Freedom's Classroom

From Reconstruction to
Brown vs Board of Education
1874 - 1954
The Schools at Clinton & Rosaryville

Mary Surratt's Tavern is walking distance to Poplar Hill. Turn left out the gate and up the road a little over three miles to the main intersection that is the heart of the old Surratts election district. In many ways, the events of this intersection represent the heart of Confederate sympathy during the Civil War.

From Poplar Hill, a turn down the road to the left leads on to Brandywine. Keep straight, and you're headed to Piscataway. Go left and you're on your way up old Branch Avenue, past the site of the old "Colored School No.1" and St. Johns Catholic Church, which became the church home to many of the African-American families from Poplar Hill.

As yet, we don't know much about the lives of the men, women, and children that labored on the plantation. We have only a few footprints that point us to various events in their lives, the school at Robeystown (Colored School No. 1, Election District 9) being one of the most important.

More than 100 slaves were recorded on the inventory of the deceased Robert Darnall Sewall on May 18th, 1853. Among those listed were Henry Brown, approximately 50 years old, and a woman Lizzy Ann, around 34. At the time of the 1870 census, Henry Brown (now 70) and Elizabeth, his wife (age 48) is still living on the plantation at Poplar Hill. Brown's family, along with several others at Poplar Hill and in the immediate community, began their quest to establish the first school for Black people in the Surratts Election District.

By 1867, Rev. John Kimball, district supervisor for the Bureau, began a correspondence with a man named Townley B. Robey. The topic was the construction of a school in the area, then called "Robeystown.

1st Sergeant Townley Bushrod Robey was a former Confederate soldier. Robey enlisted in the Confederate Army in March of 1861 and was discharged in April 1865. His obituary, printed in the March 19, 1873 edition of the Evening Star, reported that he was "an active politician and for the last fifteen years acted with the republican party in Prince George's County, Md." Physically, the article described him as "a man of extraordinary size, weighing between 350 and 400 pounds."

On December 12, 1867, Townley B. Robey, the former Confederate soldier, sent a letter to the Freedmen's Bureau about the construction of a school at Robeystown. He was replying to a letter from Bureau agent, Rev. John Kimball, dated December 13th. Robey reported the completion of a roof on the building. He also noted that efforts were being made to install a stove by Christmas Day. At that time, the Freedmen were supposed to bring money for the school's support.

Two months later, on February 1, 1868, Rev. Kimball received a list of trustees appointed to serve the school at Robeystown, along with a report on the school's progress, the construction of which began in August 1867. James C. Bird, a Delaware born physician; and Andrew V. Robey, both white were appointed, along with John Brown, a freedmen and former slave from Poplar Hill.

The report identified the trustees as "colored" although the only black person listed was John Brown. Townley B. Robey signed the report.

Construction of the school began on land purchased by the Freedmen's Bureau. The Freedmen were to be subscribers in the building of the school. As such, they were to pay an estimated $200.00, and perhaps more if needed, to build their school. The report noted the receipt of $200.00 from the Freedmen's Bureau its construction. The completed schoolhouse measured 18 x 32 feet, with everything finished except the lathing and the benches.

In making his report to the Bureau, Robey also complained about a carpentry and lumber debt of $400.00, which he paid out of his own money. He received the $200 sent by the Bureau, along with $41.50 from the Freedmen. Robey wrote that the trustees tried and failed to solicit the remaining amount from the community. Robey went on to complain that the Freedmen refused to attend the school meetings and that the trustees even went so far as to employ another freedman, George Magruder, to act as a quasi-solicitor for school support money. Magruder collected fifty cents.

The correspondence between Robey and Rev. Kimball amounted to a series of complaints issued by Robey. The Freedmen who didn't want to attend a school controlled by Robey had another option. Schools were being constructed in other communities not far from Robeystown. Black families could send their children to Bureau schools at Oxen Hill or Niles Chapel in the Meadows community (now a part of Andrews Air Force Base). And it seems they did. Robey reported that the trustees gave him the key to the schoolhouse.

