Power  /  Antecedent

How Reconstruction Created American Public Education

Freedpeople and their advocates persuaded the nation to embrace schooling for all.

The idea of public common schools—that is, schools funded and organized directly by communities and free to most children—had been slow to take off, though Mann had been proselytizing for them since the 1830s. In time, his approach took root in the Northeast and crept into the rest of the country, but such schools were more typically found in cities than rural areas. White southerners, in particular, were skeptical of Mann’s ideas. The contours of a slave society were fundamentally incompatible with widespread free education—public goods of many kinds were eyed with suspicion as potential tools of insurrection.

New Orleans, however, had a rich history of parochial schools. In 1841, the state legislature hoped to extend this tradition when it first approved funds for a public-school system in New Orleans, one of the oldest in the South. The schools there thrived—but they were available only to white students.

Education in the rest of Louisiana and the South was still rudimentary, even as the rest of the country made strides. In the years preceding the Civil War, Justin Morrill, a shopkeeper turned congressman from Vermont, tried to create a nationwide system for training workers by introducing a bill to give states land they could sell to fund colleges. The bill was opposed by southern congressmen wary of federal intervention in their states, and was ultimately vetoed by President James Buchanan.

After the war began, however, Morrill saw an opportunity. Southern lawmakers had been expelled from Congress for treason, and the nation was in need of skilled military minds. He reintroduced the bill in December 1861; the Morrill Act was signed by President Abraham Lincoln the following July. States in the North quickly began building land-grant universities.

Under the law, all southern states were barred from the program while in rebellion against the Union. But because New Orleans fell so early, the war presented an opportunity for the city. Major General Nathaniel Banks, the Union commander of the Department of the Gulf, issued General Order No. 38, which established a “Board of Education for Freedmen.”

The smattering of schools that had been established for Black students by missionary associations and individual citizens, including Brice’s, were quickly subsumed by this newly created board. The student rolls grew from an average of 1,422 in April 1864 to 9,571 by the end of the year. The board had established a foundation for education through a “unity of purpose and concert of action,” Plumly, the chair of the board, wrote. “In nine months we have succeeded, against the grave obstacles incident to the beginning of so great an enterprise, in gathering under instruction half of the colored juvenile population in the State.”