Freedom's Classroom


The American Civil War fought largely over the issue of slavery and the secession of southern states from the Union ended on June 2, 1865. In its wake, three amendments to the United States Constitution were passed which began the long process toward reconstruction. The first of these was the Thirteenth Amendment, which became law on December 18, 1865, and officially abolished slavery in the United States.

Next, the adoption of the 14th Amendment, ratified on July 28, 1868, provided that all persons born in the United States were considered "citizens" and that "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens". The 14th amendment also provided no state would deny a citizen "of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

The Fifteen amendment provided that "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

With the passage of these landmark amendments, the opponents of slavery believed that the last vestiges of "peculiar institution" had been eradicated. In reality, the struggle for equality in freedom had only just begun.

Post-war Maryland began a painful readjustment process, some former slave owners quickly maneuvering to replace "slavery" with a system of "indenture" and former slaves just as quickly making every effort to establish community. Three factors moved this process forward: 1) the participation of Northern Beneficial societies in constructing and supporting schools for freedmen; 2) the efforts of the federal government's Bureau of Refugees and Abandoned Lands in school construction 3) and the Freedmen who donated land and money to establish church, school, and community..

The Freedmen's Bureau was created by the Federal Government to provide assistance to the more than 4 million freed slaves and refugees impacted by the War. Major General Oliver Howard was appointed Bureau Commissioner. The Bureau was tasked with providing food, housing, medical assistance, and the redistribution of confiscated and abandoned lands. In Georgia, General William Tecumsah Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15. on January 16, 1865. Item No. 3 of that decree stated: "Whenever three respectable negroes, heads of families, shall desire to settle on land, and shall have selected for that purpose an island or a locality clearly defined within the limits above designated, the Inspector of Settlements and Plantations will himself, or by such subordinate officer as he may appoint, give them a license to settle such island or district, and afford them such assistance as he can to enable them to establish a peaceable agricultural settlement. The three parties named will subdivide the land, under the supervision of the inspector, among themselves, and such others as may choose to settle near them, so that each family shall have a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground, and, when it borders on some water channel, with not more than eight hundred feet water-front, in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection until such time as they can protect themselves or until Congress shall regulate their title." President Andrew Johnson officially returned that land back to former slave owners on May 25th, 1865.

Like Georgia, Maryland was plagued with its own share of methods of challenging the rights of freedmen. There was deep resentment, particularly in southern Maryland where the majority of southern sympathizers and pro-slavery advocates resided. Former plantation masters, merchants, public officials, and clergymen alike were part of an old and ingrained way of life that simply refused to die. As a consequence, teachers at black schools were threatened, and schoolhouses and churches were burned down. Children were harassed and intimidated on their way to and from school. Additionally, many southern planters actively participated in a system of "apprenticeship" that legally sanctioned "re-enslavement" of black youth. Quite simply, they saw the availability of schools for black people as a serious threat to their labor supply.

The apprenticeship system was a form of labor, which required the contracting of individuals (generally youth between the ages of 12 and 18) for a specific period of time. Not surprisingly, the Maryland Apprenticeship Law had two separate requirements for blacks and whites. On the one hand, white apprentices were taught both a useful trade and offered a basic education. These youth could not be transferred from one employer to another without prior knowledge and consent of a parent. Nor were they subject to "sale" for running away.

The contracting of black youth as apprentices was quite a different story and was in clear violation of the intent of the Thirteenth Amendment. For black youth, the arrangement had the effect of mimicking the master/slave relationship after emancipation. Additionally, the law did not require providing an education to Black youth but did allow for their transfer from one employer to another without prior knowledge or consent of a parent. Moreover, if a black-apprenticed youth ran away, he could upon capture, be "sold" to another planter anywhere within the state. If a parent tried to retrieve his child, he or she could be imprisoned for at least 18 months.

The law also required that black youth must be bound out to white employers. Under this arrangement, black youth were illegally bound out to white farmers by the Orphan's Court system in Maryland counties. According to a Freedman's Bureau report for the year 1867, illegal apprenticing of black youth by the Orphan's Court was the chief complaint of parents seeking Bureau assistance. County courts justified their actions by maintaining that parents were unable to support their children. In other apprentice cases, children were literally kidnapped or continually held in bondage despite the abolition of slavery.

In those instances where black parents entered their children into legal contracts, many were subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment. And when these parents attempted to regain custody of their children, they were often threatened, beaten, fined, and/or imprisoned. During one twelve month period, the Bureau agent at Annapolis is reported to have received over 2,000 complaints of illegal apprenticeships.Prince George's County, with a labor-dependent economy, participated heavily in the apprenticeship system and was guilty of numerous violations against its black citizens.