On February 13, Rev. Kimball directed Bureau field agent John H. Butler to Robeystown to determine the state of affairs. Having their schoolhouse under the control of a former Confederate soldier must have been particularly difficult for the Freedmen. On the 19th of the same month, Robey, in defense of himself, responded in a letter to Rev. Kimball, describing himself as a friend of the 'Negro'. He stated that there was little sympathy for 'Negroes' in the legislature. That was true, but there was also little sympathy for the Freedmen in southern Maryland, of which Prince George's County, was an important part.

Rev. Kimball wrote Robey on March 13th. He discussed the offer made by Rev. Lankford, a Methodist minister based in Upper Marlboro, to assist in the operation of the school at Robeystown. Additionally, Rev. Kimball asked Robey to allow the Freedmen to hold their religious meetings in the school.

Rev. Lankford corresponded with Rev. Kimball on May 27th, 1868. He reported that after meeting with Robey, he believed that they were near an agreement on use of the schoolhouse. However, after he returned to Marlborough, Robey resumed his refused to cooperate with the Freedmen, retaking possession of the key to the schoolhouse and closing up the building. In response to his actions, the Freedmen ceased all efforts to pay for the building. Rev. Lankford made it very clear to Rev. Kimball, that Robey's action discouraged him, as well as the Freedmen in that district. He ended his letter by asking Rev. Kimball's advice on how the Freedmen could get the building from Robey.

On June 20, 1868, Rev. Kimball wrote to Robey inquiring 'why' he (Robey) refused to allow religious services in the schoolhouse. Kimball noted that it was his hope that if Robey cooperated, the Freedmen would then pay the debt on the school. Robey responded on the 22nd, stating that the accusation was a "base and willful falsehood." Robey claimed to have invited use of the schoolhouse for religious worship "all the time." Two days later, on the 24th, Kimball directed Jerome Johnson, Bureau field agent at Marlborough, to relay Robey's response to Rev. Lankford.

The controversy surrounding the school at Robeystown was still far from being resolved. The next fall, the issues were reintroduced. On November 12, 1868, Robey sent an emotional response back to Rev. Kimball. As though he was still fighting the Civil War, Robey responded that the Bureau's threat to tear down the schoolhouse was received was a 'declaration of war'. In the meantime, Kimball had a shipment of furniture for the school delivered. He wrote to Robey on the 18th of November notifying him of the delivery. He asked Robey to allow the freedmen to put in a stove and clean the building in preparation for a teacher. Kimball noted that the teacher was 'colored' and would begin the following Monday. On November 20, 1868, Rev. Kimball wrote Col. Corson at Philadelphia requesting the appointment of Martha J. Smith as teacher for the Robeystown School. In his letter, Kimball noted the school's location as "the place of the school joins the old farm of Mrs. Surratt who was executed for President Lincoln's murder." Martha Smith arrived at Robeystown sometime between late November and early December 1868.

On the 23rd of December, Rev. Kimball wrote Martha Smith at Robeystown. He directed her to organize a school association among the people and have them select five men to serve as trustees. If this effort proved successful, Kimball promised to make arrangements to pay for the school and deed it to the Freedmen.

On that same day, Rev. Kimball corresponded with Townley Robey. In his letter, he noted that a deed was given for the land prior to the school's construction. Kimball requested a copy. He also informed Robey, that after consulting with General Howard, the Bureau had decided to pay him $150.00 for the school's construction. This, Kimball hoped, would close the whole matter. Kimball also wrote words of praise for Martha Smith. He wrote that at that time, the Bureau could not find a better 'colored' teacher.

On the 29th of December, Robey reported the results of a trustee's meeting to the Bureau. The newly formed school committee had agreed to pay fifty cents per family. In an unusual note of sympathy, Robey reported that the average family received approximately ten dollars ($10.00) per month wages. Out of that sum, Robey noted that the Freedmen had to feed and clothe their whole family. He went on to report that the school had thirty patrons who would contribute a total of fifteen dollars per month for the school's support. In reference to the deed for the school lot, Robey noted its execution on September 28, 1867. He enclosed a copy for Kimball. According to Robey, the original deed was in the possession of the old school commissioners, who were refusing to release the deed until the construction debt was paid. Finally, Robey included the names of the newly appointed trustees. They were Thomas Wilson, Logan Scott, Phillip Meadis and Stephen Hagan.

