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Enslaved People in the Southeast

African American Education

Since enslaved people received little or no education during their enslavement, it was critical for the South to begin thinking about how to educate a large portion of their population who were previously denied the right of education. During the period of Reconstruction, a number of historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) were founded. Although there were a few HBCU’s in the North prior to the Civil War, most were located in the South. Under Jim Crow, the South segregated schools, including institutions of higher education. Despite their separate status and severely limited resources due to unequal funding, three of the prominent HBCU’s – Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), Howard University, and Fisk University – made significant contributions to American education and society.

Booker T. Washington Autograph Note

Autographed note from Booker T. Washington. Image courtesy of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

Booker T. Washington was part of the last generation of black American leaders born into slavery and became the leading voice of former slaves and their descendants. Between 1890 and 1915, Washington was the dominant leader in the African American community, nationally. After the Civil War, Washington’s mother moved the family to West Virginia where Washington worked until he attended Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) and Wayland Seminary before returning to Hampton as a teacher. In 1881, a colleague chose Washington to lead the small Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington ran it for more than 30 years.

Below is an autographed note card from Washington: “I ask only an equal chance in the world for the Negro.” / Booker T. Washington / Tuskegee, Alabama / April 9, 1902.

Title page of Kelly Miller's Brief for the Higher Education of the Negro in which he argues for the integration of African Americans into the US education system. Image courtesy of University of Miami Libraries, University of Miami.

Another prominent African American educator was Kelly Miller, born in 1863 in Winnsboro, South Carolina. He studied mathematics at Howard University and would go on to matriculate at Johns Hopkins University for post-graduate work in mathematics, physics, and astronomy, the first African American to be admitted to the university. Starting in 1890, he served on the faculty at Howard University and during his career there, wrote vociferously on the importance of African American access to both vocational and university education and the need for self-sufficiency, thus earning the moniker the Bard of the Potomac. In 1903, he published this treatise and argued for the integration of African Americans into the US educational system. “When it is known that the Negro has capacity for knowledge and virtue there can be no further justification for shutting out from the higher cravings of his nature…Self-reliant manhood is the ultimate basis of American citizenship.”

Audio recording of the Fisk University Male Quartette performing "Steal Away to Jesus" in 1919. Digitized from the 10-inch, 78rpm disc released as Columbia A2803, Matrix 46131. Image courtesy of the Department of Archives and Special Collections, University of Mississippi Libraries.

Steal Away to Jesus performed by the Fisk University Male Quartette in 1919, is a spiritual song linked closely to not only traditional gospel music, but also to the long history of protest songs and the Underground Railroad, offering messages to enslaved people to escape the chains of slavery and run towards freedom. According to Frances Banks in her oral history recorded in WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives, her grandfather, Wallace Willis, composed the spiritual sometime before 1862. By the 1870s, the Fisk University Male Quartette, a part of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, learned of the song while on tour in New Jersey to raise money for the financially-strapped university and began performing it after a day’s rehearsal. A success, the song became a part of the singers’ repertoire. Fisk University, a private historically black college, was founded six months after the end of the Civil War as an institution for the education of recently freed African Americans.

A Historical Bulletin of the Saint Philip School of Nursing and Alumnae

Page 44 from A Historical Bulletin of the Saint Philip School of Nursing and Alumnae, showing a graduating class of the school. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Tompkins-McCaw Library, VCU Libraries.

During the eras of segregation and Jim Crow, the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) established a separate school of nursing for African American women to provide trained personnel for the St. Philip Hospital, which served people of color. The school opened with the hospital in the fall of 1920. The School graduated 791 nurses during its 42-year history. St. Philip graduated its largest classes during World War II as the school did its part in preparing nurses for the armed services. In 1960, the MCV Board of Visitors made the decision to close the school following the graduation of the Class of 1962.