lies that have been told about black people not valuing education, which is always a lie, because I think in even like in a school district like Detroit, it’s very clear that parents really care about their children’s education.
HG: And not only that, too, you brought up a big thing: the violence. Every time a school is burned down, it is rebuilt by the money pulled together by the black community.
So if they’re giving money to a schoolhouse or a church that serves as a schoolhouse, what impact that has on community wealth and sustainable wealth, because they’re putting it in institutions. So those violences toward their teachers, to institutions, this is a vision in which black people lost money on, in order to make or a larger future.
And there’s so much impact connected to this moment in some of those legacies that we’re still reckoning with. But one thing that hasn’t gone away is the value of education.
KW: So do you have a sense of what might happen now that we’re starting to remember black people’s roles in this era, in the Civil War and Reconstruction?
HG: One of the things I can tell you we’re having a problem with is having students not shut down when we talk about violence. So, at the University of Alabama, I always teach one of the KU Klux Klan hearings of a former educator in Tuscaloosa who’s run out of town, he’s in Mississippi and he talks about a near lynching. And he talks about what happened.
My students read the passage, they see the names from some of the buildings and the communities, the street names. And they’re like, “What do we do with this?” And so how do we talk about the violences even around education? That they seem like that should be a given and it’s not.
And it’s those everyday acts of violence. And those, just acts…It’s hard not to get shut down. So following people, following those who were there, following the institutions created, and I had to come away with creative ways to teach problem history.
And this is why I love teaching tolerance. I love these other things to help, to engage, because this is an era that’s so filled with violence. I had to get my students to remember, like, it’s not all violence. People still got married, they still did other things. So the violence could shut down everything, but then how do you get them to remember all the other acts that people are doing?
And so photography of schools. Photography or children, those early report cards, what they’re doing. I have to remind people of life despite the violence.
KW: And the fact that they are still in the process of making freedom and sustaining freedom. Even with this.
HG: And the other thing is–one of the things my students always get struck by–they are still hopeful. They’re not pessimistic about the future. They maintain this hope. I’m like, “How do they maintain this hope? If they are able to maintain this hope and figure out as they’re making freedom, making progress, what are they really going back to? It’s slavery, what they survived, so they’re like, “It’s not that bad. There’s a better future going forward.” So they’re seeing themselves now forward in the hope that they express on the everyday level. That persists a lot more.
KW: Why does, how African-Americans remember the civil war and reconstruction matter today?
HG: I think why it matters today is we’re still dealing with the legacies of its erasure and its absence. Because with, if anything this summer has shown with George Floyd, but also January 6th, there are people who really believe the UDC narratives as justification for white power in the present.
And African-Americans are having to grapple with and quickly educate themselves on this long history that they were not taught to fight against the modern day manifestations of it. I’ve always had to explain like, no, people did this. No, there was always education. And have to educate because the school systems continue to not tell the truth area.
So when they’re responding and need education to respond politically, they can’t. So to remember Reconstruction/Civil War means to remember a period. And then what happened to its destruction, and how to stop that in the present.
KW: Memory can be a form of erasure. So what do you think we lose as a country when we misremember?
HG: When we misremember, we misremember the people who are the true, democratic people living up to the American ideal. Those who did not accept what was happening to them but fought back, that push governments to hear them, to recognize their dignity and humanity.
But also we’re resilient enough to survive, to persist and to rise above the expectations above them. And I think they provide us a model for our nation in a way that the current heroes don’t do. And if we know their stories, we can understand our future and our present in many ways, and how it’s not the leaders that matter. It’s the men and women who just wanted to survive ‘cause they felt that they mattered.
And it’s not just adults. This is where children come in. It’s all generations and those are the stories we need. And we need them in a time, now especially. We need new models for how do we persist in the present?
This is a good time to look at the Reconstruction era, post-war era, and see how those individuals persisted, and our erasure of that history and those memories, and why the tools that they equipped themselves to persist, will help us persist in the present.
KW: Hilary Green is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890. She is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. Her upcoming book examines how everyday African Americans remembered and commemorated the Civil War. You can read some of her work at “Muster,” the blog for the Journal of the Civil War Era, which she also edits. It’s a great resource that you can find at journalofthecivilwarera.org/muster.
About the Guest
Dr. Hilary N. Green is an Associate Professor in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at The University of Alabama. For the 2020-2021 academic year, she is Vann Professor of Ethics in Society at Davidson College.
She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham University Press, 2016) as well as articles, book chapters and other scholarly publications. In addition to several short publications, she is currently at work on a second book manuscript examining how everyday African Americans remembered and commemorated the Civil War.