On January 12th, 1869, Martha Smith wrote Rev. Kimball in regard to a new move to eliminate two of the Freedmen as school trustees. She informed Kimball of a meeting scheduled for the coming Sunday to make a decision in the matter. On the 25th of January, Kimball informed Smith of the contents of Robey's letter of the 29th of December. He requested Martha Smith's opinion of the trustees selected. At the same time, Smith wrote Kimball expressing her concern for the slow progress of the school.

As a result of the meeting held to discuss "trustees"; Smith reported that in her opinion, a better selection of trustees could not have been made. She noted Robey's disagreement with her assessment. Smith reiterated that the Freedmen had selected the men and were satisfied.

Smith was a determined and astute woman and not easily manipulated. In her letter to Kimball, she enclosed a note written by Townley B. Robey. Townley Robey gave the note to Smith. Robey had directed her to read it to the Freedmen. In her report, Smith said she read it at the meeting and it created "quite a disturbance". Smith asked Kimball to come to a meeting with the Freedmen at Robeystown. It would be held on February 6, 1869, a Saturday.

Philip Maedes ultimately resigned as a trustee. Henry Brown Jr. (of Poplar Hill) replaced him. Kimball was content with the trustees appointed and requested a signed deed from Robey. In response, Robey refused to sign it. He accused Stephen Hagan and Logan Scott of being dishonest and 'worthless'. In Robey's letter of January 27, 1869, he recommended Anthony Jackson (of Poplar Hill) and Basil Locker as trustees. Unless they replaced Hagan and Scott, Robey would not sign the deed.

Succumbing to Robey's demands, Rev. Kimball wrote Smith on the 28th of that month. He directed Smith to find replacements for Hagan and Scott, and inform the Freedmen. Robey wrote Kimball on the 30th. He informed Kimball of his intention to deliver the deed on the 3rd of February, a Monday. He also reported that the newly appointed trustees were scheduled to meet him the next day.

On February 8, 1869, a Bureau field agent visited the Robeystown School. As a result of his visit, he reported the following to Kimball at Bureau Headquarters:

"The school house here is the poorest concern I have come up with in all my travels. I saw Mr. Robey and he said that he was to see you last week and you and himself had a perfect understanding about the schoolhouse. Miss Smith is asserting all of her powers to make this school a success. And if the matter be taken out of Mr. Robey's hands, the people say they can get along much better."

In the meantime, Smith forwarded a list of trustees to Kimball. They were Henry Brown, Sr., Henry Brown, Jr., Thomas Wilson, and the names Anthony Jackson and Basil Locker.

Robey responded to Kimball's expressed concern on the condition of the school. In his letter of February 14, Robey acknowledged the poor condition of the building, but he also noted that he had been put to "a lot of trouble". Robey had been ordered by Major D. G. Swain to make a detailed account' of all expenditures relative to the school's construction. In his letter, Robey retorted: "If they want the 200, they can have it with pleasure. I would not be trifled with to need for 500$. It was never the money that was my object..."

Robey ultimately signed and forwarded a final deed, as well as two bills for school construction. Rev. Kimball then forwarded the deed to Martha Smith requesting that she give it to the trustees.

Robey was not to be out-done. He requested that the Freedmen enclose their land. Smith relayed this request to Kimball, who a greed to visit Robeystown to assist in measuring the lot.

On May 5th, 1869, Kimball directed that the Robeystown School be closed in July. He agreed to continue paying her the twenty collars ($20.00) salary, but not her room and board. He requested that those fees be paid with her salary. If she chose not to do so, she could close her school earlier and depart for Philadelphia.

Robey, ever-present in the school's affairs, wrote Major Alvord at Bureau Headquarters. According to Robey, Smith left her employ at the school "without any cause." He went on to say that Smith "...opposed any preposition I have made because I would not submit to her having trustees put in that I knew the most corrupt men in the neighborhood."

Robey then went on to note that he had instructed the trustees to find a boarding place for a white female.

On the 18th of June, Robey wrote Kimball in regard to the school. In addressing the letter, he did not use Kimball's name, instead writing out Rev. Kimball's complete formal title. He informed the Superintendent of Smith's absence and stated his preference for a "White female", as teacher at Robeystown.