Major George E. Henry, posted at the Freedmen's Bureau office at Bladensburg, reported one notable example. Henry received numerous complaints from Freedmen seeking redress. In a report submitted to Lt. Col. William W. Rogers, he discussed his concerns relative to the apprenticeship program in the following way: "A great portion of the business of superintendent of this county has been to assist the Freedmen in obtaining pay for labor…"

Major Henry wrote that it was frequent practice on the part of planters to contract for labor or apprentices and then fail to pay for services rendered. He next cited eight unresolved cases for illegal apprenticing. In the most hopeful words he could muster, Major Henry concluded: "The objection of the education and improvement of the colored people is not as strong as it was. Still, there is much opposition manifested to their being allowed the chance of improvement in any form."

It was imperative that if Freedmen were to successfully emerge from the bondage of slavery, they must be able to read, write and calculate. With the dismantlement of the apprenticeship system around 1872, Black youth and adults in Prince George's County would be afforded a first real opportunity to learn.

Northern beneficial societies began assisting Freedmen all over the war torn south immediately after emancipation. Although there were several societies which contributed to reconstruction activities in Maryland, two organizations were outstanding in this regard: 1) the Pennsylvania Freedmen's Relief Association (PFRA) and 2) the Baltimore Association for the Moral and Educational Improvement of Colored People (hereinafter referred to as the Baltimore Association). The PFRA was instrumental in the recruitment of northern teachers, both black and white who were willing to relocate to the south. These courageous men and women helped to provide African Americans with the formal education that was essential to their becoming self-sufficient.

The Baltimore Association was established in November 1864 and grew out of the commitment of thirty Baltimore lawyers, religious leaders and businessmen who were determined to create a basis upon which Freedmen could be educated. Attorney Henry Stockbridge, Judge Hugh Lennox Bond, Fielder Israel of the Associated Reformed Church, and John F. W. Ware of the First Unitarian Society, were among the Baltimore Association's earliest and most active members.

Upon the adoption of Maryland's third state Constitution, provisions were made for creating the first "free" public school system. Schools were to be established and maintained in each election district within the state. Article 8 of the new Constitution was intended to specifically address the educational needs of white children. An "education tax" was established to generate revenue for school construction and operating costs. The Convention delegates did not acknowledge any obligation to provide for the education of black people. Despite the fact that the intent of the Article 8 was to provide for the education of white children, and to exclude blacks, the state funds were distributed based on the number of school age children of both races living within each county.

In January 1865, the Maryland General Assembly finally made possible the establishment of a school system for black people. Under the Public School Instruction Act of 1865, it was directed that taxes paid by black residents could be utilized for the establishment of black schools. The counties, not surprisingly, did not respond to the new law. As a consequence, no schools for blacks would be constructed nor would the taxes paid by black people be separated out of the general funds for that purpose.

The Freedmen's Bureau was established by Congress on March 3, 1865, and was responsible for assisting in the construction, establishment, and maintenance of schools and hospitals for Freedmen. The Bureau also provided medical aid, rations of food and clothing to the destitute, and assisted Freedmen in securing employment. The Bureau was also responsible for protecting the legal and civil rights of freedmen. From 1865 to 1872, the Bureau operated throughout the southern and border states. Its activities in Maryland were largely concentrated around protecting the civil rights of freedmen and establishing schools.

On July 11, 1866, Fielder Israel, actuary to the Baltimore Association responded to a letter from Reverend John Kimball, Bureau Superintendent of Education for the District of Columbia. In his letter to Rev. Kimball, Israel indicated that there was a dire need for more lumber, construction materials and money to pay teacher salaries. The Bureau responded by intensifying its Maryland efforts actively engaging in concert with the Baltimore Association and the Pennsylvania Freedmen's Relief Association.

Bureau activities during this critical period were numerous. It provided lumber, windowpanes, sashes, doors and cypress shingles for schoolhouses. And once schools were constructed, the Bureau provided the needed furnishings (desks, chairs, stoves for heating and fuel for lighting) and books at government expense. In those instances where schools were already standing, the Bureau paid the costs associated with renting the buildings where they were housed. It also paid the transportation costs for those northern teachers who were willing to relocate to the south.

For the year ending June 1866, the Freedmen's Bureau reported a total of 51 schools established in 13 counties of Maryland and the city of Baltimore. There were 27 white and 43 black teachers conducting classes in schools throughout the state with approximately 3,000 black students attending those schools.

Although impoverished, African Americans contributed enthusiastically to the establishment of schools in their respective communities. As indicated in the 1866 annual report of the Maryland State Board of Education, freedmen contributed approximately $10,000 towards the support of their own schools. They also provided the labor for school construction and paid room and expenses of teachers assigned to their schools. Classes were held during the day for children and during the evening for laborers. A board of trustees, selected by the freedmen, was appointed and reported to the Bureau. Government agents, officers and members of the Baltimore Association held mass meetings in and around the state to encourage community action.

In 1865, the Baltimore Association began its efforts to provide assistance for the construction of schools for black people, along with the Freedmen's Bureau, which began its work in the southern Maryland counties, including Prince George's.

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