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Chesnutt in the Classroom

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What About Education for African Americans during Chesnutt's Lifetime?
(This page was developed by a Berea College student as part of a course on Chesnutt)

This picture was taken in the 1930's. During this time, many students (White and Black) attended one room schoolhouses. This photo, although beautifully expressive, illustrates the sub-average facilities which Blacks were forced to utilize.

Charles' Education

Some of Charles Chesnutt's works feature teachers and students. Educated at a Freedmen's school, Chesnutt valued education highly, and worked as a teacher for several years. He began teaching when he was 16, and from 1873 to 1876, he taught each school term in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also taught in a county school not far from Fayetteville, North Carolina, and one summer near Spartanburg, South Carolina. In 1877, at 19, Chesnutt was offered a job in Fayetteville, at a new school--the State Colored Normal School of North Carolina--founded to train teachers to work in the area's black schools. He also served as the superintendent at the sunday-school of the renowned Evans Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Chesnutt moved to Ohio where he passed the bar exam and established a court reporting firm. Chesnutt made a life-long journey out of improving his knowledge in mathematics, ancient languages, shorthand, music, English, classics, stenography, and history.

Education Before and During Charles' Lifetime

In the early years of African enslavement in the American colonies, slave owners taught the slaves such things as English, music, and other humanities. They did this so the slaves could communicate with them, and entertain in front of company. Often, however, as slaves learned how to read and write, slave owners feared that once slaves knew how to read and write, they could more easily organize escape plans. As a result, laws of antiliteracy were passed in an attempt to keep slaves from obtaining literary skills. Although the laws were only casually enforced, they played a big role of inhibiting improvement of education among Blacks.

In 1701, the Church of England established the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). The mission of the SPG was to convert unconverted Blacks, Native Americans, and Whites to Christianity. In pursuit of this mission, they saw it necessary that the Blacks be educated to make reading of the Bible possible. In 1704, the SPG founded the first North American school for educating Blacks, located in New York. Thirty nine years later, the SPG founded another school for Blacks in Charleston. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, abolitionist organizations and wealthier members of the Quaker Church initiated the foundation of schools in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. Meanwhile, schools were independently being opened by free Blacks. The first boarding school for Black girls was opened in Washington D.C. by Maria Becraft. Two schools were opened in Charleston, SC by the Brown Fellowship Society, which was an organization for mulattos. One of the schools was for the children of the members of the society, and the other school was for darker but free Blacks and orphans.

Following the Civil War and Emancipation, came the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Although the Freedman's Bureau Act in 1865 had little effect on education, the Civil Rights Act came a year later to make allocations of more than $500,000 for the sake of building and repairing schools. In that year, the number of Black students in the south was more than that of White students. There were 975 schools, and more than 1400 teachers for the ex-slaves. After 1868, states in the south which had been reformed began to contribute toward Black education. By 1869, a majority of the teachers in the south were Black. All grants were welcomed and went a long way toward boosting the improvement of educational opportunity for Blacks.

In the 1870's, the focus shifted to the secondary education of the African Americans. Although some colleges had been established in the late 1860's, they did not possess the quality of education that could be considered as true college level. The focus on secondary education brought attention to deficiencies in opportunities for higher education for African Americans. The result was the founding of numerous colleges and universities, but satisfaction was not accomplished. By 1895 there stood more than forty colleges in the south. And, as for secondary schools, there stood more than sixty. Still, the problem of quality had not been solved. Of the more than forty colleges, only a select few were respected for the quality of education that they offered. So, as the nineteenth century approached it's end, a few schools began to integrate. With integration, some believed, laid the hope that the opportunity for education might be equal for Blacks and Whites.

The colleges and universities which were established during this time period have come to be known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's). Although most of them were thought to be insufficient and lacking in quality of the education they offered, a few stood out from the rest. Among the few stand-outs were Howard University (to Howard home page), Fisk University (to Fisk home page), and Atlanta University, with Howard recognized as the foremost.

Brief History of Howard University

In 1867, the Freedmen's Bureau founded Howard University in Washington, D.C. The commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau at that time was Oliver Otis Howard, and thus the school was named after him. Howard has, since it's founding day, been respected as one of the best historically Black institutions. As of 1900, the student body was ninety percent Black. In 1917, a survey found that Howard University and Fisk University were the only two Black educational institutions which offered "true college level" courses. Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Virginia Union were also considered to be strong schools among historically Black colleges. Howard has always been a liberal arts university, and concentrated itself as a theological seminary. Currently, Howard has a large Medical school and eighteen schools and colleges which offer upward of seventy degrees for undergraduate students.


The Information presented upon this page has been extracted from the following sources:

  • Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History (volumes 1&2). 1996, Simon & Shuster
  • The African American Encyclopedia (volumes 2&3). 1993, Marshall Cavendish
  • A History of Negro Education in the South by Henry Allen Bullock. 1967, President and Fellows of Harvard College.