In another letter, written the same day, Robey informed Kimball that the Bureau's replacement teacher behaved very badly by "...making misstatements through the children and parents when I was paying his board myself, out of my own funds." Robey stated that the teacher preferred an assignment at Niles. The teacher had also tried to open a new school with the support of what Robey termed, "Some of the real enemies of the school." As a replacement, Robey recommended, a widow lady .... a northern woman, the widow of a soldier who lost his life in defense of our own Government."

On July 1st, 1869, William H. Chambers, a black man, reopened school at Robeystown. He did not teach there long.

On November 1st, Major Swain wrote Rev. E. F. Hatfield at New York City. He reported that Chambers was having trouble with the trustees at Robeystown. Chambers closed his school at the end of October and was offered a teaching position in Newburg, Va. Chambers accepted the offer.

On November 5th, 1869, Major Swain responded to Robey in regard to the application of Mary Ferguson. He informed Robey that the Bureau would try to get a northern aid society to pay Ferguson's salary.

Mary Ferguson, a young white female, who lived in the area, corresponded with Major Swain. In her letter of December 22nd, 1869, she stated her desire to teach the 'colored' school at Robeystown:

"I am acquainted with a number of colored people in our neighborhood and have reason to believe that I command the respect and confidence of all. And I possess advantages not enjoyed by some others in having protection and a home in my parent's house which blessings would be hard for a stranger to find in this country. In making the above solicitation I defy public opinion in this locality as I scorn the vile spirits of those who speak ill of a lady because she proposes to teach colored children how to become good and useful members of society."

That same day, the trustees forwarded a letter of approval. to the Bureau recommending the appointment of Mary Ferguson to teach at Robeystown. The trustees were two whilte males Andrew V. Robey, (a white man) and Mary's husband, Benjamin Ferguson. The three Freedmen appointed as trustees were Thomas Wilson, Henry Brown and John Brown (the Brown's being from Poplar Hill.

In response, Major Vanderlip forwarded Ferguson's application to the Pennsylvania Branch of the Freedmen's Union Commission. The Commission agreed to pay Ferguson's salary provided she operated a school of not less than thirty pupils.

Mary Ferguson, despite her color and conviction, was not to be spared her share of troubles. She began her tenure in January 1870. In her school report for February 1870, she reported an enrollment of 30 pupils exactly. In her assessment of the public sentiment toward 'colored' schools, Mary Ferguson wrote: "Bitterly opposed, with few exceptions." Her assessment explained the major difficulties experienced by the Freedmen at Robeystown as they attempted to establish a school for their children.

Mary Ferguson concern not just for the Freedmen, but also for herself. On March 18, 1870, J. L. Crosby of Bureau headquarters responded to an earlier letter from her. He reported that they had not received any complaints against her. He instructed her to continue teaching. Then on April 4, 1870, Major Vanderlip wrote to Ferguson confirming a request for her removal as teacher. After consultation with other Bureau officials, Vanderlip was instructed to visit the Robeystown School.

It is yet clear who requested the removal of Mary Ferguson as teacher of the school at Robeystown. In his April 4th letter, Vanderlip notes: "I understand the school belongs to the trustees in trust - for the use of the colored people. Do not be intimidated by any threats, but try to excite the interest of the people and keep the school alive."

Ferguson taught at Robeystown through fall 1870. In her monthly report for October, she again noted the public sentiment towards 'colored' schools as being "very averse". It is not yet known who taught at Robeystown between 1871 - 1872. In 1873, Rosa E. Canon began teaching at Robeystown. She remained in that teaching post until 1877. The trustees during this period were Nelson Baker, Charles Burgess and L. Craig.

The Robeystown School was constructed on land formerly a part of the Surratt farm. On August 10, 1878, a deed to the lot was granted to the Board of School Commissioners. Like the other Bureau schools, the Robeystown building was a 'one-room frame' structure. This building, constructed in 1867, continued in use as a school up until 1929.

Adapted from "Records & Recollections: Early Black History in Prince George's County" by Bianca P. Floyd, 1989