While many teachers in the Reconstruction South were white Northerners, it is essential to recognize that both Northern and Southern Black people also made up a significant number of those who taught newly emancipated children and adults. Harriet Smith, for example, was a formerly enslaved African American woman in Texas who taught freedpeople and eventually became the principal of her own school.
In 1866, Harriet Smith worked as a schoolteacher on a plantation in Wharton, Texas. Records indicate that Smith was likely enslaved prior to emancipation, which suggests that Smith learned to read and write illegally, as it was against the law for enslaved people to be literate. Many freedmen’s schools offered evening classes for adults to learn to read and write as well for this reason.
In Wharton, Smith taught freedchildren at a private school likely built by the local Black community. Smith began with around 28 students: 19 girls and 9 boys, who were just starting to learn to read and write. Over the three years that Smith continued to teach at this school, its numbers steadily increased, and it was described by Bureau agents as “doing very well.” Smith helped students advance in their education, teaching more students increasingly difficult subjects like geography and arithmetic.
In 1869, Smith was appointed the principal of a Freedmen’s Bureau school in Bryan, Texas. Here, she earned a total of $10.00 a month, subsidized by the Freedmen’s Bureau. She facilitated the education of over 80 pupils and had an assistant teacher, Jane Bell Martin, working for her. At one point, the school had 89 students in total, most of whom were girls, 18 of whom were adults, and 50 of whom paid tuition. This tuition often went to support the salaries of teachers, as well as supplies and maintenance of the building. Smith filed several monthly school reports to the Bureau to track the enrollment, attendance, and progress of students at her school. In one monthly report, she mentioned that attendance numbers had dipped because students had to help their parents harvest the large crop that season, and therefore could not come to school. Students often had to sacrifice days of school in order to help support their family and their community.
Smith was described by many as an excellent teacher in that she not only invested in building students’ academic skills but their personal character as well. One Bureau agent noted that even though she did not have much education herself, Smith was “well fitted to teach young beginners while the zeal and care she manifests for their moral culture prove her worthy of the post.” Yet another Bureau agent remarked that Harriet was “very attentive to her scholars and particularly as to their moral conduct and general behavior.”
Often, African American communities in the South worked to build schools and raised funds to hire teachers with little to no help from the Freedmen’s Bureau. In one record from October 1865, just seven months after the end of the Civil War, Samuel Green wrote to the Freedmen’s Bureau to report that the Black community of Danville, Kentucky had created an Educational Society to build schools and hire teachers for the formerly enslaved people of the town. Green noted that the Society appointed Mrs. L. Huffman, Miss Belle Hudson, and Miss Landona Simes, (at least one of whom was a Black woman) to teach the freedmen’s school. The African American community of Danville entirely paid for the teachers’ salary of $25 dollars per month, their board, and the rent for the schoolroom in the local Presbyterian Church.
The Freedmen’s Bureau records contain several documents showcasing freedmen’s schools created, funded, led, and taught by formerly enslaved people in the South. The Freedmen’s Bureau, while important to aiding freedpeople during Reconstruction, often only supported the work that Black communities were doing themselves.
In addition to Harriet Smith, the records contain the names of countless Black women teachers, such as Martha Cloman, Isabella Shaw, Amanda Robinson, and untold others. Many of these women already lived in or near the communities they served. These women, like many others, worked to educate, support, and uplift their communities after emancipation.
To find more stories of African American teachers during the Reconstruction period, explore the Freedmen’s Bureau records.
Madeleine Roberts-Ganim was a 2022 Because of Her Story Intern with the Smithsonian Transcription Center and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in History and French at the University of Chicago.
This post on Harriet Smith is part of a larger series by Roberts-Ganim and fellow intern, Jenna Lugo, highlighting American women in the Freedmen's Bureau Records. Browse the Transcription Center Blog, Marginalia, for additional entries.